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 and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'