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Interview: YolanDa Brown

DOUBLE MOBO award winning saxophonist, YolanDa Brown is widely regarded as the emerging voice of mainstream jazz in the UK, fusing jazz, soul, reggae, funk and R&B with stylish energy and stunning performances.

She has toured with Motown icons, The Temptations, Errol Brown and Diana Krall and collaborated with artists such as Mica Paris, Soweto Kinch and as part of Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra.

YolanDa also provides support to young musicians through her work with the Prince’s Trust and as patron of the Mayor of London’s Fund for Young Musicians. After recently becoming a mother, she is now back touring with her daughter in the wings and a new studio album in the pipeline for next year.

Gemma Brosnan catches up with YolanDa Brown to find out more

Gemma: You’ve been touring for the past few months, how’s that going?

YolanDa: Really well, we’ve been on the road since May and it’s been really refreshing to be back with a new set after a great rehearsal beforehand

Gemma: How different is for you playing to a festival crowd rather than a concert or more jazz venue?

YolanDa: I think the main difference is the formality, if it’s a traditional concert or jazz venue then the audience they tend to be more dressed up as they think of it more as a sophisticated evening out whereas at a festival everyone is a bit more excitable so you can really let go and relax as the majority of the audience see many different types of shows and are so open minded and free about the kind of music they are exposed to.

Gemma: Do you sometimes feel there is an elitist misconception surrounding jazz that alienates it from the mainstream?

YolanDa: Yes, I think you’re right, definitely. In my concerts I mix in soul and funk so it’s not strictly jazz, but that’s another great thing about festivals, it introduces jazz to a whole different kind of audience that might not be interested in going to a jazz club or listening to those stations at home.

Gemma: What’s your favourite part about being on the road and getting the opportunity to perform live for your fans?

YolanDa: I love to travel and meet new people so getting the chance to meet new audiences, new people and exploring the sights of the different cities we go to really suits my passions.

Gemma: Have there been any memorable highlights on this tour?

YolanDa: The variety of the venues and being able to give workshops to young musicians before the shows and meet the audience afterwards which I do at the end of all of my shows as hearing their responses can be just as good as the show itself for me.

Gemma: You have often been named as an influential role model to young people and you’re also patron of the Mayor of London’s Fund for Young Musicians. How important is for you to have a positive influence on young people who might not have the chance to follow a career path as a musician?

YolanDa: It’s really, really important for me. I know what it’s like growing up as a young musician, I was never given the information or even inspiration to say ‘you could do this as a job’, it was always extra-curricular and I wish I’d been told more so it’s important for me to give back as I go along rather than waiting until I take a break. It’s great that I can be working with the Prince’s Trust and Mayor’s fund and now I’m also starting my own foundation where we award four students from the University of East London to launch a career in music which is great as young musicians are so passionate about music and where they can go with it. I know at the Windsor Festival we’re also going to be playing to the students beforehand so I’m really excited.

Gemma: What inspired you to become a saxophonist out of all the other instruments on offer at school?

YolanDa: I played the drums, violin and piano and I really wanted to play a wind instrument so I picked up the saxophone at 13 – which is quite late for a musician – but it was an instrument I’d listened to along the way and always found it so soulful and expressive. I had lessons for about a year, but really taught myself as I just wanted to play rather than play scales or learn theory as I really enjoyed expressing myself through the instrument. It wasn’t until later on that I joined a band after university and realised that it was something I could do full time.

Gemma: Who were your greatest musical influences around that time?

YolanDa: I listened to a lot of Cannonball Adderley as the tenor saxophone was my first instrument which has a nice mellow tone rather than the more screechy sax you get in a lot of pop songs so I was playing quite moody music at the age of 13. I also loved Kirk Whalum who had a wonderful tone and a female saxophonist Candy Dulfer who I listened to a lot when I was younger.

Gemma: Who are you listening to now?

YolanDa: I really like to listen to a wide range of artists, I love the way Monty Alexander mixes jazz with reggae, Kenny Garrett and in terms of recent stuff, the likes of Aloe Black and Bruno Mars.

Gemma: Any dream collaborations?

YolanDa: I would love to work with Sting or Bob Marley if it was a case of anyone dead or alive.

Gemma: You released a live album last year, do you have a studio album you’re working on at the moment?

YolanDa: We do, yes, we’re just having a little bit of a break before we come to Windsor Festival, but I’m writing and recording and we’ll have the album ready by next year to release and tour.

Gemma: I know you also became a mother recently as well. How easy is it to combine motherhood with touring?

YolanDa: That was my main worry when I was deciding to have children – will three months on the road be ok – but she’s been on the road with us and she’s been fantastic, on aeroplanes, the bus and she’s really enjoyed the shows which has been brilliant so at the moment I’m on cloud nine enjoying being a Mum and not missing a moment so I’m really grateful for that.

Gemma: In what ways has becoming a mother inspired your music?

YolanDa: I didn’t think it would, but I do feel more mature and the music speaks differently to me now, even when I revisit and revamp certain songs, they just feel different and I was also touring while I was pregnant so I have a lot of memories in the music.

Gemma: You’re won two MOBOS – ‘Best Jazz Act’ in 2008 and 2009, your last album ‘April Showers May Flowers’ released in February 2012 achieved a place on the UK iTunes ‘Best Jazz Album’ list. What has been your personal career highlight?

YolanDa: You’ve definitely listed the highlights, releasing an album is quite nerve-wracking but very rewarding once it goes out and in terms of touring, touring with The Temptations and going to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen was also a nice parallel.

Gemma: Looking back when you what advice would have given yourself when starting out in the industry?

YolanDa: What I tell myself now every day is just be yourself. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure in the industry to be a certain way and with social networking everything moves a lot quicker now in terms of releasing something or putting yourself out there so my main advice is just be yourself and that way you can hold your head up high and speak to people honestly and be true to you and then the music stays to true to you too and someone somewhere in the world will take you on and like it.

YolanDa Brown plays Windsor Festival Monday, September 15. For more information and tickets go to www.windsorfestival.com [1]