Brandon Perrault remembers the day music changed his life.
"I was in the fifth grade at Stout Elementary in Silver City," he recalls, closing his dark brown eyes to recover the memory. "My music teacher, Mrs. Rambo, asked me to do a solo of [the popular Italian classic] 'O Sole Mio.' I sang one verse in Italian and another in English. After I finished, people looked at me differently. Real differently." Pantomiming the universal gesture of astonishment, Perrault cocks his head, drops his jaw, and peers at me quizzically.
Brandon Perrault. (Photo by Richard Mahler)
"It didn't register until that moment," he whispers, leaning forward in a kitchen chair, "that I could really sing."
Yes he can.
And he does.
For over two decades, Brandon Perrault's silky tenor and smooth guitar have graced a soundtrack for virtually every kind of social event in southwestern New Mexico. Whether performing on his own or backed by others, this gentle, good-humored man with the generous, sensitive spirit has played for countless dances, weddings, fundraisers, conventions, anniversaries, concerts, legislative functions, sporting events, church services and funerals. You can hear Perrault on commercials, at street dances, and during farmers' markets. He performs regularly at bars, nightclubs and parties.
"I mainly play guitar and piano," he says, "but I can also play the drums, accordion and guitarrn [the giant six-string bass of mariachi bands]." Asked to name key musical influences, his eclectic roster includes Jeff Beck, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, Brian Eno, K.D. Lang and Peter Gabriel. Deepak Chopra, Jesus Christ, Oskar Schindler, Marianne Williamson and local dermatologist/curandero Dr. Gilbert Arizaga (see Southwest Storylines, January 2010) are listed as spiritual influences.
Perrault is that rarity: a humble and multi-talented musician, singer and songwriter who hit the big time without hitting the big city.
"I'm grateful to be here," says Perrault, whose thick, black hair and soft features suggest more youth than his 38 years. "I love this area and feel such gratitude toward its people. I always feel taken care of by this community."
In the course of a meandering conversation at the business where his mother, Mary, cuts hair, arranges bouquets and sells religious articles — while her son sells musical instruments and gives lessons in a back room — Perrault describes a trip to Nashville during high school. That led to laudatory showcase appearances on a TV show and music video as well as a recording session in a state-of-the-art studio.
"It was a great opportunity," Perrault concedes — one that might have put him on a fast track to fame and fortune. "During my visit one of the top producers in the music business took me aside and told me, 'If you want to make it in Nashville you're going to have to move here.' But I wasn't ready. I wanted to come home and finish my studies."
And that's what he did. After graduating from Bayard's Cobre High School, Perrault won a music scholarship to attend Western New Mexico University. At WNMU he eventually segued into the teacher-training sequence, earning BA and MA degrees in music education.
Throughout this era — the early 1990s — he and his band, The New Moves, were so popular that they opened for such big names as the Texas Tornados and Ruben Ramos. Their unique blend of rock, Tex-Mex, blues and country music kept people clapping and dancing at the Hanover Outpost, VFW Hall and other local venues. The golden voice of their lead singer seemed equally effective in delivering slow, heartfelt ballads as it did screaming lyrics paired with a wailing electric guitar.
"One time we were the opening act for Little Joe y La Familia," says Perrault, "a touring Tex-Mex group that everybody around here just loved at the time. I actually was invited on stage to sing with Little Joe, which was a huge thrill for me."
Little Joe had no clue he'd been Perrault's first guitar teacher.
"You see," Perrault continues, "when I was in the 11th grade, living in Las Cruces, my parents gave me a used classical guitar that they bought at a yard sale. The funny thing was, I didn't know what to do with it." Mary and Ray were trying to cheer up their teenager, whose heart had been shattered by his first girlfriend. "I was devastated emotionally," Perrault recalls. "I was moping around and didn't want to talk."
But Little Joe was a favorite of Brandon's parents, who played the Tejano's albums on their home stereo. "I loved the feeling of that music," remembers Perrault, "and it connected deeply with my soul. So I started trying to match tones on my new guitar to how Little Joe was singing. I couldn't read music and I didn't have a chord book. I guess you could say I learned to play because of a broken heart."
Perrault knew he had an aptitude for music. In the absence of formal training, he'd played viola and saxophone by ear. His singing had raised a few eyebrows. A defining breakthrough came near the end of high school, when Perrault asked his band teacher if he could sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before football games: "After I auditioned, my teacher's jaw literally dropped. I told him I kind of knew I could sing, but had never done anything about it."
Before long, a mentor named Eddie Bustillos was showing Perrault proper guitar chords and coaching him on how to perform. Within months Perrault joined a band and was playing at school functions. The band was blazing hot. Despite its members being underage, the group was soon invited to perform in local bars. Everyone seemed captivated by the versatile talents of these mining-district kids. Two decades later, Perrault occasionally books gigs with some of the same musicians.
"We had a lot of fun in those days," he says, face lightened by a wide grin. "I've been in numerous bands since then."
Yet despite his early success with popular music, Perrault's first released recordings were of spiritual songs. "When I was 20," says the devout Catholic, "I made a tape of Christian music called 'Come Holy Spirit.' On it I sang songs that had inspired me," including "On Eagle's Wings" and "Amazing Grace." "I've always felt that my ability to sing and play were gifts from God." Proceeds from this collection benefit Santa Clara Catholic Church, with which Perrault has been long affiliated and whose priest, Robert Becerra, is a good friend. The tapes and CDs have sold briskly not only here, but at stores and churches in other parts of the US.
Also popular with audiences are Perrault's original songs, which deal not only with love and romance but challenging topical themes. "Vietnam Man," for example, pays tribute to the strength and bravery of men like his uncle, Fred Jimenez, who served in combat during the Vietnam War. "Salt" salutes the men and women, including members of Perrault's extended family, whose organized resistance during the zinc mine strike of the 1950s was portrayed in the blacklisted movie, Salt of the Earth. The songwriter strongly supports the effort of New York cinematographer David Riker to remake that film.
"Brandon is a man of great character and humility," says Riker. "It is obvious that he is more than a musician and singer."