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After overcoming a battle with drug addiction and an HIV-positive diagnoses, musician Brennan Villines jumped into the national spotlight with a showstopping performance on Fox’s “The Four.” Villines imprinted upon viewers not only his musical talent but the memorable story of his path toward healing. Since his appearance, Villines has been honing his craft even further and has used his national exposure to introduce both new and veteran fans to his unique musical brand. He’s even used the platform to work as an ambassador for Sobercity, a community dedicated to connecting people who live a sober lifestyle.
Last month, Villines released a brand-new pop-heavy EP called “Make It Work,” and has been amassing hundreds of thousands of streams across a variety of music platforms. Villines caught up with BTL to chat about his path to success, how life obstacles have informed his work and his next career moves.
You’ve said that music has been a part of your life since you were 3 years old. How did you get involved with it that early?
I wouldn’t necessarily say I was a savant as a kid (laughs), but my mom, she put me into lessons when I was 3 years old because she used to play piano herself. She knew that I would go up to the piano and I would hum the correct pitch at an early age. I started out like any kid; I did it because mom and dad told me to do it and then ended up a couple years later saying, “Oh, I’m better at this than most kids are that just get forced to play piano” (laughs).
Then did you think you were always going to be a musician once you realized that?
I did. Since I was a child I literally remember singing in the shower, pretending that I was performing. I don’t know exactly what age, but I can tell you I was really young, and I remember pretending I was at Radio City Music Hall or whatever. So, it’s a blessing that that early on I figured out what I wanted to do with my life or had some sort of goal in mind, which a lot of people take a long time to figure out and sometimes even change careers halfway through their life. But it was also a curse because the career that I chose was entirely difficult (laughs) to get anywhere.
You did end up majoring in music, too, at the University of Memphis, which I’m sure helped develop those skills.
The thing I will say about what I do is, because I chose piano at such an early age, if I were just a singer or songwriter, I would probably be a barista by day or, you know, a bartender or something. But because I have a piano skill and I’m able to lead a band or play weddings and do all the stuff for the many years that I have been in the music industry, it’s allowed me to be able to have a source of income. Even when I’m not performing at a festival, I can perform at a church or a theater show.
College is also where you had a major turning point in life. You’ve said that you met somebody who ended up knocking your life off course at that time.
I met Charles* and he was beautiful. He would be able to tempt anybody into a relationship with him. Not only was he physically attractive, very much so, but he was also kind of manipulative. We ended up getting to know each other and one night I was introduced to meth, which is what he liked to do recreationally.
It’s not entirely his fault that I continued to be a meth user; it was a decision, a choice that I made, but it certainly changed the course of my life for a few years. If not, arguably, the course of my life, period. When I used it the first couple of times I was simply trying to fit in with someone who I thought was massively attractive, and I was awestruck. Like, “Wow, this person is so attractive and he likes me.” I also had self-doubt and lack of self-worth and maybe that was part of it.
Fast forward about a year and a half into our relationship I found out that I was HIV-positive. And, of course, me being in a relationship threw up some flags like, “How did this happen?” He knows what he did and it’s in the past.
That’s a mature outlook on what happened. Did it take some distance from the experience to develop that view?
That’s exactly what it took. I literally ran away with another guy. I packed up my bags and got a job on a cruise ship and was away at sea for a year being a piano bar entertainer on a cruise ship. I traveled the world and kind of found myself again.
That was an exciting time in my life and I thought things were on the upswing, and then I moved back to Memphis with the intention of moving to New York — this was about six years ago. That didn’t happen and I started using again. I broke up with my boyfriend then.
Fast forward a little further, and I got a “real” job. It was the only “real” job I ever had. I worked as an executive assistant at this event planning company. It was not a good fit at all. I learned that I could never work a day job — I’m not cut out for that kind of work (laughs) — and that I needed to be doing something more creative in my life.
Is that when you decided to get back into music?
A good friend of mine and I sat down one night for a chat, (and I) told my parents that I had been fired from my job and that I was going to go back to music. This was about three or four years ago and now I live in New York City.
Do you feel that the fact that you’ve overcome a tumultuous past has influenced your artistry at all?
Absolutely. I think that everything that went down years ago, it kind of helped me find my voice, honestly. From that point on in those dark times in my life, every time I would sit down at the piano the room would go silent. Kind of like when people stop in their tracks sometimes when they hear something they like. I think, all of a sudden … I finally made that switch from performer to artist.
I come from such a privileged life. … This was a very real setback. It really honed in on an emotional response that I was able to channel through my singing voice and some of the things I wanted to say.
Now that you’re in New York, what’s the biggest difference you’re noticing between working in Memphis?
I just started scraping the surface here. I’ve been here for five months. I’m fully prepared for it to take up to a year for me to fully even skim the surface. You never know what can happen, doors can open up tomorrow, but Memphis is very special to me because I was able to live there comfortably and make a living doing what I love to do.
If I had moved right after college to New York City, this is just me speaking personally, I would’ve been probably swallowed alive and not know who I was artistically or mentally and emotionally. I would have probably ended up taking a job in another field.
How has your time on “The Four” impacted your work as an artist?
You know, I’ve auditioned for those kinds of shows over the years, especially when they came to Memphis. … “The Four” ended up being the one that worked out. But artistically I was never really excited about being on one of those because basically what they wanted to do is have you sing “Superstition” or some popular song that everyone knows, and then you’re boxed into that category that everyone saw you on TV as. One key thing that I learned from “The Four” is that … because I was able to maintain some of my artistry on the show, I fully realized my artistic integrity.
Speaking of artistic integrity, what felt right to you about moving to New York? Why did that city pull you toward it more than a place like Los Angeles or Atlanta?
You know, part of that was gut feeling. The main answer about New York is that my producer is here; I have a longtime friendship with him. His name is Benny Reiner and we went to college together in Memphis and formed a couple of bands together.
Leading up till now, we’ve been working on this record. I’d fly to New York for a few days at a time. … I finally made the decision about a year ago to move. … New York just felt right for me, because of my personality and with my experience in theater, too.
As an LGBTQ artist, do you find that your identity influences the music that you write?
Of course, when I’m writing about something if it has anything to do with a significant other, it’s definitely going to be about a boy (laughs). I would say, yeah. I don’t necessarily write about LGBT issues, or I haven’t yet, but it’s definitely a part of my identity in terms of my presentation of who I am. I’m definitely out about it and about my status, and that’s very important to de-stigmatize (along with) drug addiction. But those are things that I am more on the front end of rather than sexuality.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.