I always wanted to be a musician

Cory Brandan - Vocalist, Norma Jean and Hundred Suns

Sennheiser’s Pro Talk Series on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected audio professionals and musicians, including vocalist Cory Brandan, who discovered his passion for music as a child growing up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. “I always wanted to be a musician,” he recalls. “I loved playing the guitar...I got [my first] guitar when I was 10 years old and I just took it to town. I found some friends and my brother, who played drums, and we messed around.”

Eventually, Brandan founded the band Eso-Charis alongside his brother, Matthew Putman, and friend Arthur Green, which launched their careers. In the years since, he has been involved in several projects, including The Handshake Murders, Uses Fire, Fear is the Driving Force and The Radio Sky, though he is most well-known for his current gig as the lead singer of the metalcore band, Norma Jean, which he joined in 2004. On the side, he also sings lead for what he dubs his passion project, Hundred Suns, created alongside former Every Time I Die, musician, Ryan “Legs” Leger and Dead and Divine’s Chris LeMasters.

“At the end of the day, it’s just friends having fun,” he explains. “Really, both bands, Norma Jean and Hundred Suns, that’s all I’ve ever known. ‘Hey we’re friends, you play drums, you play guitar, let's go see what happens and make some music.”

Following a tour through Norway and Sweden with Living Sacrifice, Brandan was back at home working for a print shop and doing graphic design work, almost giving up on making music full time when he got the phone call inviting him to join Norma Jean which needed a singer. “In the late 90s, all the guys in Norma Jean and the band that I was doing at the time, we were just good friends. Years went by and all the projects I was doing just weren’t working—none of them. I was a single parent, I was walking to work every day and I had no car. I was kind of like, ‘hey, maybe this music thing isn’t going to work, and I should just give it up.’ A week later, they hit me up, ‘hey, we need a singer in three weeks, we’re going to Europe,’ and I’m still doing it to this day.”

Since then, the band has released several records, including the two most recent albums Polar Similar (2016) and All Hail (2019), which were both recorded in Unwork Studios, Brandan’s home studio, which lends itself as a band practice space as well.

Surprisingly, for someone who has a career as a lead vocalist, Brandan reveals he essentially fell into the role while jamming with friends. “At first, we were just playing covers of our favorite songs, but I wasn’t embracing being a vocalist as an instrument necessarily. It was almost one of those things like, ‘Hey, somebody in here has got to sing, so hey Cory, you’ve got to do it.’ I always felt like I couldn’t sing, but once I got into Norma Jean, it kinda hit me, like I’m not holding a guitar anymore. I just have this mic, it’s like, ‘Oh crap, I better figure out how to do this better.’ And, that’s when I started embracing being a vocalist as an instrument.”

Thinking back to first joining Norma Jean, Brandan recalls that microphones weren’t something he knew or cared about much, but luckily since then, he’s learned the value of a quality microphone. “Once I started to embrace singing and trying to be better at that, that’s where [making sure I have the right tools came into play],” he says. “A friend gave me the [Sennheiser] e 935 and it was just night and day. I remember I texted him that night and said, ‘I have some learning to do,’ It just made me pay attention to myself because I could hear myself and there was so much clarity in it, I didn’t have to fight to enunciate [and that took me to] a new level of paying attention to what I was doing. The sounds I was making, how I was holding the mic because even just a little turn here and there would make a difference.”

Technical issues aside, he believes anyone can be a singer with practice. “Some of my favorite singers couldn’t really sing, technically, [and are] phenomenal. Kurt Cobain, for example. He would push the songs to tune them up, so he’d have to be in an uncomfortable place so his voice would break.”

For Brandan, his style ranges from melodic singing to full-on screaming. “I think of [vocals] like any other instrument. You sit down and play it long enough, you figure it out. If you don’t practice and you stay away from it for a while, you’ll get rusty, just like anything else. The only difference is, if you blow your voice, you can’t just go change a string, you’re just done. I think in the beginning I was pushing so hard because I wanted to be aggressive all the time. Even the melodic parts, I’m just belting them, and I’m still doing those things, I’m just better at it now.”

Part of becoming better has involved learning which mics to use, “The best analogy is, when you’re recording a song, you don’t necessarily use the same guitar or the same tunings. Microphones are the same thing, let it be a creative space,” he explains. “Most studios have a lot of mics to pick from. You should try them out and see what works. For each different thing, I’ll switch out mics all the time. On the last [Norma Jean] album we used the [Neumann] TLM 107. For Hundred Suns, I just embrace the deeper tones that I have, so we used the [Neumann] U 47 and it just had a darker quality that just fit the band more, the atmospheric qualities of the band. That mic just worked well.”

Similarly, on the road, he prefers to have a variety of mics. “I like the [Sennheiser] e 935 for live because I can kind of turn it and get a different sound out of it...I still want something that has diversity to it,” he shares. “On the latest tour, I had two pretty new e 835s and I liked that a lot too. That mic has a little more grit, which I kinda liked and we were playing small dive bar places, so it fit the vibe a little more. I ended up switching back and forth between those, depending on the vibe.”

As for the future, when it comes to career goals, Brandan is pretty happy with all that he has accomplished to date. “Everything that happens from here on is just gravy,” he says. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be on Ozzfest [which the band played in 2006]. I wanted to be on that festival tour, Warped Tour...I wanted to do all that stuff we have gotten to do. So yeah, I’ve got goals—I want to keep doing what we’re doing, cause I like the way it is. If I could go back and tell my 10-year-old self, ‘check what we did, you’re gonna do this and this and this,’ my mind would be blown. That to me is making it.”

As for advice to aspiring artists, “Try not to cut any corners,” he says most importantly. “Most artists aren't just gonna make it to the big time. Most of the time, disproportionately, you’ve got to work...make your demo sound really good so you know it’s closer to the final thing you want to make. If you put the mic up anywhere close to an instrument, track everything, hire someone to mix it, they’ll make it sound good. There is plenty of time, you don’t need to drop this single before this date. If I knew back then what I know now, I could have [gotten a lot of the bands I worked with] off the ground in a matter of four years, instead of ten.” Lastly, Brandan adds, “Slow down, pump the brakes, slow and steady wins the race. Make it good, make it sound good.”

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