Artist Interview: YolanDa Brown
The UKs premiere saxophonist YolanDa Brown recently hosted the release party for her new album ‘Love Politics War’ at our Melomania venue. Naturally, we had to chat with her about the latest release!
Congratulations on the release of your new album ‘Love Politics War’! It’s been out for a couple of weeks now, how has it gone down so far?
It’s been fantastic! When you’re creating music you make it for yourself first because you want it to be a reflection of how you feel, but when that release date comes you do think ‘how are people going to take it?’. But it got to number one in the jazz charts which is fantastic! It’s been great seeing people reacting to it and asking them what their favourite songs are. But for me mixing reggae, jazz and soul was about creating music you want to move to and music that gives you hope and makes you feel positive.
What are people’s favourite songs from the album?
At the moment I’m hearing ‘Roll With It’, ‘Heritage’ and of course the first single ‘Million Billion Love’ which we recorded a music video for, with me standing on top of a canal boat in the middle of Hackney which is beautiful. I really wanted to get across the idea that it’s about togetherness, unity and having fun with friends and family – which people seem to be grasping and understanding.
When did you film the video?
About a month ago now. We released it a couple of days before the album. It’s gone down really well. It helps especially in the time we’re living in, where it’s social network and media related. As an instrumental musician, it’s unusual to have a music video but I think it helps to get your concept and ideas across.
How important do you feel it is to have social media in the music industry now?
I think it’s paramount. You do have the music labels which have their system of working but I’m an independent artist, so I’ve had to grow my audience and find a way to keep in touch with them one-on-one and let them know when things are happening. You don’t have the big labels to help you, but you can have the same impact because the audience is right there! You can add them, speak directly to them, you can let them know when you’re coming to their town. It’s very important. You also need to give them things to watch, see and hear. The pressure of a release is quite a lot on the artist now because people will see something on their ‘feed’, like it, then scroll up and see what’s next.
It does let people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to do this a platform to stand on and get music out there.
My phrase is that ‘gigs get gigs’. When people see you, if they enjoy it they’ll want to have you there again. When I do a tour whether it be nationwide or worldwide, if I did the tour and didn’t post about it, no one would know. So really you want to shout from the rooftops. I do a lot of Instagram posts and tweets saying ‘this is my office today, look at this wonderful theatre; I’m in this city today, look at the audience reacting to my music.’ It’s good to use those tools really well.
Just going back to your album, you held the release party at our Melomania venue. How did you find that?
It was absolutely fantastic! As soon as I came to see it I thought ‘wow!’. Interior design-wise it’s really impressive and beautiful; but then to have access to the speakers, to hear my music on the system and have a room filled with those involved with the project and people who supported me was an amazing experience. We had Nigel Williams from Jazz FM interviewing me, we went through the album listening to snippets of it so I could share anecdotes and stories of what happened when we were recording. You don’t really get to do that, sometimes in the process people don’t know you stayed up ‘til 4am with this song or that this song rolled off the tip of my tongue. It was good to share that and get people into it. They were doing the Posh Reggae dancing too, which was great!
This might be an obvious question… What are the main influences for ‘Love Politics War’ and how does differ from everything else you’ve done?
I knew that I wanted the album to be a reflection of the world we live in today. A fantastic album like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ is almost a protest album but filled with love, showing that the world needs love. It’s SO important. We’ve had presidential elections, we’ve had Brexit… There was so much going on when I was writing this album, it was impossible for it not to filter in.
And then there’s being on the brink of war. War is always something I studied at school; WW1, WW2, the evacuations and bombings. You were really empathetic to the time. Whereas now you have a war on terror; mutterings of WW3. You try not to acknowledge it but there is this sense of fear we’re living in, especially in London where there have been horrible attacks and everything we’ve seen in the past few months. I really want the music to be a reflection of that, with a sort of edginess, but also to show positivity and the fact that with love, we can conquer all.
From a personal standpoint, I love to treat everybody with a hug and a warm embrace and I think it’s great when everyone does. There are politics in the office, in the home, in the family and the battles that we face whether it be internal or in our relationships. Everybody goes through love, politics and war – I wanted to create music that people could find familiar and relate to it and be positive. You watch the news sometimes and wish you’d never put it on! Posh Reggae is that escapism.
You keep mentioning ‘Posh Reggae’ which sounds like a bit of an oxymoron! Can you explain what it is?
For me as a musician I’ve always grown up and loved to play all genres. And I find especially when making music and selling music it HAS to be a genre. Is it jazz? Is it soul? Is it reggae? I thought the best way to do this is create my own genre. I love to mix reggae, jazz and soul. I love all genres of course and if you come to a YolanDa Brown concert you’ll be getting bits of everything, but this album is focused in that direction. It has the reggae drums and bass but then there’s jazz chords and improvisation, and the soul feel and emotion behind it. I couldn’t choose one and when the genres come together it forms a nice sound. It’s not just one, so for me it’s sophisticated, the ‘posh’ isn’t meant to be snobby or elitist. It’s sophisticated reggae that a jazz audience could hear and if they want to stand up and dance they can. We’ve seen it as we’re touring the album now, you can see people are on the edge of their seat and I’m like ‘Just do it! Stand up! Let your body lead you!’
As you just mentioned ‘elitist’, do you think there’s a misconception with jazz music in that it’s not inclusive for everyone?
I think it does, sadly. I think it’s changing a bit more now. It’s more accessible in a way with Robert Glasper and Snarky Puppy. But when taking it back to the history of jazz and traditional jazz, I think we’re just taught that you won’t understand it so don’t go near it. Whereas if you put on a Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald record and really listen, it’s for everybody. The message is one of strength and fighting through crisis. There are a lot of battles jazz musicians were going through at that time and jazz was their expression. To find you can have a song that is interpreted differently by different people is quite fascinating. I think yes, with the jazz clubs it’s very gated, but anybody can go. If you’re interested in a new genre, just go! It’s the same if you want to go to a punk concert, some people will think ‘Do I have to dress a certain way?’ But really if you want to listen to the music, just go and do it. But yeah, it can have a bad rep but it is for everybody.
"I wanted to create music that people could find familiar and relate to it and be positive."
You’ve toured with some big names including Billy Ocean and The Temptations. How did this come about?
The wonderful thing about music and being in the industry is having a good team. Booking agents, managers, PR and the rest of it. But also for me as an artist letting them know that I want to step outside of my boundaries. There’s no reason why a solo saxophonist can’t support Billy Ocean. We asked and they said yes! Working with The Temptations was phenomenal. We had a 20 date nationwide tour with them. It was great how open their dressing rooms were, they would share stories from their tours. Being with The Temptations was quite early on in my career so being able to be inspired too was fantastic. Billy Ocean was just this year actually, and was my second tour with him. He’d always shout me out on stage and I’d do the same and that’s when you can see the power of music. It brings people together and for the audience too it was a great night out!
If there was any dream collaboration or tour, who would it be with?
Where do you feel more at home and at your creative peak, on the road or in the studio?
For me it’s always live. Even though you have a setlist you never know how a show is going to go, it’s so organic. All of my songs are improvised based, so we have the main melody of the song and then go off to wherever it takes us. The audience can sometimes lead that if they’re really into it and dancing. If they’re more focussed and attentive that can give a certain energy as well. No two gigs are the same. Studio I think you have in your mind what you want and what to get on the record and you get the pressure that ‘it’s going to be on there forever!’ Whereas I love the freedom of live and that it’s just for us this evening, in the moment.
Obviously you have a setlist but improvisation is a part of the live experience, how do you gear up for it and rehearse?
Part of it is having a wonderful band with me and musicians that have worked with me for a long time. They understand if I kick my heel up a certain way it means we’re doing this, or if I shout that it’s not at them but a direction to them. What I love when touring date after date is you start to become one. At the beginning of a tour it’s always a bit rusty, no matter how much you’ve rehearsed. When you’re performing trying to get something out of an audience, you really settle into each other and we’re at that point now. We did a gig last night and you come off stage and think ‘that was really nice guys!’. If the drummer wants to go into a samba beat then we’ll go! I love that freedom! No matter how much you rehearse a gig will always surprise you.
As a London native, do you feel the capital has a big influence in what you do?
Definitely. Audience wise London is always a tough audience so getting the reaction you want from them you have to pinpoint and know what it is you’re going to do to get it. I love that challenge. But also living in a large city again, with the things we’ve been through –
Grenfell Tower and the terrorist attacks – so much happens and we’re in it all the time. From a joyous celebration of a jubilee to then having an attack, we go through a lot of emotions living in a big city. It does get into my music a lot. On the saxophone you can growl into it and I find when I listen back to some concerts you can tell what emotion I’m feeling or what time we’re in by how much I’m growling! Similarly it does get a bit more soulful and relaxed when you’re playing in a Caribbean paradise.
Tough question then, if you had to pick, where’s your favourite place to play?
I would have to say Mexico. I was in Queretaro in Mexico and I speak Spanish and presented it in Spanish, but just the way they reacted to the music. I love a free audience and an audience that will talk to me and there’s no divide between the audience and stage. I love coming off the stage when I perform. I like to be in the audience and sit down next to someone and play and I think there they didn’t have that barrier. They were in this and wanted to have a party together! I’m always trying to pull that out of British audiences, trying to get them involved. We’re getting there!
I also saw you performed on a plane mid-flight!
I did! I should have picked that as my favourite, then I could have covered loads of continents in one go! It was a great experience though, playing on the inaugural direct flight from London to New Orleans. So 30,000ft up in the air, Nicole Scherzinger performed and then I did some Posh Reggae in the skies. We had cocktails, everyone was wearing Mardis Gras beads and it was the best! The seatbelt signs were off and people were up dancing and jumping over seats. Like I said, I like to move around when I play so it was a unique experience playing right in peoples faces.
Where’s the next dream place to play?
It’s nice when you tour and go somewhere you’ve never been before, so next week I’m going to Australia for the first time. I can’t wait, I’m excited to play in Melbourne.
Something else that you’re extremely passionate about is being a positive role model for young people, whether it’s your work with ABRSM or the children’s novels you’re writing. How important is it to inspire today’s youth to get into music?
It’s really important, my journey into music was very unorthodox. I studied all the way up to PHD level in Management Science, so not related to music at all. Even though I played sax from a young age, I never thought of it as a career, it was always brought to me as a hobby. I’m not saying go into schools and say to kids ‘you can be a musician’ but helping them understand that music is a fantastic outlet and if you really do enjoy it there are different avenues you can go down. There are so many things you don’t think about in school. Also having access to an instrument, there are so many young musicians that don’t, so working with charities like the Mayors Fund for Young Musicians and Children and the Arts allows children to try out instruments. For me it’s been therapeutic, I’m self taught on the saxophone so it acted as a diary for me. It’s not just about passing grades. Saying ‘I’m a grade eight pianist’ is fantastic, but what does it make you feel?
"It’s not just about passing grades. Saying ‘I’m a grade eight pianist’ is fantastic, but what does it make you feel?"
What are your feelings on how music is consumed now? Whether it’s vinyl returning and streaming.
Overall I’m excited as it allows people to have access to music in all forms wherever they are. There were times with gramophones and vinyl records where you’d have to be at home with it in front of you in the living room whereas now you can have it on your phone on the train, in the car, everywhere. From a business standpoint, it’s a lot harder because you’re not selling units anymore, it’s about streaming. It’s not about making money from those streams it’s about live. However, being on tour, I always sign CDs at the end of the show and make sure I speak to people. I’ve met so many people who’ve said, ‘Oh I saw you on BBC Breakfast so checked you out on Spotify and that’s why I’m here tonight’. For an independent artist wanting to spread music it’s great as everyone has access to it. But for business touring and merchandising it becomes even more important. Coming out fresh from mixing and mastering my album though and paying so much attention to little nuances, to see it compressed into an MP3 is annoying… But at the same time it’s still music reaching people, so I’m happy for it.
Speaking of TV, you’ve done a lot recently. Do you enjoy it?
I love it. As an artist it’s almost about being a personality because I want that to come through in my music too. The energy I give on stage is as important as the notes I play, I want you to feel something, so when a career in presenting comes to the fore I’m quite excited as it allows me to speak. I have two shows on inflight where I interview artists. I will be presenting a prom live on BBC4 this year. I like doing things outside of music. I can’t go into too much detail but next year is also going to be very exciting!
Finally, what can we expect to see from YolanDa Brown in the near future?
It’s an exciting year! We’re still fresh from releasing the album so we’re touring ‘Love Politics War’ this year across the UK and in Australia, then over to the states later on in the year. And then presenting the Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie celebration in August. More TV appearances, working with Cbeebies. And more music! More YolanDa Brown!
Love Politics War is available now. Head to YolanDa’s website here for more details, or head to Spotify and check out the album now!