Interview: YolanDa Brown, Vinyl Music With a Crackle.
It’s merely a few days before YolanDa Brown’s performance at London’s Barbican, where she’ll officially close her Reggae Love Songs tour with a bang. As her social media will testify, the award-winning British saxophonist has been rather occupied in the past few weeks, featuring in major British newspapers and participating in a number of press and radio interviews alongside rehearsals.
Yet, she answers my questions as if it’s the first interview undertaken and takes it in her stride; being multifarious appears to be in her nature.
The British saxophonist, composer and double MOBO winner has been on an upward trajectory ever since she burst onto the scene and her label as the UK’s premier female saxophonist is no exaggeration. With a sound influenced primarily by jazz but comprised of a hybrid of genres, she describes her music as “reggae, jazz and soul mixed with emotion. It is music that moves you!”.
Born in East London and with an upbringing she describes as “amazing”, music was always present for the young YolanDa and in the form of an eclectic mix of genres, including reggae, classical, folk, latin, jazz and much more. Undoubtedly gifted, she mastered a wide range of instruments, not exclusively the saxophone, and was playing piano at the age of six. To have achieved so much so early on, where did her desire to play music stem from? “My Dad has an amazing record collection and I think always hearing music, especially on Saturday mornings, definitely inspired my love for music and later on my career in music” she muses.
For the accomplished artist, life could have taken a very different turn. Whilst studying a phD in Management Science at The University of Kent her music career and life on the road was beginning to take off, so she decided to put her degree on hold for four years. How did it feel to take the plunge and swap the scholarly world for the music one? “It was very difficult” she admits “but I knew in my heart that it was the right decision”. Not that YolanDa needed to have worried; she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of East London for her contribution to music and can claim an impressive list of career accomplishments to date.
In 2008 and 2009 respectively, YolanDa gained the endorsement she deserved by winning not one but two MOBO Awards for Best Jazz Act. How did it feel to win this accolade and have her work celebrated in this way? “It was surprising, emotional, rewarding, all jumbled into one. The second time round, I was more composed and just enjoyed the moment!” she laughs. “Being an award winner definitely gives you more credibility and confidence” she says thoughtfully when I ask her if winning the MOBO has enhanced her already successful career.
2012’s debut April Showers May Flowers was a global success and introduced audiences to her broad range of sounds ranging from funk through to classical, reggae and “everything in between”. It took considerable time to write and record, but the album evolved and grew on stage to such an extent that just a year later, YolanDa re-recorded it in just one take in a live session at London’s Under the Bridge in Chelsea. “I love how the special guests interpreted my lyrics and the live element of the songs. TokYo Sunset is my favourite”.
Speaking of guests, YolanDa is a great believer that music is about sharing and as a prolific collaborator, has worked with many notable musicians such as Jools Holland, Lemar, Julian Marley, Mica Paris, Omar Lye-Fook and Soweto Kinch. Given such a broad range of musical associates, were there any memorable moments she is willing to share? “Every artist brings a different energy and personality to the music” she says humbly. “Performing with Bob Marley‘s son Julian Marley was a moment I won’t forget. I love Bob and his music lives on, so to perform Stir It Up with his son was something special”.
Since early this year she has been on her Reggae Love Songs tour, her biggest and most extensive to date, which features music from her forthcoming album along with a number of special guests. “The first night at the sold out Hackney Empire was magical!” she reminisces. “The crowd kept asking for more, we ran 30 minutes over as a result!.” Which comes as no surprise; YolanDa is well known for her live performance, putting on an energetic and vivacious display. How does she manage to engage so well with her fans? “I try to take the audience on a journey of emotions. I want them to reminisce, dance, sing along, cry (but not too much!) all in one concert. Every show is different and I love that! A YolanDa Brown concert is a roller coaster of emotions is the best way to describe it.”
Not content with being certified jazz royalty, YolanDa also has philanthropic commitments and is helping to shape the future of the jazz genre as well as raise awareness. An Ambassador for the Prince’s Foundation for Children & The Arts, she also acts as an Ambassador for the Mayor’s Music Fund for Young Londoners and is inspired by young people and getting them to realise their limitless potential.
All of this, and also mother to a two year old daughter, I’m dazzled by all her achievements. How on earth does she manage to juggle so much and still remain composed and able to function? “I just do it is the simple answer!’” she says. “It helps to keep the analogy of “juggling” in mind and make sure to keep the balls in the air. It’s also important to catch them all, put them down and just have some ‘Me time’ every now and then. It gives me the chance to re-energise and go again!”.
Given her own unique sound has so many layers and elements, I’m curious to know which artists have influenced her. “The list is so long!” she admits. “In terms of saxophone, Kirk Whalum, Kenny Garret and Sonny Rollins. With my interest in reggae, jazz and soul I love the work of Monty Alexander, Ernest Ranglin and Bob Marley” she says thoughtfully as I make a mental note to check out these artists. Could she enlighten me on what she is listening to now (in the hope an iota of her coolness will rub off on me)? It’s Snarky Puppy’s album Culcha Vulcha and the track Semente is on repeat, she reveals.
So what’s in the pipeline for the industrious YolanDa? Her highly anticipated sophomore album is due for release in early 2017 and I ask what we can expect from the new album in terms of sound and musical direction? “My new album is my best piece of work so far. I have had a lot more time to work on it and this has allowed me to take my time in carving it out. I love the fusion of reggae, jazz and soul. I call it vinyl music, music with a crackle, music that moves you!”
For now, the Barbican gig, part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, is looming ever closer and YolanDa is excited. Alongside her ten-piece band and special guest Shingai Shoniwa, London rapper, singer, songwriter and producer Tiggs Da Author and singer-songwriter and guitarist Shan Smile will be joining her on stage which promises to be a very special denouement. What is she looking forward to most about the final date? “It’s the end of the tour, so the songs are second nature to us all on stage!” she reflects. “It’s been a long tour, so I’m looking forward to ending it with a big bang!” I am keen to know what it feels like to play alongside the illuminating Shingai? “She’s such a natural performer and we have such chemistry on stage. We had such an amazing time on stage in Liverpool and can’t wait to do it again!”.
As the interview draws to a close, I ask what influences her presuming that such a rich and varied life would offer many subjects? “Life in general is what influences me and gives me a basis for my expression. Hearing other people’s experiences and finding empathy with them is also influential, that can come from anywhere” she says.
Philanthropist. Mother. Charity Patron and of course, musician. Phew. Having an insight into YolanDa’s world has been fascinating and her polymathic approach and natural gift is inspiring.
RockShot wish her all the best for her show at the Barbican and if you are fortunate enough to be in attendance, prepare to be moved.
YolanDa is playing at London’s Barbican Centre with special guests on 15 November 2016. Book tickets here
Interview by Nicola Greenbrook.
Nicola writes her own Music, Fashion and Lifestyle blog – Material Whirl
Yolanda Brown‘s website is here: Yolanda Brown Website