Who is VV Brown? She is the latest in a seemingly never-ending conga line of British pop starlets to sashay across the Atlantic to perform on our late night talk shows, dazzle us with fabulously self-styled outfits, and subject themselves to interviews with our gay music bloggers.
Brown, who is 25, released her debut album Travelling Like The Light in the UK last summer and was immediately branded ‘one to watch’ by several mainstream media outlets. Her first few singles – “Shark In The Water”, “Crying Blood” and “LEAVE!” – energetically blend classic soul and blues influences with indie rock hooks and R&B swagger.
Ahead of the album’s official US street date in April (it’s already available for download), Brown has been hitting the North American club and talk show circuit to drum up interest. It was in a Washington, D.C. hotel room a couple weeks ago that we reached VV via phone to chat about writing the songs for Travelling Like the Light on a one-string guitar, her forthcoming comic book and her trip to Nigeria with Damon Albarn’s band Gorillaz. Read the Q&A after the jump.
The music video for “Shark in the Water” by VV Brown.
What do you do to prepare for a live performance?
I’m a little bit disorganized in the sense that there’s no process or procedure. I was raised in a Pentecostal Church where you didn’t sip lemon and tea and meditate and do ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’ and vocal warm-ups. You just went on the stage and got on with it. So that’s how I am: I just make sure that I can hear myself and get on with it. [laughs]
How long have you been performing?
Since I was 11.
Can you tell me about your first performance ever?
I was in a talent contest and I played the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist and I sang a song called “Consider Yourself”, which is from the musical Oliver Twist. And I came second in a talent contest and I was absolutely devastated.
When you were younger, you signed with an American label that tried to mold you into an “R&B diva”.
Yeah, I think I was just very young and impressionable and didn’t quite know who I was as an artist yet and so I was swamped by this huge major label that was trying to work out who I was. And I would tell any artist from what I’ve learned, if you don’t know who you are as an artist, you will get tossed like a Caesar salad. So you’ve got to know your identity. I think how they were trying to turn me into this R&B diva and that was never me. I was always very geeky and interested in playing chess and was quite shy off stage.
So you basically had managers and label people telling you ‘wear this’ and ‘look like this’?
Well, it doesn’t really happen to me know. I kind of tell them eff off if they try and tell me what to wear. Not in a rude way, but you know, in the past it was really weird people telling me what I had to wear and all those kind of things. When I look back on it know I can’t believe that I went ahead with it because I’m so hands on with my project now. I produced my own record, I write my own songs, I buy my own clothes for the gigs, and I have my own style.
You’ve said that the way you recorded the album represents where you’re from. What did you mean by that?
When I was in LA, I needed to go back to England to find myself again because that was where I was from. Listening to the old Brit bands and being surrounded by English culture really helped me find myself. The whole process of the album and my music is celebrating that British culture ⎯ the punk side.
I think when it comes to music and people it’s about honesty and sincerity and it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if the record feels like its real and sincere, it will connect with any person. Because they’ll be interested in finding out about you as a person and they’ll be able to feel is connected o you personality. If you and I went out to dinner, we’re from different parts of the world, but I’m intrigued by how you’ve been raised because you are who you are. If you were fake, for instance, and you were acting strange, me being a very spiritual person, I probably would pick it up and not really want to get to know you. My album… it’s something that I worked on with the biggest producers in the world who give me songs. This is my blood, sweat and tears.
You wrote the album on a one-string guitar. Did you have one lying around the house or was it something you went out and bought in a shop?
I bought it in a shop. It was in a charity store and it cost about $20. I’m not the best guitarist, so I felt really limited in writing songs because I only know about five chords and that’s not really enough to write a song. I’m a classically-trained pianist so I was used to knowing all the chords… so only being able to know five made me feel impatient. When I took off all the strings, except for this one, I could use the bass notes to go anywhere I wanted to go.
How fast can you play it?
Quite fast. Not like, hillybilly fast, but enough to make people be like, “what the BEEP”!
Do you ever play it live?
Yeah I do it live and when we did the UK tour there was a part of the set where we did “Crying Blood” acoustic and it was me on the one string and a guy on the box.
VV Brown performs an acoustic version of “Crying Blood”.
You are also working on a graphic novel and you contributed to another graphic novel that was published last year called CTRL.ALT.SHIFT. What are your contributions to these projects?
Sketches and writing, but I work alongside a guy called David Allaine. It’s me and David baby really. We work together on the sketches and the story and CTRL.ALT.SHIFT was a charity project that tries to raise awareness [around corruption] for young people and the comic book that me and David are doing is very political.
It’s about this girl called Freda ⎯ hence the world freedom ⎯ and she’s going on a long, Lord of the Rings-esque journey about enlightening a city. They don’t know what creativity is, they don’t know what paintbrushes are ⎯ or anything that can liberate their mind or allow them to be creative has been banned. And they get scanned by this machine called the MX41 every Friday. It’s a long, epic journey of her liberating the City of Abacus, which is the name of the comic. It’s the coolest story ever and we’re just hoping to put out the graphic novel at the end of the year and from May onwards there’ll be a series of comic books leading to the graphic novel. And hopefully 2011 or 2012 we’ll be starting an animation. it will be available to buy online from the 6th of May.
Where does your interest in political subject matter come from?
I think it’s been instilled in me. My parents are teachers. My mum teaches history, English and religious education and my dad also teaches. I’ve had quite an academic upbringing where my dad always read the newspaper to me when I was younger. I think that allowed me to question a lot about life and be interested in philosophy and politics and things like that.
Who are your favorite authors or books have you read lately?
I like Elephants on Acid. I’m really bad with the name of authors. Elephants on Acid is about all the science experiments in history that people have forgotten about… I’m reading a book at the moment called What On Earth Happened in Greece by Christopher Lloyd. I like to read about science. There’s a book called Blink which is a wicked book. You spend a lot of time on airplanes or on tour buses so it’s in those moments where you can read or get ideas or listen to music or just chill, be silent.
Do you ever think about how some artists or filmmakers never quite live up to their first few albums or movies? Perhaps because as they become more famous ⎯ like we talked about earlier ⎯ they loose that connection with the audience. Do you think that can happen to artists when they hit a certain level?
Sometimes it does happen to artists and the reason why artists do have successful sophomore albums or movies is because they never forget about the beginning. First of all, I write as a lifestyle. I write songs every day. I don’t stop. When it comes to my second album, I’m already going to have over 100 songs that I’ve written based upon real emotions ready to go. You have your whole life to write your first album but then when you have your second, everyone expects you to condense it all down into eight months. If you are continuously writing as a lifestyle, it’s like your first album.
No matter how many albums I sell, I need to always go back to the beginning so wouldn’t want to work in a posh recording studio that’s worth thousands of thousands dollars or pounds. Sometimes what happens with artists is money changes people ⎯ they did their first record in a shitty studio and their second one is in, like, the most expensive studio ever. How are you supposed to get that energy back? That grit back? Even if I sell a million records, I’ll always go back to the beginning to try and recreate that same spark. I’ll tell you what; the guy that really inspires me is Damon Albarn from Gorillaz.
Have you met him before?
He’s a really good friend of mine. I went to Nigeria with him and a whole load of other musicians. For me, he is the meaning of that concept. He writes all the time and he always goes back to the beginning, which is why every Gorillaz record you get it feels like the first one. It still has that essence.
What’s your favorite Blur album or song?
“Song 2”, it’s real Brit pop punk.
Where were you in your life when that song came out?
I was middle school when that came out, which is really funny because we’re friends. And when he was doing that, I was like, a little girl. I think I saw it on MTV and I just loved the video and how they were jumping all over the place and I think I was jumping around with them in that cool room that everything was made out of carpet.
So what was that trip to Nigeria all about?
Every year Damon Albarn and I guy called Steven Budd invite a whole load of new musicians to go to Africa and just hang out and play music. And I got invited to go and we just ended up playing in the garden and meeting the people in the village. We ended up doing a massive concert with Fela Kuti’s son Femi Kuti. It was me, Damon, the rapper from the UK called Kano, Bashy, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Magic Numbers. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I’ve made lifelong friends out of it. We were on a disgusting shitty bus riding through the African village and there’s Damon Albarn sitting next to me and we’re just chatting and laughing. It was just the best time ever.
VV Brown Spring 2010 North American tour dates (with Little Dragon):
March 21 – Charlotte @ The Milestone
March 22 – Charlottesville @ Rapture/ R2
March 23 – Philadelphia @ Johnny Brendas
March 24 – Washington, DC @ Liv Nightclub
March 25 – Brooklyn @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
March 28 – Allston @ Great Scott
March 29 – Montreal @ Club Lambi
March 30 Toronto @ – Wrongbar
April 1 – Chicago @ Lincoln Hall
April 2 – Iowa City @ Blue Moose Tap House
April 3 – Omaha @ Slowdown
April 5 – Denver @ Bluebird
April 6 – Salt Lake City @ Urban Lounge
April 9 – Seattle @ Nectar Lounge
April 11 – Bellingham @ The Wild Buffalo
April 12 – Portland @ Mississippi Studios
April 13 – San Francisco @ Independent
April 14 – San Francisco @ Independent