10 Questions with...YolanDa Brown
Two times Mobo winner YolanDa Brown, is changing the way people view jazz music. With her chilled out vibe and a voice that has been compared to Sade, she is hailed as Britain's premier saxophonist, taking the image of this and breaking all boundaries in much the same way as classical crossover musicians such as Jamie Cullum have done. This self taught musician grew up on the stage and by the age of 6 was a musical prodigy. She has played with everyone from Alexander O'Neal, Mica Paris, The Temptations, Soweto Kinch and Jools Holland. She's also juggled her love of studying and combined her passion of music whilst studying for a PHD (she had already got a first and a masters degree). However the PHD was put on hold as the music side was really taking off yet she has promised she will return to it one day!
Her debut album, April Showers May Flowers is a beautifully sculpted record that touches lightly on jazz and soul and R&B, each track bestowed with the kind of lyrical insight – on love and life – that suggests its author is something of a poet, too.
She has been voted by the Evening Standard as one of the top 30 black students in the UK, she is a patron for the Mayor of London's Fund for Young Musicians, she has played a private concert for the Russian President and she is an ambassador for the Prince's Trust and her sponsors Yamaha. As well as this, YolanDa also found time to contribute to The PRECIOUS Book of Quotes. Phew! Bonnisa Gillings caught up with this busy lady to ask ten quick questions...
Your recent debut album, April Showers, May Flowers, soared straight to the top of the iTunes and Amazon Jazz charts upon its release. How does it feel to have such success with your first album and to know you have so much support?
It is an amazing feeling to have this great support for my debut album. A lot of time and hard work goes into writing, recording and releasing a record so it is both a relief and very heart-warming to know that people want to buy and listen to my music! For me, the most important and rewarding part of making music is being able to share it with the listener and audience, it’s wonderful.
Two of my favourites from the album, Heartbeat and Tokyo Sunset, seem to allow the listener the freedom of connecting their own emotions to the music. Were you mindful of this when composing your songs?
Yes, very much so. I believe that music is about feeling something, both as the player and the listener. When writing this album I thought about what I wanted each song to say or represent and even though there are no words, a story or emotion needs to be communicated. I write from life experiences. HeartBeat, for example, is a song dedicated to my nephew and God-daughter. When they were born I felt such and overwhelming sense of responsibility and the need to protect them. When writing and recalling this time a melody came to mind and this started the inspiration for the song. Now when I play it on tour people feel that emotion even in cases where I don't introduce the meaning of the song!
How does recording your music in a studio compare to performing live on stage for your fans?
I am very much a live artist. I love playing live on stage, directly communicating with the audience and the spontaneity it brings. No show is the same and the energy and uniqueness of each concert is so exciting. The studio recording experience is so different for me. Being in a booth with just a the microphone, you are thinking about the building of the song, how the sounds come together and making each take how you want it… it can be a long process. In studio I crave for the freedom of the stage!
Younger generations are now lending their ears to the sounds of Jazz, with artists such as yourself, Esperanza Spalding and Jamie Cullum gaining recognition. What was it that attracted you to the genre at such a young age?
When learning to play the saxophone the thing that got me the most interested was improvisation. The idea that you can play what you want and how you are feeling and still be making music was liberating. When learning music for the first time you are usually introduced to reading music and following the notes, if playing in an orchestra or band you play the sheet music and follow the conductor. When introduced to Jazz and improvising in a group, music came to life. I really enjoyed listening to Jazz players, especially live and living the musical moments with them.
You have been present at a number of gospel events, and became a born again Christian in your teens. How has your relationship with God shaped your music?
Having a relationship with God has given me the confidence to be who I am and create the music that I want to make. It is a true blessing to be a Christian and have a personal relationship with God. Knowing that God is with me I feel that inner strength that guides my steps and also keeps me positive in hard times. I also feel very blessed that I am able to praise and worship with my instrument and make music that can minister to people’s hearts. I don't have to hide this part of my music making but can share it would others in Christian fellowship too.
Have you ever felt that some musical involvements may conflict with your faith?
I have never felt a conflict because I have been very clear artistically, in both my music and image, to show what I stand for. I have found that the people I have met and work with understand this and respect what I do. It is important to be secure in your values. With this knowledge, I have not really felt any conflict because I know I am where God wants me to be. If I am around people / musicians that have a “different” or “difficult” lifestyle, by being myself I can interact with them, duet and collaborate with them on stage. I know that my actions and words are a way of ministering, and while working, they can see the God’s grace in me. There have been many occasions where I have been able to talk about my faith and “what keeps me going” to performers that don't have faith and it is great to be able to show this in my actions and conversations.
You studied at university and successfully achieved not one, but two Master’s degrees! How did you manage to devote time to both your studies and to your music career?
It was not easy dividing my time between academia and music but I found that forward planning of my time helped to keep both careers on track. It becomes a lot easier to work hard when you are passionate about what you do… I think passion and enjoyment give the extra edge to keep things on track!
The charts are very much dominated by dance music, and a number of R’n’B artists are crossing over to the genre. Do you think the blurring of musical genres is a positive thing for the music industry?
I think it is great when genres of music are mixed together… it’s what I do, mixing jazz with soul, reggae, classical, afrobeat, etc. It is a wonderful way to create music that you like without barriers and also gives something new to the listener.
I think the problem comes when music is dictated by sales and when artists are all creating the same type of music. It stops diversity and doesn't allow the listener to develop different tastes. But music is very accessible these days and so it is possible for artists that create music that goes against the “popular grain” to be heard and play to the world stage. In this way music can continue to evolve.
Not everyone can say that they have had the chance to meet the Queen, but you had the pleasure of doing just that last year. How did that opportunity come around, and what was the experience like for you?
I was invited by the Queen to attend a reception at Buckingham Palace for people in the creative arts, it was a wonderful day that I will never forget. It was so rewarding to be invited on the merits of the work I have been doing and is a great motivator to keep on with my career plans. It was a great time to network with other people in the industry and of course to meet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and to have a moment to share my story with them!
So there are many of us who have your music on our iPods, but what artists are on your playlist at the moment?
My playlist changes daily and I love to listen to back catalogues of artists, not just what they are making now. My playlist today includes music by Charlie Hunter, Aloe Blacc, Kelly Clarkson, Monty Alexander and Esperenza Spalding.