VV Brown: The singer who never gives up
VV Brown's early pop career didn't really take off. Now, with a new album out, she cares more about her artistry than sales, she tells Nick Duerden
Four years ago, VV Brown was hailed the UK's most exciting pop newcomer for pertinent reasons. She was a singer-songwriter who sounded nothing like the singer songwriters du jour (Adele, Amy Winehouse, Duffy), but rather a mutant concoction of her own imagining. Her music was bright and zany, doo-wop with a dollop of R&B and plenty of cartoon pop. Her debut single, “Crying Blood”, had such zing it warranted its own exclamation mark; a later single boasted just that (“Leave!”). She looked the part, too: a statuesque six-foot, beautiful and possessed of Grace Jones' cheekbones. She was intelligent and erudite; the broadsheets loved her. A sure thing, then. Her album, Travelling Like The Light, was set to be massive.
It tanked. Okay, strictly speaking, it didn't tank – not quite. It entered the charts, quietly, at number 16, while the singles all underperformed. She has pondered on this unexpected turn of events ever since. And what conclusions has she drawn?
A weary shrug is offered. “Oh, I don't know. Some things happen, some things don't,” she sighs, not quite philosophically. “It did go to number one in France, though.”
This was not Brown's first experience with pop failure. Five years previously, while based in Los Angeles, she had recorded an album for a major label that never saw the light of day. Depressed, she then returned to the UK, and wrote singles for the likes of Pussycat Dolls and Sugababes, but still she wanted to be an artist in her own right, and appreciated accordingly.
“Back then, my whole life was about statistics, chart positions, being liked, validation,” she says. “But not now. This new album is purely an artistic statement. I hope people like it, of course, but it's not about selling millions of records anymore. It's about having a voice, an authentic voice.”
She has called the new album Samson & Delilah, she says, because, “when Delilah cut off Samson's hair, he lost his strength. When my first album didn't sell, and I left my record label, I felt like I'd lost all my strength, too. But I've grown it back now.” To illustrate this, she points to a well-behaved fringe, beneath which her chocolate drop eyes blaze. “I'm strong again.”
Vanessa Brown had sashayed into this East London restaurant a comfortable half hour late, offering a breezy apology, placing her handbag on the floor, her mobile phone on the table, and ordering a cranberry juice. She looks fabulous: endlessly tall and rangy, her mouth settled into a natural pout between those enviable cheekbones of hers.
Over the next hour, she will smile and laugh a lot, and she comes across as rather dreamy, a woman who still finds her newfound, and hard-won, serenity a novelty. Her deportment, however, is distinctly at odds to the music she is currently making; those that think they know VV Brown from Travelling Like The Light are in for a surprise. When she calls Samson & Delilah a “total reinvention”, she is not overstating matters. Anything but. Imagine if Radiohead had followed up OK Computer with an album's worth of Gangnam Style malarkey. Gone is the breezy Day-Glo pop in favour of wraparound gothic electronica, and an awful lot of sonic brooding. It is a brave, at times suffocating, record.
“It's funny, because personally I'm happier than I think I've ever been,” she says. “You know, I'm in a long-term relationship [her boyfriend is an art director], and I'm madly in love. But musically, I realised that I wanted to do things that are heavy, intense and serious.”
And so gone too is her Loony Tunes vocal style, replaced with a low Annie Lennox-ish warble, and a determination to enunciate every vowel in every song, as if every song were an operatic aria.
“I've learned the beauty of the 'O' sound,” she says, explaining that her new material necessitated such methodical, such deliberately artful, delivery. These aren't just songs she is singing; this is her laying her inner turmoil to rest, ideally in pursuit of eventual catharsis. At first, she found this new vocal style challenging, “but now it's natural, and I sing like this all the time – in the studio, around the house. My boyfriend keeps telling me to shut up.”
Brown has been singing all her life. Her parents – her father is from Puerto Rico, her mother from Jamaica – settled in the UK in the 1960s, and opened their own independent school in Northamptonshire, at which all their children – they had six – excelled. Vanessa, the eldest, was poised to study law at university when she realised her only true calling in life was music, so she decamped to LA, quietly confident of becoming a superstar in due course. When she returned five years later, she wasn't perhaps quite as destitute as she subsequently claimed – it is suggested that, once back in London, she re-taught herself to write songs on a one-stringed guitar because she couldn't afford three strings – but nevertheless was thoroughly dejected.
“I'm a sensitive person and things affect me deeply,” she says. “And my whole career to date, it seems, has been a constant rollercoaster ride.”
After her album's poor performance, Brown, still signed to her label, returned to the studio to record a follow-up. Though by this stage she was beginning to listen to more avant-garde music - she cites The xx and The Knife as major influences – her new material still mirrored the Mexican jumping bean flavour of her debut, a style that increasingly jarred. “It just didn't feel right, and I no longer wanted to commit to it – so I didn't.”
The last time she walked away from a deal, in Los Angeles, her lawyer suggested she'd be blacklisted, and might never work again. To do so twice was surely tempting fate? She smiles pertly. “Well, I suppose, yes, they could have been very angry, but somehow they weren't. It was strange, but they were so nice to me.”
The freedom brought relief, and with it a sense that she could now take all the risks she'd ever craved. Which she duly did. First, she set up her own fashion label, VV Vintage, which operates out of a tiny office in Dalston, East London, then founded a record label, and began to lay down the ruminative foundations for Samson & Delilah.
“This record for me is all about reinvention and starting over,” she says. “I'm 29, on the cusp at 30, and about to become a woman properly. I've changed.”
And, she suggests, she may well change again four more years down the line. People do.
“Maybe I'll discover another brand new sound, or maybe I'll go off and have loads of kids and set up a music school in the countryside.”
She finishes her cranberry juice, then peers at the ice left at the bottom of the glass, as if for inspiration. “Who knows? I'll just go with the wind, and see what happens.”
VV Brown's new single, “Samson”, is released on 14 July, while her album 'Samson & Delilah' follows in September, both on YOY Records
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