When beauty, brains, and business savvy are mixed together, life graces us with the presence of “total package” artists like V.V. Brown. A native of Northampton, England, Brown’s musical journey brought her to the United States on the heels of several massive accolades, including a listing on BBC’s Sound of 2009 poll, whose three previous winners include: Adele (2008), Mika (2007) and Corinne Bailey Rae (2006).
Inspired by a failed relationship, V.V. Brown crafted the bulk of her debut album, Travelling Like the Light, after writing “Crying Blood,” a doo-wop kiss-off to her ex-boyfriend. Follow-up singles include “Leave!,” “Shark in the Water,” and “Game Over,” all of which have impacted the international music scene. On April 20, 2010, Brown’s debut album will be released in America via Capitol Records.
In the midst of a series of promotional concerts, V.V Brown managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Grace Jones, “360” deals, and the inspiration she finds in Nintendo’s video game music.
During your NYC showcase at Hiro Ballroom, you opened the show with “Everybody,” a song that really set the tone for the night. When planning for the event, what inspired you to kick-off the show with that particular song?
“Everybody” was the second song that I had written and it was the one song that made me trust in my sound. My first single, “Crying Blood,” I thought it was a nice, cute song, but with “Everybody,” there started to be a bit of a consistency, and I felt like I was actually finding my identity. And when I think about my first record, [Travelling Like the Light], I think “Everybody” has the grit and gospel flavor that I love. So I like to open up with it, because the first impression is important, and I think “Everybody” kind of introduces me as being a credible artist.
It is definitely one of my favorites on the album. As you were performing, I could not help but admire the lovely, peacock mask that you were wearing. I know you have your own clothing line — VV Vintage — and that Grace Jones is one of your fashion icons. So how would you describe your fashion sense?
I just want to be creative and push the boundaries. That’s why I love Grace Jones and David Bowie and all these kind of artists that just brought fashion and music together. For them, it was just all one, big party of expression. And so, this is what I want to do with my shows. My budget doesn’t allow me to do exactly what I want to do; but God willing, as soon as things become more successful, you’re going to start to see some real crazy s**t! [laughing]
As I was reading through your bio, I thought one of your most humorous inspirations is the music from Nintendo’s video games. Were you an avid video game player?
On my twelfth birthday, I received a Game Boy. It was Christmas day. And since then I never looked back as far as video games are concerned. I really love playing them. And “Super Mario Land” was my favorite. I played it so much that I could hear the songs ringing in my head at school. So, yeah, video gaming was a major part of my childhood. When I started to get more creative, I started to realize how special the melodies are. Sure, they’re all cute and buzzy, but when you actually listen to the way that they’re organized, you’re realize that they are really, really good melodies. Imagine if a violin was to play the theme to Super Mario Land—[sings melody]—or even an entire symphony—[continues singing melody]. So that’s what got me interested in sampling them.
I never really thought about Nintendo’s music that way. But you are so right! The “Super Mario” theme music was really addictive! [laughing] As you mentioned Christmas, it made me wonder if you ever received your octahedra?
Oh, my God! You really researched me! [laughing] Did you go on my blog?
Yes, ma’am! [laughing] I wanted to know what fascinated you about this instrument.
Oh, God! Yeah. Well, it’s just an interesting piece of equipment. The way they’ve put it together, it just has a weird kind of sophisticated physics. The sounds that you can create with it are kind of really interesting and haunting, so that’s why I wanted one. When I am on-stage, I always want people to be interested. It not only looks cool, but it sounds really cool. I love it when I can capture your interest and make people say, “Ooh, what’s that?” [laughing] You have to keep it fresh!
Definitely! [laughing] I heard this really interesting rumor about your album, which alluded to that fact that all the vocals on the record are actually the demo recordings. Is this true?
Yes, they are.
Oh, wow! What beauty do you find in the unpolished vocals on the original cuts?
When you’re recording vocals, you tend to over think too much and you lose a sense of reality, I think. I was raised in church, where you just went on the stage and sang. You didn’t think about it too much. You just did it. So, for me, I find a great deal of magic in the demo vocal. And just because I have a record deal now, I don’t see the need in changing my approach. I’m a true believer of, “if it feels good, roll with it,” as far as music is concerned. So, that’s why I decided to keep the demo vocals.
Although you cut your musical teeth in the church, at what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
When I was five. I just knew that I didn’t want to do anything else. I just remember thinking my mum’s piano was a brown spaceship. When I started playing it, I became obsessed and completely overwhelmed by the fact that there was this amazing sound coming out of it. From then on, I knew I wanted to do something creative. When I was eleven, that’s when I found my voice. I was singing in church. And I remember knowing, instantly, and almost in a very scary way, that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t have a choice.
Was there a particular song you were singing where you made that realization?
It was called “My Jesus, My Savior” [by Michael W. Smith]. When I sang that song, I remember thinking: I’m going to be a singer. [begins to sing] “My Jesus, My Saviour, Lord there is no one like you, All of my days, I want to praise the wonders of Your mighty love.”
Coming from a musical family, what experience from those early years do you think really shaped and developed you as a solo artist? At one point, I know you and your brothers and sisters had a band, and you were also in a funk band around the age of fourteen.
I think spontaneity and confidence in performance is something that I learned along the way; because I wasn’t ever really shy. If anyone ever said to me, “Sing now,” for me it was like second nature because I’d been performing all my life as part of a lifestyle. That really helped me to just love the art of performing and to be confident in my talent. And really, the fact that I was learning classical music, as well as the gospel-improvised side; the two worlds helped me respect music.
Yeah, I read that you turned down a chance to study law at Oxford. Since you are acutely aware of legal matters, is there a particular contractual or legal issue that you would warn upcoming artists about, perhaps from personal experience?
Oh, yeah. We’re living in the age of 360 deals. So every artist needs to be very careful and create parameters on what the 360 deal entails. The record company nowadays—because they’re not making much money off of record sales—they will try and take percentages on your touring or your merchandise. But you have to make sure that you define what your merchandise is, what your touring is, because if you don’t define it, ten years from now, when you do a comic book—which is what I’m doing—an issue will arise about whether that is considered merchandise? So I have to make sure that I create specific definitions, within my contracts, to make sure that it’s very clear on what is owned and what isn’t.
All business aside, however, there is more to the industry than the material rewards. You were once quoted as saying “art is like internal Buddhism.”
Yes. You have to find peace in what you do and not validate it by commercial constraints and statistical things that can cause you to sway left to right. In spite of what’s going on around you, you must be self-assured and at peace with who you are and what you produce.
Considering the current crop of R&B divas, you break the mold– visually and sonically. What other molds do you hope to smash?
I want to be viewed as a renaissance woman. I am striving to be a powerful creative force, both inside and outside of the music world. For me, it is very important to push to boundaries, shift perceptions and defy stereotypes. I can do anything!
For more information on V.V. Brown, visit her official website.