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

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players