YolanDa Brown - Sax appeal

YolanDa Brown won two Mobo jazz awards and topped the charts. Yet, she tells Emily Jupp, music still has to compete with racing-cars and a PhD

Ever since she was small, YolanDa Brown has been fascinated with music, and racing driving, and speaking different languages, and travelling. So when she grew up, the natural choice was to become a management consultant.

The 30-year-old has two master's degrees, speaks fluent Spanish and, in 2009, while she was diligently working on her PhD thesis in management science, she started to believe that maybe her childhood passion for music could be a reality. That year Brown became the first person ever to win at the Jazz category of the Mobo awards two years running. But management consultancy “was always the plan”, so she stuck with it.

“I didn't know that music was going to be a career. I used to just play for myself and I was always very shy about it and people were saying, ”you could make some money from this you know“ and I was like, ”I don't really want to,“ she exclaims in an east-London accent. ”I found music very therapeutic. To process my feelings, instead of writing in a diary, I would play my saxophone. So for me music was very personal, the idea of taking that personal thing onto a stage was strange to me. Then, one day in summer, I had the windows open and I was playing and I was very hot and sweaty and I heard applause. It was my neighbour, and he asked if I could play it again. Then I realised music was about sharing and, even though the sax doesn't have words, it's an incredibly powerful instrument and people want to share in the emotion you're expressing with it – so I shouldn't be so shy!“

Even now, Brown encounters some prejudice around her chosen career path. “Early on in my career as a saxophonist, a lot of my interviewers were like ”so you're a female...“ Her response was, ”so what?“

“There are only so many notes on a keyboard and I don't think a composition would change according to your gender.”

She then played a series of game-changing concerts, including a UK tour with The Temptations, a concert on the beach for the president of Jamaica, and a reception at The Winter Palace for the then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

“There was no way to plug things in, they had a string quartet to back me, and I thought, this is nice, but it's not exactly gonna rock the house!” she laughs. Instead of the lilting strings, she taught the band a reggae number, “the room changed, suddenly everyone was more relaxed and the guy on bass was putting so much effort in he broke a string.”

Eventually, she somewhat reluctantly put the PhD on hold and made an album, April Showers May Flowers, which shot straight to No1 in the UK jazz charts.

Brown's parents are Jamaican, and she grew up in Barking listening to her father's record collection, which contained “all different genres of music” including classical, rock, soul and reggae. Her parents indulged all her childhood passions, including a whole orchestra's worth of instruments, and her joining the Army Cadets and Cub Scouts (“I loved going out and shooting rifles... I loved the idea of the camping in the outdoors!”) but it wasn't until the age of 13 that she picked up the saxophone.

“I told my parents I wanted to play the saxophone and they said: ”Oh no! Here she goes again!“ but it just shows, you really need to encourage those childhood passions – because it might lead to a career”. Another of Brown's passions is encouraging young people to follow theirs. “Young people seem to be seeing the fame, but they don't understand the joy of just making music” she muses.

This week she was at the O2 Arena in support of the Spirit of London Awards, which celebrate the achievements of young Londoners, and she's also part of Plan UK, the Mayor of London's fund for young musicians. She is about to set up her own foundation for talented young musicians. She sees it as social responsibility.

“It's part and parcel of the job. When you're chasing record sales, young people look up to you, and you need their parents to approve of you so they can buy your music.” There are other aspects to being in the limelight that Brown, as a self-confessed tomboy, hasn't taken so easily to.

“I think glamming up is part of what the music industry requires. I have been to meetings where they say, 'what about this look?' and show me a picture of Grace Jones... well, I'd rather look like me. I have dresses made that I think are still appealing but quite modest. My skirts won't be getting any shorter any time soon.”

In fact, Brown is planning on spending a substantial part of next year devoid of glamour, as there's one more childhood dream she hasn't yet fulfilled. “I met Ron Dennis, the boss of the McLaren Formula 1 team, and I shot a music video in a Formula 3 car. We got talking and I'll be racing Minis next year and making a documentary about it and following my dream.”

Just like when she was a child, variety still attracts Brown. “They tour the races just like I tour my music, so one day I might be at an awards show and the next day I'll be on the track not having to do my make-up or my hair because I'll have my helmet on!” she says gleefully. But what about the PhD? “In the future I'd definitely like to finish it off,” she says. Let's hope she sticks with the sax long enough to make the next album.

YolanDa Brown's album, 'April Showers, May Flowers', is out now

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices