RED SPRINGS — For singer Brandon McLean, life hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but that could change next month when the Robeson County native joins the crew of the Carnival Dream as the cruise ship’s show-band singer.
McLean, a 22-year-old R&B singer who is currently taking a short break from his Music Business studies at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, first discovered his love of sound when he was a small child tickling the ivories.
“I owe YouTube a lot,” McLean said. “I just got it in my head that I wanted to learn how to play the piano and there were all these videos on YouTube available to teach me.”
Looking at his silver-sequined beaded hat, his blazer and bright smile, it may be hard to imagine that McLean had begun his music career recording music for what he described as a “hardcore rap group,” which went by the name Underground Sound. It was then that a 17-year-old McLean first discovered that he had the ability to sing.
“I was initially just invited by my friend Wayne to come by and hear them, because he said ‘you are into music, you play piano, you should like this,’” McLean said. “I remember when I came in they were recording a song, and I was listening to the singer they had doing the chorus, and the singer they had, well, I remember thinking ‘those aren’t the right notes.’ Now, I had never sung a day in my life, but I knew what I was hearing and that the notes weren’t right. Finally, I spoke up, and I went in there and I sang it … it just felt right. After that I joined the Underground Sound.”
The group has since dissolved, but McLean’s interest in music continued to grow. In the years that followed, McLean says that he collected every book he could get his hands on about the music industry and began booking as many gigs as he could. He also worked hard on creating an original sound by learning from the greats.
“When it comes to me and my performances, I like to emulate the Motown era artists like Aretha Franklin, and in school I learned a lot about jazz artists like, Ella Fitzgerald,” McLean said. “I picked R&B because that is what I feel I sound like, but other genres have a big influence on me for sure.”
Late last year McLean hit a string of bad luck that had him questioning whether or not he should hang up the mic and give up his musical pursuits.
“On Thanksgiving, my house was robbed of everything,” McLean said. “On top of that I was failing in school, so with all my things stolen I ended up moving back into my grandparents’ house. That was a whole big transition for me, working with the police to get my things back and living with my grandparents. Then in December, I found out on birthday that my credit had been stolen. All of these things were just piling up on me and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
While the singer was at his lowest, he found out about an audition in Atlanta for Carnival Cruise’s cruise ship, the Carnival Dream.
Swallowing his fears, McLean decided to make the trek out to the audition with only $300 in his pocket.
“I said, I am going to go down there, and do the audition, even though I didn’t even know how I would get home after that,” McLean said. “The hotel alone was $150.”
McLean was a hit at the audition and after a few days was asked to submit a video of himself singing some pre-selected songs to give the cruise-liner a better idea of his versatility. He has since signed on to a six-month contract that after July 12 will have him spending much of his year cruising the ocean in one of the largest ships in Carnival’s fleet. McLean says the biggest challenge of the job has been having to memorize more than 150 cover songs that he will be expected to sing during his tenure on board the Carnival Dream.
“Life gets hard, it always does, but anybody can make it,” McLean said. “Just have faith and believe.”