Brandyn Burnette comes from a family that was broker than broke. He had a craving to make music but no idea how to connect all the parts then. Growing up, he stayed stashed away in his house “creating” because he couldn’t afford to go to the movies with friends, and when he got accepted into several colleges without a dime to pay for tuition, he held his breath for just a moment longer and waited for that one last dream school in New York. When New York University (NYU) called with a full scholarship, the St. Louis native headed up north with big dreams and sparks of a fire within his already very heated soul.
Burnette eventually met a Clive Davis Institute student at a party who asked if he had cannabis, and when he said he knew a delivery service, the two smoked together and started talking music. That’s the thing about his story: Life put out all these little gifts for him to grab and maybe even to ensure that he made it. This Clive Davis student’s main school project was to find an unknown artist and produce him, and so he did, giving Burnette the courage to enter his university’s talent show, where he took first place. This left him with one thought: “Holy shit. Maybe I can actually do this.”
Burnette took a six month sabbatical, flew to Norway to record an EP and then dropped out of school. Unknowing the direction of his life in this moment, he began spiraling downwards, his inner flames flickering out and medication being administered for different diagnoses. He says cannabis became the alternative medicine that swooped in to save his mental headspace, and then came the work towards retaking control of his life. And he did.
A record label deal pulled him out west to collaborate with pop icons like Bebe Rexha, Charlie Puth and the Backstreet Boys. For his own music, Burnette remembered the soulful, live elements he knew from attending Midwestern African Methodist Episcopal churches and started releasing songs under his legal name and more recently as EMAN8, a word that means to come forward as light and sound emanates. He fed into being half black with his mom’s Greek and Hungarian side, pushing uplifting messages through his lyrics, with sounds bred into his memory of church experiences with their pianos, the five-part live horn section and the Sunday madness he knew so well.
But the larger story is what’s most interesting here. Burnette, now 28 years old with an album coming out this spring, tries to discuss a song while on the phone and decides instead to sing its melody, and a cosmic energy suddenly seems to seep through your blood. There’s this feeling that you’re talking to someone with one of those stories where you hope their character fights just a little bit longer, pushes just a little bit harder and makes it to the very top.
The Soul Train Station
The singer's parents split when he was two, and his mom remarried six years later to a musician named O’Bryan Burnette, who's best known simply as O'Bryan. The R&B singer and Soul Train collaborator released several albums on Capitol Records and recorded the theme song "Soul Train’s A Comin'."
“We called him Uncle O’Bryan at first, and I remember seeing him recording vocals,” Burnette recalls ever so casually. “I didn’t even know, really, what Soul Train was.”
The two single parents created a hub for their biracial children where the exploration of creativity was encouraged.
“It’s crazy how they say nature versus nurture, and for me, I see the positives of my mom and real dad splitting up so I could find my path as an artist with her finding my stepdad,” he shares. “I literally grew up with an R&B legend from the '80s, and that really affected me at a young age because I was like, 'Wow, it’s possible to use your gift and use your talent to make it.'”
At age seven, his grandmother gifted him a Casio keyboard, and the beginnings of that fire sparked. After teaching himself to play, he started fiddling with O’Bryan’s equipment when his parents were at work.
“He actually gave me the best keyboard ever and taught me how to produce at 13 years old,” he says of the Yamaha PSR 3000 keyboard, which, he notes, makes him feel old talking about even though it's still the dopest thing ever. “He had just bought it and couldn’t quite figure out how to work it, and I was learning. I surprised him one day when he came home from work, and I had recreated one of his songs that he put out on Capitol [Records]. He was like, ‘Man, this is crazy. You’re becoming a wiz at this.’ So [my] 13th birthday rolled around, and the next thing you know it was in my room when I came home from school. He’s definitely been my sensei.”
Music became the epicenter of Burnette’s life after that.
“We didn’t have a ton of money, and we lived in a lower income neighborhood," he admits. "I couldn’t afford to go out to movies or parties, and I kind of felt like a bit of an outcast, so I would just stay in my house and create.”
While having to stay home out of necessity, the younger artist learned how to play the piano, bass, drums and even the ukulele, categorizing himself as a nerd.
“I remember I would watch MTV and VH1 and see John Mayer's new song or some new artist," he recalls. "Their video would be out, and I would think to myself, ‘Wow. It's so hard to get out of St. Louis. How am I gonna record? How am I gonna find a band? How am I gonna go on tour? How am I gonna do videos?' I remember every day just focusing on the songs and trying to express myself."
The self-described nerd naturally started with songs about heartbreak.
He continues, “It started with writing songs about girls who were breaking my heart, and then writing songs about getting hair on my face for the first time, and then eventually I wrote a song for my sister and my grandmother. So I started to use it as my way to communicate because I was kind of awkward.”
His sister Laraisha went off to NYU’s CAP21 program, studying in the same class at the time as Stefani Germanotta, whom you might know as Lady Gaga. She pressed her brother to come to New York, raving about her life there.
Burnette set his sights for a big move but also kept in mind that he needed a scholarship. Missouri's Webster University offered him $30,000 a year (nearly a full ride), and he knew he had to take it if NYU didn’t offer any support.
“I received the letter from NYU that said I got accepted, but I didn't see anything about any support," he remembers. "I'll never forget, one of my best friends got into NYU, and I was at his house when he found out. I walked around for a week and a half with my head hung low. Everyone was asking me, ‘Did you hear?’ and I just lied, ‘No, I didn't hear from anywhere yet.’ And then I came home and my mom was on the couch in tears, and I thought, ‘Oh no, she can't afford to send me.’ They had just sent my sister and they were taking out loans, and we were so broker than broke that it was unbelievable. She said, ‘Brandyn, open this,’ and I opened the letter, and it was a full ride.”
Once in New York, his random conversation about cannabis turned into a major music opportunity, and winning the NYU talent competition gave him the confidence to pursue music full-time. Leaving a full scholarship was a difficult decision, and Burnette admits he soon faced a winding road of mental health struggles.
“I lost my shit for a little bit, and I went to a therapist, and a doctor, and they tried to prescribe me medications for multiple things like anxiety, bipolar,” Burnette says with a deep breath, admitting this is the first time he has opened up about his health. “For a while I believed something was wrong with me, and I took these medications, and everything that was great about me, like the fire inside, the light, everything just got really, really dim. I gained weight and lost my creative output. I felt like a zombie, so I begged my parents, 'I don’t want to take medication. I don’t want to be dependent.'”
It took a few months to wean himself off all the prescription drugs, but he started to get his creativity back, ultimately praising cannabis as the thing that saved him as a healthy, safe option to cope with mental illness. Cannabis also provided an alternative to more dangerous substances. Reflecting on his New York days and his decision to drop out of the nightlife scene with its hard drugs and cigarettes, he says, “I realized, wow, this world really sets us up to be hooked on everything.”
After leaving school, Burnette eventually moved to Los Angeles and signed a deal with Warner Brothers. He was soon collaborating with other artists.
“Early on, Bebe and I linked up,” he says, talking about the mega-famous Bebe Rexha. “It was before she signed with Warner Brothers. I had a session at a studio in L.A. called Paramount with Jon Bellion, and we were working on a song. He had to leave for another session, and Bebe was coming to town, so she came to the studio, and I had started this chorus idea."
After pausing for a beat, he starts to sing, "You're a bitch, and I don't like you. I just wrote this song to spite you. Now it's playing on the radio, and everybody out here knows."
Burnette continues his story: “I was just humming it to her, and she was like, ‘Oh, I love that.’ So we started writing verses. Her producer came and recorded it, and then she had to go. We didn't really talk for eight months or so. She went back to New York, then back to L.A. when I was at a meeting at Warner Brothers, and she was walking in with her A&R at the time who said, ‘Hey, what's up, Brandyn? We're signing Bebe to Warner Brothers with your song, 'You're A Bitch.’”
He sounds shocked all over again. He hadn’t even known Bebe had finished the song after their 30 minute session. (Warner Brothers never released the song, but it was eventually leaked online.)
“I'll never forget, one day [Charlie Puth] came by our room where I was working with this random writer," says Burdette, jumping into another story. "I'd never met him before, and he was like, ‘What are you guys doing in here?’ I said, ‘Hey. We're writing for you.’ And he said, ‘Wait, you're writing for me? I'm right next door. Why don't you just wait 'til I get done and come in?’ I thought it was so funny because these were my first experiences working with other artists. I didn't really know that sometimes you could write something and another artist could want it for themselves, or finish it for themselves, or want to come in and finish it with you. So my Warner period was filled with collaborating, collaborating, collaborating, and a lot of my early cuts came from songs that I wanted to release on Warner going to other artists.”
Warner had planned a 2015 release for Burnette's The Couch Surfing Chronicles, featuring the prophetic single "Thanks for Nothing," but the singer parted ways with the record label instead. He released a pair of EPs in the years following and has a side project called Cosmos & Creature with his girlfriend Molly Moore. Last year he released an acoustic mixtape and the music video "Run" as Brandyn Burnette before shifting to making new music as EMAN8.
Still, he shares that his proudest moment to date is writing the song "Breathe": yes, the one that came out on the Backstreet Boys' new album DNA.
“I wrote it by myself, right after I got dropped from Warner Brothers. It was a really depressing time. I had no money. I was living with my girlfriend, with her parents, near the airport,” he says. “Some friend asked me to go to Portugal, so I did some writing there. It took my mind off getting dropped. I literally thought my life was over, that I was gonna quit music. I came back and had a session with these two guys, Nick and Ryan, who played me a piano loop they had, and I wrote 'Breathe.' Then flash forward four years later, I get an email from the guys saying, ‘Hey. 'Breathe' might come out with the Backstreet Boys,’ and I said, ‘What the fuck?’”
The Backstreet Boys single must've seemed like a sign that fate has its own timetable.
“I thought it was so cool how a song that could seem dead. I wrote it four years prior, ended up coming out with legendary artists, and then being a part of their number one album," he admits. "So yeah, that's definitely my proudest one so far.”
More than Music
As an individual always looking for creative expression, Burnette's also taking acting classes again. He says that, after this interview, he's leaving to read from Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter.
“I have not practiced or done any acting since I dropped out of NYU, so for me, it's nerve racking," he confesses. "I don't know why. I can get up in front of people and perform and sing my heart out and share stories about my life, but as soon as I must become somebody else in front of people, I have the biggest nerves. Tonight is the first night where I actually get up in front of the class and do my acting scene.”
I listen to him go into further detail for a few minutes more, smiling at his unwavering excitement about a reading of a small scene, in a small class, in a small studio somewhere in LA. This type of passion for the small stage suggests he has many more big stages in his future.
Photo credit: Ellie Pritts.