It's 8:30am in New York City, and Vanessa "VV" Brown is wide awake and beaming. It's not just because she'll be playing her first sold-out headline show at the infamous Bowery Ballroom later, or that back in the UK, her appearance in an M&S TV campaign has propelled her into that unique league of singer who can cross over from critically acclaimed to commercially viable, all without losing their credibility. Rather, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is fondly remembering that this time last year she was preparing for festival season off the back of her singles "Crying Blood" and "Leave!", both as playfully quirky as that trademark quiff of hers, and responsible for injecting retro-pop into the musical sphere at a time when every other up-and-coming starlet (Little Boots, La Roux) to emerge in 2009 was riding on the electro revival. "It seems so far away, but it was only a year ago," she gushes, smiling brightly. "It's crazy the speed things are going, the acceleration. It's unbelievable. Every moment I have to pinch myself and just embrace the present. I'm very grateful, enjoying the moment."
While developing herself as something of a trendy muso, mixed reviews of her eclectic debut, Travelling Like the Light, followed (it peaked at No 30 in the UK album charts), which could have been worrisome for the 26-year-old from Northampton, had she not learned the lessons from her first shot at the music industry in 2006. Back then, she was pitched as an R&B singer who looked and sounded great, but arrived at a time when black girls with great voices weren't really such a big deal. So her decision to work her music in the US this year while flogging a new graphic novel back home isn't just a frivolous afterthought; it's a calculated business venture intended to prove that Brand VV is no novelty, and she's not just a pretty face either.
"I think the first time I got signed, I never thought about having to do anything," she admits as she settles her modelesque 5ft 11in frame into a taxi headed towards a local radio station in the city. "I think the second time round, it's definitely obvious I've become a bit more business savvy, which comes with maturity. But my main concern with being an artist now is to do what I feel is right for me as an artist, and to be free and to be true. I've always been interested in comic-book writers like Alan Moore – he was from Northampton, so he was a huge inspiration to me."
The City of Abacus is a collaborative comic-book series with film director and illustrator David Allain, who directed her video for "Crying Blood" and has also created promos for The Ting Tings, The Rascals and Frankmusik. It tells the story of an orphaned teenager named Freeda who lives in a city where all forms of creativity have been stifled by the evil Queen Virosos, who controls the minds of the citizens with an MX-41 mixer. Freeda is keen to break from the norm, and the next few novels will unveil her masterplan for saving the city's people. As it so happens, the heroine possesses Brown's hairdo, which she explains was done to connect her to the novel – but it also shows that she shares the revolutionary sentiments of the lead character. "It's a chance for me to express a more political side, which sometimes I don't have the chance to do when I'm making pop and mainstream music. It's a chance to exercise this philosophical itch that I always had in me."
Queen Virosos's dictatorship is a metaphor for modern society and what the singer says is an obsession with the rapid growth of technology and celebrity culture. "I'm concerned with how technology is numbing children's minds and making them less focused on doing more organic things like playing outside on their bicycles," she frowns. "And Twitter is constantly massaging the egos of people... they're becoming internalised and quite self-consumed. There's also our obsession with celebrity culture. It's like this collective state where we're just worshipping people who are no different from ourselves."
But doesn't her own growing fame add to the issue, too? She has, after all, graced billboards across the country, not to mention the pages of Vogue magazine. "Anyone who knows me or follows me as an artist or as a person, comes to my gigs, meets me backstage, works with me, knows that I always tell them that I am no different to them," she says firmly. "The Marks & Spencer thing I did was clearly because I'm very proud to be a part of that brand – and everyone needs to wear lovely clothes, so why not promote that? But for me, even though I'm in the public eye, I don't see it in the sense that I'm famous. People will judge from a distance and people have, trust me, every day. But I just give people the opportunity to dive into my mind, dive into my world as a person and you'll soon realise that we all poo, we all vomit, we all sleep, we all die; and this comic book is a reflection of that philosophy for me."
It's hard to ignore how driven Brown is, a quality which was first developed as the oldest of six siblings; she wrote songs as a five-year-old, and later put on mini-fundraisers to sell McDonald's Happy Meal toys for a quid a pop when she was 13. "We made £100!" she giggles. Her Puerto Rican father and Jamaican mother were her biggest inspirations, both teachers who started their own private school in Northampton in the Eighties, which she attended. "They made me think that nothing could get in my way, because if they could own a private school as a black couple in a country that's majority white, and at around the time when it was quite racist, and still be very successful people, then the world was my oyster."
At 14 she sang in a gospel choir, before it disbanded. However, the backing band moved to London, recruiting Brown to front it as their lead singer. She commuted until she decided to move to the capital in 2001 to launch her musical career, and enjoyed a stint singing backing vocals for Madonna and Westlife and writing for girl bands, before moving to the US in 2003 to work on her debut album. Fast forward through the failed deal with Polydor, a non-existent LP and a head-hanging return to the UK from California. She took a couple of years to get back on track with "Crying Blood", inspired by a bad relationship in LA and written with a one-string guitar she bought at a charity shop. Since then, she's been scouted by Diddy, who tried to sign her to his Bad Boy label, joined Damon Albarn for his Africa Express project, appeared on loads of television shows in the UK and US and has even made her mark in France. Though she's on a break from recording music, she imagines her next album will be inspired by her recent travels to Africa. "I don't want people to think I'm a slave to the retro," she points out. "That was just a part of my life where I was just interested in that sound, which is why I like to call my music alternative pop music."
Although she's still fulfilling her musical duties by touring with Pink this month and planning to hit the road with Maroon 5 in the US this summer, other future projects include managing VV Vintage, her online clothing store, developing The City of Abacus into a movie and video game and also publishing her first novel. "There's talkers and there's doers, and it's the doers that get put under the umbrella of entrepreneurs," she says. "For me, when I have a creative idea, I don't just sit on it and talk about it all day. I do it. It's not gonna be just this singer/songwriter V V Brown. There's gonna be many different projects coming out of my head."
Brown credits hip-hop entrepreneurs like Jay-Z and Diddy for inspiring her driven approach to her career. "They came from nothing," she points out. "Nobody would help them, nobody gave them a leg up. They understand the struggle. When no one was giving them anything, they didn't just make something, they made empires. So Jay-Z is someone that I look up to." Does she think she's struggled? "It has been a struggle for me to break down certain boundaries," she nods. "People are going to say 'no' to you all the time, but what they don't understand is that they're dealing with a warrior. I'm a very strong woman and I refuse to lose."
She doesn't plan to quit pop anytime soon either. "What is pop anyway? It's popular culture, isn't it? I love pop music, but maybe I'll have a break – get married, have children. It's very important for me to have things in my life that are real: God, understanding myself, friends and family. Part of that is getting married and having kiddies with a very hot man!" She giggles. "I'm a very free spirit and hopefully the person I end up with will be just as free and experimental and creative."
'The City of Abacus' is available to buy at Thecityofabacus.comReuse content