A million records sold worldwide, a career that spans over 15 years and a roller coaster ride career with stories ranging from Cheeseburgers with Stevie Wonder, performing with Grace Jones and modelling for huge chain Marks and Spencers. V V Brown has seen and experienced quote a lot.
“If Björk and Grace Jones had a lesbian experience and managed to have a baby, I hope I’d be that!
The 31-year-old from rural Northamptonshire is lots of other things, too. A survivor. A striver. A Marks & Spencer model. A role model to other young black women. A musician who’s been dealing with record labels and been embroiled in the music industry for almost half her life. A singer who loved her big pop moment, when her hit 2009 single Shark in The Water helped her debut album Travelling Like The Light sell one million copes in the US alone, as well as propelling her to the top of the charts in France.
She’s also: a songwriter-for-hire (as Pussycat Dolls and Sugababes will attest). A fearless, do-or-die creative (as her decision to shelve her second album, Lollipops & Politics, will attest). A conceptual artist (as her last, biblical narrative album, Samson & Delilah, will attest). A filmmaker. An arresting live performer. A one-woman hive of industry. An innovator who, rather than be derailed by glitches, is inspired by them.
“I never want to feel entitled to be a successful musician,” begins this songwriter who started fending off record company interest aged just 15, rebuffed attempts by Puff Daddy to sign her to Bad Boy, and who spent her 19th year living, alone, in Los Angeles, signed to Interscope. “But there is a frustration in me that I don’t feel like I’ve reached what I wanted to reach. Even though I’m happy and peaceful with what I’m doing, there’s a war of frustration and peace.
In brief sum, V V’s storied musical journey goes something like this:
“I was obsessed with becoming a musician from a young age. It consumed me. It was a weird focus; at times my mum would be worried about how obsessed I was, and how strong my convictions were. I felt like I couldn’t really do anything else. It was just so strong.
“Music is part of who I was. Even now it’s scary to think about not having it. It’s like not having an arm or a leg. It’s annoying at times ’cause I’m a slave to music. It sounds really cheesy but I can’t do anything else.
“And when I was 14, my mum took me to London, to recording studios – and I got the taste then of wanting to do it for a career, when I was in a punk band.”
That punk band jostled with the other elements of V V’s DNA. She was classically trained on piano, and she played trumpet. She also grew up in the church. “So I had two very polarised experiences – this very vibrant, improvised Pentecostal music background, and this very rigid classical background. But it was kinda great ’cause I was able to dip in and out.”
From the age of 12 she began writing “little tinkery songs”, and exploring her singing. “I had a soft voice, but it was punk that made me start shouting. I think I’ve always been a rebel. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge, pushing myself into something that I’m not comfortable in.”
A good thing, as it would turn out. Signed by Interscope at the age of 18, V V flew to LA. A year later, she flew back, having released not a drop of music and having been dropped, already.
“It broke my heart really. I was supposed to go to Oxford to do law, so my mum and dad were already really nervous. So I was 18, alone in LA, and things were not quite happening the way I thought they would happen… I learnt so many lessons about being an artist.
“That was a very, very, very, very, difficult time,” she says intently. “I feel like I’ve lived seven lives. Each one has such a strong defining feeling about it – and feels totally different, without any gradual transition from one to the other.”
Recently, she adds, she’s been drawing on her experiences as a guest lecturer on the Popular Music course at London’s Goldsmiths. Which is typical V V: alchemising something base and shit into something valuable.
Back in London post-LA she defied the advice of those close to her (even her lawyer suggested that had been her one and only chance to get a record deal) and dived into the underground gig scene. Writing songs and performing around town she ran into other up-and-coming talents – people like Paloma Faith, Amy Winehouse and Shingai Shoniwa, future singer with Noisettes.
Soon she had another record deal, with Island.
“My music has changed dramatically since then,” she says of 2009’s Travelling Like The Light, a vibrant collection of doo-wop, “Fifties punk” and dance-pop. “But it’s part of my history, and I’m very grateful for it. I still don’t think I’d found myself as an artist yet, though. It was almost like I was at university, experimenting, whilst having a record deal, stage 2!” she smiles. “But it was great. We sold a lot of records and we toured the world. We toured with my favourite band, Little Dragon. It was a surreal time. I can’t really say anything but positive things. It was a different epoch, and I was still young, but it was a building block to where I am now…”
The success brought a modelling offer for the striking five-foot-ten woman with her own, distinctive style, for a high street brand.
“I was nervous ’cause Marks & Spencer obviously isn’t the coolest brand. But as a black woman, I felt it was my duty to do it. There’s not a lot of black faces in fashion. My mum said it was bigger than me, that it was important that I do this national campaign. And I got so many message from young black women saying that they now felt they could do modelling too.”
But musically, V V was still wrestling. She decided to mothball her second album, Lollipops & Politics, its sheer wrongheadedness typified for her by a $350,000, LA-shot video for the first single that was “shit”.
She knew that if the video came out, it would have meant only one thing: “I’d sold my soul to the devil.”
By easy, mutual agreement, she left Island. Then under her own steam and on her own dollar she made the album she wanted to make, Samson & Delilah (2013). “A massive passion project,” she beams, not least because she could relate to the source story of the strongman who’d lost his strength after being bedazzled by a beautiful woman who cut his hair. “My hair had been slowly cut, and I’d been mesmerised by success. But that wasn’t for me any more.”
V V didn’t care about money, or success. She only cared about making a collection of song she believed in. And having made the second album she wanted to make, “I felt… free,” she smiles. “I felt happy.”
It was the perfect beginnings for Glitch. She and Nearly Native began writing and recording in Hackney last April, and finished in December. She and the producer/guitarist – who she discovered on SoundCloud – clicked immediately, and worked together easily, instinctively, prolifically. A lot of the songs are, melodically, single takes.
“The album is called Glitch ’cause I’ve had many glitches!” she says with something like pride. “And I continue to get over the glitches. And also the album sounds quite glitchy – I like that fragmented sound.”
“I’m addicted to being challenged. Over the course of making this album there was a lot of internal fighting,” she admits. “It’s that thing when you turn 30, and you really reflect on your life. Samson & Delilah was all about finding strength – and this album is about holding on to it. You can hear the exhaustion, and jolts in my mind and body, squeezing tight to every bit of hope I have left of surviving my own rebellion. That’s what this album is about. How am I gonna deal with this change?
“So there’s definitely hope. But it’s a war of hope and fear,” she smiles again, content in the knowledge that she wouldn’t have it any other way. “That’s what it is. A total pendulum. But now I’ve finished the record,” concludes the self-fulfilling, self-propelling V V Brown, “I feel peace again.”