When season 13 “America’s Got Talent” contender Brody Ray hit the stage for his audition, he didn’t know quite what to expect. Though he’d previously tried out for other reality singing competitions, they didn’t present the same kind of opportunity for him to showcase his talent and also share his inspirational story about identifying as a boy after being born and growing up as a girl.
Those confusing years in Nebraska were difficult on many fronts. But Brody’s love of music, which was fostered and nurtured by his mother at a young age, pulled him through many dark and desperate times. At eight-years-old, Brody’s mom (who is also a talented singer and multi-instrumentalist) took him to the store and asked him to choose an instrument. He picked a guitar and dubs the moment as “a dream come true.” His mother taught him his first strum pattern and he was hooked.
Brody's musical influences vary widely with bands like Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday and lots of other punk rock and pop rock groups being early favorites. As he grew older, his love of country music deepened and artists like Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Kacey Musgraves and Sheryl Crow currently remain among his chief influences.
Like many aspiring artists, Brody began performing by playing in front of his family for holidays and other events. At 14, he played his first big gig at Cunningham’s Journal, a renowned Kearney, Nebraska bar and grill that hosts nationally touring artists for live entertainment weekends. He played weddings, parties and more and realized he wanted to pursue a music career. At the same time, Brody still struggled with his gender identity and longed for the day his “outside could match his inside.”
He put music on hold until he completed his transition surgeries. Brody eventually moved to Nashville to finally pursue his lifelong music dream. He was thrilled “America’s Got Talent” allowed him to share his struggles being trans. He chose season 10 “Voice” champ Jordan Smith’s anthem “Stand in the Light” for his audition song. At the end of his triumphant performance, the audience was on its feet screaming and music mogul and AGT Executive Producer Simon Cowell told Brody he could potentially become “a force to be reckoned with.” Meanwhile, Mel B was in tears and Howie Mandel praised him and said, “You are standing in the light right now.”
It was a huge, full-circle, validating moment for Brody, who was visibly moved and awestruck at the thunderous response he received, along with four “yeses” to advance to the next round. AXS recently caught up with Brody via phone to discuss his music, his transition and his inspirational AGT journey in the following AXS exclusive Q & A interview.
AXS: Music is such a powerful thing. Many people believe in its best form, music can uplift, inspire, and even heal hearts. You’ve had a big mountain to climb in your life leading up to your transition. Is there a song, album, or artist that pulled you through darker times during your transition?
Brody Ray: Growing up I was in a very dark place for a long time because I was very confused as to why God would make me this way when everyone was telling me it’s a sin and here I am, and I can’t fix it. I can’t change it. I would pray at night God would change my mind and body to match one another. I didn’t care which one it was, I just wanted one of them to match and it never happened, and I was very angry at God. I was very lost because I didn’t know where to go, what to do and how to fix it. So, I kind of took it out on my music.
I listened to The Used and they had these songs that were speaking my language. I could feel my own frustration in their lyrics and I could connect on a deeper level with them. Michelle Branch and Sheryl Crow also helped me find a way to express myself to girls. I couldn’t tell them how I felt but I could share a song to express myself.
But, even The Fray and Paramore--those bands got me through so much. They were kind of like my outlet, to escape my own reality. I put my headphones on and it would transport me to a world I was okay with and I was comfortable with. And I could almost pretend like I was somebody else in those songs.
AXS: In your “America’s Got Talent” backstory video, you talked about struggling to fit in as a child, born as a girl who identified as a boy. How do you think bullying awareness and strong anti-bullying campaigns in recent years have made a positive difference for members of the LGBTQ communities and others who have been bullied?
BR: I think they’re doing a lot. They’re doing more than nothing. As long as we’re doing something, we’re making an impact somewhere. It may not be completely noticeable but, the ad campaigns on TV and radio, I think those are very impactful for our youth. The kind of open and honest telling and saying, “This hurt me and that hurt me and you doing that makes me feel like this.” I feel like it’s more open and when we share our feelings, more people realize what they’re doing when they’re bullying and kind of opening people’s hearts and minds to maybe taking a different approach instead of bullying.
I think the generations coming up are going to be shining examples of how we should be treating each other. They’re becoming more open-minded to everyone in their own way. Before people would shove me into a locker and not include me in their groups because they were confused, I was confused. We didn’t know any better and that leads to bullying. When we’re educated, we’re more able to support each other instead of putting each other down. The campaigns need to focus on education like “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with these people … We’re all made differently and we’re okay.
AXS: Your audition was so powerful – you did such a beautiful job with “Stand in the Light.” Howie said your story is a huge inspiration. What did that mean to you and what advice would you give to someone who is currently struggling with gender identity issues or is being bullied for any reason?
BR: All the judges had very important things to say to me and it all meant something to me very deeply. When he said that, it’s true. It’s an inspirational story because what I’m trying to do is open people’s hearts and minds and let people who are maybe not okay with it or don’t know much about it – I want to be a big light for those people.
But, I also want to be an inspiration for the LGBT community and want people to know you don’t have to live in your difference. You don’t have to be shoved down by society because you’re different. You can have a whole and successful life and chase your dreams and have a great career, whatever you choose to do, regardless of how you were born and how you’re different from the rest of society.
Also, be confident in who you are and what you want to do. Pick something and go for it with all your heart. I think people get so lost in their head because they don’t know what they’re going to do and don’t have support and don’t think people are going to accept them. The problem is, we’re too focused on what everybody thinks of us and we need to start focusing on what makes us happy as individuals.
AXS: What about Simon, when he said you’re a force to be reckoned with. How did that feel?
BR: I was terrified of what he might have to say. One reason I hadn’t auditioned in past years because I thought he would just tear me apart. When he said that, it was the most validating thing I’ve ever heard in my life and it just brought everything full circle at that moment.
Hearing that from Simon I knew I was doing the right thing and I was chasing the right dream and I was on the right path. He made it clear to me this is what I need to be doing. I’ve never had that clarity until that moment and now I know that I can put all of myself into this and I’m going to be okay.
I’d been working so hard for a moment like this, just through my transition and my surgeries and my vocal training and my writing skills and my guitar playing – everything. I’ve been working, working, working and finally I’ve had a moment when somebody who knows something about the music industry says “You’re a force to be reckoned with.” That’s what I’ve been waiting for.
AXS: You’ve been pretty open about having a fantastic AGT experience thus far. What has surprised you the most in your journey? Did the stage seem bigger to you than you imagined it would be?
BR: It really did. It seemed like I was so small in that moment and I was going to have to make a big impression. I needed it to be perfect. I didn’t want to screw up my words. I was overthinking, and my producer came up to me and said, ‘Brody, don’t overthink it. Don’t try to script it. Have a conversation. Just answer their questions as they ask them.’ So, I was able to control my stage and performance anxiety and just really focus on the song and the story and present something that was inspirational.
AXS: For any music artist, you want to forge an emotional connection with your audience and then Mel B was brought to tears. How did that make you feel?
BR: I was trying not to watch the judges as I was performing because I didn’t want to make myself any more nervous … I didn’t know they were feeling those feelings until I saw it because I wasn’t focused on how they were feeling. I was so involved in my song.
To see they felt what I felt, I knew we had a connection and I knew it was going to be bigger than I had ever imagined. It was going to be a really big moment. For her to share a tear with me, it just shows how big her heart is, what an amazing person she is and how open-minded she is to people in all their shapes and forms and colors. She’s such an inspiration herself.
AXS: What sort of feedback have you been getting from friends, family and viewers since your audition aired and what has that meant to you?
BR: I was nervous for the reaction I was going to get. But, I was able to present my story in a way I think connected with more people than not. And I’ve only had amazing reactions from everyone. From new fans, from longtime friends and family, and everybody has been so supportive and uplifting and have nothing but amazing things to say like, ‘Brody I cried, I cried like a baby. I’ve never cried like that. My husband was crying. My kids were crying.’
To know people are getting it and supporting it and supporting me, it just gives me so much hope for our country and our world and the people who are in it. I just feel so hopeful right now and so grateful for the opportunity and the way AGT put it together, I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I knew all those other moments that didn’t work out for me brought me here to this moment for a reason, and I was ready.
AXS: Is there a message you’d like to send to your supporters as you move forward on your journey?
BR: First and foremost, I want to thank them with all of my heart for opening up their mind and their hearts to me and my story and my music. And, not only supporting my story but, appreciating me for the artist that I am and supporting me with buying music or watching videos on YouTube or whatever it is. People are changing my life with their support and I hope I continue to make them proud. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep working at this and keep performing no matter what happens in the future.