BIG INTERVIEW Yolanda Brown: ‘It takes time, blood, sweat  and tears, but anything’s possible’

YolanDa Brown is playing at New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth as part of her 10 Years in Music Anniversary Tour on September 27, 2018. Picture by Asiko
YolanDa Brown is playing at New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth as part of her 10 Years in Music Anniversary Tour on September 27, 2018. Picture by Asiko

Even YolanDa Brown finds it hard to believe that it’s a decade since she left business academia and plunged full time into the world of music.

The saxophonist is marking the anniversary with a special tour, which swings by Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal next week, on September 27.

And what a decade it’s been. She became the first artist to win back-to-back Best Jazz awards at the Mobos among other prizes; was given an Honorary Doctorate of the Arts by the University of East London; set up a foundation in her name to help students break into music; has become a regular on TV and radio, and worked with everyone from Jools Holland to Mica Paris, The Temptations and many more.

Last year she released her second album, Love, Politics, War.

‘It has been a bit of a whirlwind,’ she tells The Guide with a characteristic giggle.

‘It’s been an amazing year. Being an independent artist, you either have to go in with both feet or not at all, so at that time, 10 years ago my manager and I we drew up a spider diagram of all the things that the YolanDa Brown project could do.

‘We dug it out at the beginning of the year, and were like: “Wow!” We thought we were dreaming too big, you know, the sky’s the limit and all that, but it’s all starting to happen. We’ve achieved so much, we had a TV show on there, we had the charity work, we had a world tour and it’s all coming about.

‘It goes to show that if you have a dream, it takes time and blood sweat and tears, but actually, anything’s possible. I believed it, but it’s nice to see it’s actually happening.

‘We actually sat down and drew out another spider diagram, so hopefully we’ll be talking in another 10 years about something else!
‘But we’ve worked really hard, and done it all ourselves which is why we’re doing the anniversary tour really, as we’ve got a lot to be thankful for.’

Love, Politics, War had a lengthy gestation and saw the performer dip into more topical areas than on her 2012 debut, April Showers, May Flowers.

YolanDa Brown

YolanDa Brown

‘It takes a lot of time and investment to make the album you want it to be.’

The resulting blend of styles she has dubbed ‘posh reggae.’

‘Finding my genre, finding my style of music has been an interesting journey – mixing the reggae, jazz and soul.

‘It feels right and I can see the way it moves audiences, concerts are so lively, they’re up and dancing, they’re reminiscing, thinking about the messages from the album, and I think it did take some time to get there and understand what I wanted to make rather than what was right for the industry.’

YolanDa Brown

YolanDa Brown

But what prompted her to move into more thorny subject matter?

‘During the time of writing the album, as you’re being creative, you can’t help but let the outside world in. You’d turn up at the studio and the first thing you’re talking about is Brexit – did you vote? What’s happening with the US? Can you believe Trump? And then there were the attacks in Paris, there were a lot of these conversations happening.

‘Sitting in the studio and trying to create this album, I couldn’t help but let it in to the music, I don’t think I could stop it even if I wanted to.

‘There would be times when I would be writing or playing, and it would feel quite tense the way was improvising, that’s when I realised I should make this album a narrative of where we are – the world needs love.’

And then as the album was released, the tragic Grenfell Tower fire happened. As a Londoner, seeing the response to that had a profound effect on YolanDa. ‘Seeing how the community rallied around and people wanted to help each other, it didn’t matter what background or race you were it was just Londoners coming together, so we realised there was a lot of love there too.

‘So there are people wanting to help outside their normal remit, but then there’s the politics as well.’

‘War is very different now, before when we learnt about war at school it was World War Ttwo and having empathy, trying to imagine and understand what it was like. But now we’re living with a war on terror, we’re living through it ourselves so there’s a lot of angst and tension.

‘I just wanted to put that in the music – there’s happy moments, there’s quite tense moments, where there’s discordance which underlies the message there.

‘For me it was just getting all of those emotions through, and then at the concerts we can all reflect, feel something and process it a bit better.’

While she’s clearly proud of the album, it’s the live arena that YolanDa prefers.

‘There’s something very organic about performing live. No two gigs are ever the same, even now, even though there’s a new album and a setlist.

There’s always something new, which I love, and seeing the different audiences around the world and how they react, you can’t beat it. For me it’s always about going live.’

As mother to a four-year-old daughter so she is particularly proud of another recent venture – she’s recorded a children’s TV show called YolanDa’s Band Jam, which will be broadcast on CBeebies this autumn.

‘It will be in the living room soon,’ she promises. ‘I’m really looking forward to it - my daughter came down to the filming and was jumping around with the all other kids, it was nice to see how it moved them in the room, so I hope it does the same for everyone watching.

‘I was writing a range of children’s books and we introduced them to CBeebies. Then they came up with this concept that they wanted me to present.

‘Along with being an artist I do a lot in music education, for me it’s so important to enjoy making music without the pressures of exams and things like that. This was a really fun concept that allows the children to enjoy music and learn about different instruments – it’s got some catchy songs in there that my daughter’s still singing and it’s just about bringing live music to young people in a fun way.’

YolanDa was actually in the middle of a PhD when she decided to go full time in to music. Does she ever think she’ll finish it?

‘It’s still lurking. I keep checking in the journals every so often.

‘I was commissioned to write a book, and I was doing my children’s books too, and just as I’m getting into the chapters, I was thinking, if I can do this, I really should have finished the PhD!

‘But I’m just taking every opportunity and enjoying it, there’s so many things happening from the music and being involved with young people enjoying music. I’m just following the passion and the PhD can happen at any point after that.’

YolanDa Brown is at New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth on Thursday, September 27, 7.30pm. Tickets £18-22. Go to newtheatreroyal.com.