Fort Worth singer-songwriter Brandon Marcel sits down in a booth at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge. He opens up the menu and notices the name of a sandwich, “The Bridges Blues Burger.” His roommate, Leon Bridges, is not home often, yet he remains ubiquitous. He was on Jimmy Kimmel Live! this week, recorded a song for a Will Smith movie that Marcel sings on and now he’s even on the menu.
“I want people that I love and care about to succeed,” Marcel says, and shrugs. “He’s the biggest thing out right now. Just to be a part of his camp gets you looks. It’s like playing with Michael Jordan. People are going to know about Scottie Pippen and other people on the team.”
It was here at Live Oak that Marcel met Bridges. They played a show together on the same bill in the fall of 2014. “I honestly didn’t know anything about him,” Marcel says. Bridges was complimentary of Marcel’s set, explained that he was working on an album and asked if Marcel was interested in contributing backup vocals. In a building attached to Shipping & Receiving, Marcel stood on a putting green in what was Niles City Sound in its embryonic stages and sang on “Flowers” and “Pull Away,” which appear on Leon Bridges’ debut album, Coming Home.
The two got along so well that they became roommates a few months after meeting. Marcel typically performs with Bridges when he appears in DFW, most recently at the Majestic Theater and Scat Jazz Lounge. Along with the songs from Coming Home, they typically perform unreleased songs, including a duet.
Marcel also has talent in his genes. His father, Aaron Mills, is a legendary bassist known for his work as a member of the classic funk act Cameo, as well as collaborations with OutKast, Gwen Stefani and Cee-Lo. Mills now lives in North Carolina, but plays bass on some of the tracks for Marcel’s album, The Audition. “I don’t feel like I’m in any shadow,” Marcel says. “I don’t feel that kind of tension at all.”
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It was a dream come true to have his father featured on some of his tracks. Marcel remembers nervously emailing songs to his dad and how excited he was when they were returned with bass added. He let his father do whatever he wanted and was pleased with the results. The collaboration also brought him closer to his dad. “Now as a man I can understand how difficult it must be to have a passion like music along with a wife and child,” Marcel says. “We both have that passion and it was truly a dream come true to work with him.”
But Marcel is a talented singer-songwriter in his own right with an intimate R&B sound comparable to Frank Ocean. K104 has been playing his song, “Human Nature,” for months. His performances are enthusiastically received and he even headlined a show at Ridglea Theater. Marcel could perform more often, but insists on playing with a live band. He puts so much focus on production that he makes little if anything on shows.
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But it’s a smart investment that many up-and-coming artists overlook. This is a concern for presentation. Some artists don’t seem to ever ask themselves if they look like an act that should be playing for $5 or $50. Marcel has no shortage of opportunities to do shows, but is focused on quality over quantity. He mostly insists on longer performances with a full band, typically rejecting quick opening slots in favor of full productions you could imagine on larger stages, even if it's detrimental to his paycheck.
“You have to have that faith in yourself,” says Marcel. “You have to invest in your career and it’s not an easy thing to do.” He may be shy as a person, but onstage he is a soul man with an incredible ability to connect with audiences. “It’s really gratifying because this is vulnerable music and that can be difficult for people.” His music is rooted in poetry. “I tell my problems to pen and paper,” Marcel says. His songs sometimes come across like poetic diary entries. “In my music I think people can see the genuine aspect of who I am and what I am saying.”
Marcel recently released a video for a new song, “You Don’t Judge Me,” and is planning to have another album out over the summer. “You Don’t Judge Me” feels almost like a disarmingly intimate conversation. “It’s about a relationship I was in,” Marcel says. “She was the most forgiving and loving person and I just talk about all of my flaws, which she chose to overlook.”
He thinks about being under one roof with Bridges when both of them are writing songs and considers the differences in their creative processes. “He plays the guitar,” Marcel says. But Marcel will work with a producer to find a sound that captures a specific emotion. “He will already have the song written and he’s looking for a chorus. I’ll write the song to a beat after finding the emotion I need from it. I like to sing, but I love writing.”