It was the day she was playing to one of the world’s most prominent politicians that YolanDa Brown finally realised something had to give between her music and her studies.
With a first class honours degree and two masters degrees already behind her, not to mention the brace of back-to-back MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards for Best Jazz, she was four years into her PhD thesis at the University of Kent when she reached the crunch point.
She recalls: ‘It got to the point where I was in Russia playing to the Russian president – you know, a regular Wednesday, right? And I was actually sending off a piece of work to my supervisor for my PhD and I said I can’t do both any more, it’s not that easy.
‘But I do think about it every day.
‘It’s on the back burner, but I will go back to finish that doctorate in management science at some point.’
When that is going to happen is something of a moot point, as YolanDa is still busy touring the world to promote her debut album, April Showers, May Flowers. She recently came back from a tour of the US and Jamaica and she plays at the Wedgewood Rooms in Southsea next Thursday in a gig billed as part of this year’s Portsmouth Festivities.
And that’s before we even get to her other love – motor racing. It has been her life-long passion to get her racing licence.
‘I had all the meetings that I needed to have and I’ve found a team that wants to work with me,’ she explains.
‘I’m in the process of getting my ARDS test and getting my licence to race. I’ve been doing a lot of track days and getting the practice in.
‘My main aim is to race the single-seaters, my dream is to be in Formula Three, like the ones in the video for my song Tokyo Sunset. But at the moment I’m racing Minis. I’ve still got the passion and I’m racing hard.’
But how does her record label feel about letting their valuable asset hurtle around the track at high speeds?
‘They’re seeing the publicity side of it, let’s put it like that,’ she laughs, ‘I’m well insured now.’
Given how many interests she has, it’s no surprise to learn that YolanDa took a while to look at music as a potential career.
‘It was a bit of a journey,’ she says. ‘I came to the saxophone quite late, around the age of 13, but I’d played the drums, the piano and the violin first. I think I was trying them all on for size.
‘The saxophone is such a soulful instrument and for me music is quite therapeutic and I liked to play for myself – play through my emotions. I could close my eyes and play and it felt good.’
Then she laughs: ‘And it’s a lot easier to lug around a sax than a piano or drum kit.’
However, she still needed a little parental encouragement to share her music with the world: ‘You are your own worst critic, so anything I played I would feel good playing it, but that didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to inflict it on anyone else.
‘My parents were a big inspiration to get me out there – I remember my mum saying one day: “Why don’t you go out and busk?”
‘She was like, you’ve got to share this.’
From there YolanDa makes it sound easy: she played a few concerts, then joined a band after university, but when they fell apart the manager picked her up as a solo artist.
And she was soon hooked on performing: ‘Seeing audiences respond to your thoughts and your emotions was really rewarding. Even today, touring is the bit I look forward to most about playing music.’
YolanDa relishes the live arena where she gets the chance to improvise. Besides her own shows, she has worked with artists from Soweto Kinch to Alexander O’Neal and Mica Paris.
‘I roll with anything, I love to play, whether it’s an arena – we’ve played at the O2 and the Royal Albert Hall – right down to those small jazz clubs. It’s about how you feel, and sometimes at those intimate venues you have a better night. We like to mix it up.
‘No gig is the same. We have our setlist, but depending on what’s happening and that interaction with the audience, sometimes we just go way off the set list and just enjoy the night. It really does keep you on your toes.’
YolanDa has also got an honorary doctorate from the University of East London for her contribution to music, and it has helped set up a foundation in her name to help students break into music. She says: ‘I hadn’t had any link to the university before they contacted me about the doctorate. It was the same month I had decided to take a break from my PhD, so it was very emotional. It was almost a sign to say: “Go ahead, you’ve made the right decision to pursue your music.”
‘I don’t think you have to be a millionaire to give back.
‘I thought I could start up this award and give financial help to music students and other people who want to start in professional music and they won’t have to wait to do that. I wanted to put my two cents in now.
‘When I was younger, I couldn’t imagine I would be a musician and do what I do – I wanted to be a racing driver.
‘To be able to go back into schools and universities and speak to people, I wish I had someone do that when I was growing up, I might have got to this place a lot sooner.
‘I think that when you go and speak to people they don’t realise the opportunities that are available in the music industry. And those who do realise it, may not always have the finances to follow them.
‘To help them is rewarding to me and helpful to them.’
YolanDa Brown is at the Wedgewood Rooms on Thursday, June 26, as part of the Portsmouth Festivities. Doors at 7.30pm, on stage at 8pm. Tickets are £12 from wedgewood-rooms.co.uk or call (023) 9286 3911.