All it took was for me to hear the opening guitar riff in V.V. Brown‘s single “Shark In The Water” and I was in love. Then I heard the chorus. Words cannot express how insanely catchy that song’s hook is. The horn section! The layered vocals! The chord progression! The voice! The beat and groove! The guitar riff! The clapping! There is not one tiny thing wrong with that chorus. It is absolutely perfect. It serves its purpose: to get stuck in the listener’s head and have that person singing or humming along to the melody over and over all day long. That’s what it did to me upon hearing it the first time. “Shark In The Water” is still on repeat when I listen to it (over and over again). I am not only in love with the song, but in love with the woman singing it. Again, all it took was 20 minutes of conversing with V.V. Brown over the phone and my respect and admiration for her skyrocketed. V.V. Brown is by far my new favorite artist of 2010 and she should be yours as well.
Read on to hear what the British singer/songwriter had to say to The Dead Hub…
When did you decide to go from behind the scenes as a songwriter for other artists to being in front of the microphone?
“My focus was never to be behind the scenes,” says Brown. At the age of 14, Brown was playing in a punk band. By 18, she was offered a record deal and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career as a recording artist. The English songstress is refreshingly candid in her response that songwriting was quite simply, a means to an end. “Songwriting was a way to make money and to survive,” confesses Brown. Writing songs for other artists served as Brown’s primary mode of survival while patiently waiting for her time to shine in the spotlight.
When you do co-writes, do you have to work harder to get your point across?
“Not really,” replies Brown. However, when she was younger, Brown admits she “did not want to be rude” when working on songs with other writers who had more experience in the craft. Thankfully, V.V. is now at the point in her career where she feels comfortable being honest with her ideas and suggestions. “When it’s my album, I want to be verbal with my opinions because they matter,” says Brown. “90% of this album I wrote on my own.” The album in reference is 2010’s Travelling Like The Light. The record includes 12 songs, all of which were written by Brown with the exception of hit single “Shark In The Water.”
What is the writing process like for you? How does it start? Is it tough/easy?
“Back when I had no money, I would write songs using an old acoustic guitar,” says Brown. “Now I like to write around the piano.” Brown admits that a song idea can come just as easily to her upon hearing a beat in the studio that catches her attention. An avid fan of African music, V.V. finds musical inspiration in hearing random bits and pieces of African singers. “I heard a sample of an African man singing and wrote a song based around it in five minutes,” says Brown.
How did you get involved in the writing of “I Don’t Need A Man” by The Pussycat Dolls for their debut record PCD?
“That was completely by chance,” confesses Brown. “It was literally being in the right place at the right time. I was doing all the backing vocals for their first album. It was a job, strictly for survival.” Brown goes on to say that while she was recording her background parts in the vocal booth, a guy in the studio informed her that there was a section of the song not yet written. “Why don’t you have a go at it?” he asked Brown. Have a go at it she did. Brown took the opportunity and ran with it. The producers and co-writers of the song (including hitmaker Kara DioGuardi) liked what Brown had written and decided to keep her contribution in the final version. FYI: “I Don’t Need A Man” was always my favorite song off of The Pussycat Dolls’ debut record PCD. Now I know why…it was written by two of my favorite songwriters!
“Shark In The Water” is the only song on your record that you did not write. How did you find the song and what made you decide to record it?
Brown stresses that she tries her best to remain really open-minded when it comes to choosing songs to record. “I liked it when I heard it. It ended up being a good career move to record the song and put it on my album,” says Brown. “I don’t want to be a control freak or become arrogant. I want to be able to recognize a good song when I hear one and make good choices.” Brown actually prefers to collaborate. “I wrote most of the songs on Travelling Like The Light by myself because I didn’t have the resources to work with other musicians. With more money, comes more collaborations on my next album,” says Brown.
You wrote the music and play various instruments on your album Travelling Like The Light. Which instruments did you play on the record and which do you play during your live show?
“In my live show I play the trumpet, xylophone, the drums a bit…sometimes the melodica,” Brown says. Travelling Like The Light had V.V. doing her own programming via software programs Logic, Reason, and ProTools. Of course, there are studio musicians involved in the recording sessions. “I had a guy playing bass and another guy named Steve doing additional programming,” admits Brown. The 26-year-old goes on to say that you “do not necessarily need to be the best at your instrument to play on a record. I am far from being perfect at playing the guitar and did not have the best musicians in England playing on my songs.” Perfect playing is not what V.V. aims for. In fact, she is inclined to have her music sound just a tad messy. No complaints here!
As someone who can really sing, what do you think about Auto-Tune?
“I try to be open-minded, but I think Auto-Tune is bad if you cannot sing,” concedes Brown. “People will come to see you perform live and be like, ‘What the fuck?’ On the other hand, I think Auto-Tune can be good if used in a creative way.” Imogen Heap is one of Brown’s favorite artists and believes that Heap’s use of Auto-Tune is suitably justifiable. I couldn’t agree more.
What are your thoughts on those artists that lip-synch when their job as a performer means they should have to sing live?
“Hmm, people that lip-synch,” muses Brown. “It pisses me off. I think it’s a bit rude. After all, people pay lots of money to come and see you live.” V.V. considers those that lip-synch to be cheating their fans out of what they paid for and concludes with forceful finality that lip-synching is complete “bullshit.” However, Brown states that “I can see why someone would need or want to lip-synch a little bit if they are doing a lot of dancing.” In the end though, V.V. is all for hearing the singer breathe, for it only drives home the point that the artist is not faking it.
What do you sing and/or play around the house?
“I am in love with the band Little Dragon,” says Brown, who also lists Regina Spektor, Feist, and Imogen Heap as her favorite artists. “I have really become a fan of African music,” adds Brown. Having been classically trained on the piano while growing up, V.V. still listens to classical music and remains a devoted fan of composers Chopin and Stravinsky.
What were the first songs you learned to play on the piano?
Like the majority of young pianists at the beginning of their studies, Brown recalls learning how to play simple standards like “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.”
You took classical and jazz piano lessons at a musical arts school on the weekends while growing up. Do you still have a practice regimen to keep your piano chops up to par?
“My piano skills are going away, to be honest,” confesses Brown. “When you’re playing classical music, you have to practice all the time in order to play the music well. And of course, you’re never as good as when you are in the middle of taking your exams.” Having been classically trained on the piano myself from the age of 5 to 18, I can relate all too well to what Brown is discussing. “My skills as a trained pianist allow me to perform live and write songs,” says Brown. Correct chord and scale fingerings, the ability to read sheet music, and the speed at which she once could sight-read are among the skills gradually fading away from Brown’s memory. “When I am in my late 30s and married with kids, I want to be finished the pop star scene and have a career in film scoring,” admits Brown. This dream along with my question has V.V. reconsidering her practice regimen. “Maybe you have inspired me to start taking piano lessons again,” Brown tells me. Now I too, want to get back into my old practice routine and relearn the basics!
How did you initially break into the music industry after declining offered places at top UK universities?
“I was standing in a queue because I was auditioning for some “VH1 Divas” contest for TV,” Brown recalls. “I was just trying to make it to the last round.” According to V.V., while waiting to audition, a man approached her as she was humming and practicing. “I hadn’t even gone in to audition yet, and the guy hands me his business card,” says Brown. The man was from London Records and invited her to come visit the company’s office. Brown ended up taking 2nd place out of 5,000 girls who auditioned and was actually quite glad she did not come in 1st place. “I didn’t want to be the winner and have to be on TV,” admits Brown. For V.V., this audition process was a way to test herself and see just how far her talent could take her if she tried to make it in a world of wannabe pop star singers. Brown took the initiative and went to the office of London Records, where she began meeting various management companies. “There was a guy there named Will who believed in me,” recalls Brown. “Going to the London Records office was the door in that I needed. That first visit is what I believe catapulted my career. I played the people there a little demo of mine and that was it.” And the rest, as they say, is history…
How much of the music business did you understand before your career began? Did somebody play a mentor role in your life when it came to publishing and contracts?
“I got screwed over in the beginning,” Brown regrettably remembers. “Now I know everything and nobody can pull the wool over my head.” With profound determination, V.V. explains that she is an expert on tour budgets, planning sales strategies, and could easily work in A&R. Her advice for artists hoping not to get screwed? “Read books, talk to lawyers. I am a control freak. I want to know everything.” Brown wisely reads every disclosure agreement that crosses her path when licensing her songs for television shows. “I read everything before signing papers for TV,” Brown says. “People will try and tell me, ‘Oh, it’s just a typical standard release…they all say the same thing,’ but I don’t care. I read it anyway.”
How did you parents react to you choosing not to receive a higher education and college degree?
“My parents were totally supportive, but a bit worried,” says Brown. “I told them I was going to be a pop star and they were like, ‘Ok, but are you really?’ you know what I’m saying?” V.V. recalls. Brown’s parents started their own business (a school), which they still to this day own and run. “My folks were 20 years old and had nothing. It was quite something for a black couple in England to set up a private school back then. Really unheard of,” Brown says. “But they couldn’t deny me from who I am.”
I remember growing up playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano. Whose idea was it to incorporate the classic composition into your song “Crazy Amazing”?
“Including a sample of ‘Heart and Soul’ into ‘Crazy Amazing’ was my way of celebrating being seven years old and reliving the early days at the piano,” Brown reminisces. “I used to try to play it really fast, like all kids do when eager to prove they can play something.”
What makes your album and your sound stand out from some of the rest that are considered similar to you in the ‘retro pop’ genre, such as Duffy and Amy Winehouse?
“The difference is that Amy and Duffy celebrate the eras that their music is reminiscent of,” explains Brown. “With Duffy, you get that sexy ’60s club vibe. With Amy, she brings you back to the Billie Holiday era.” Brown goes on to say that her album is a fusion of punk, pop, reggae, and retro. “With the track ‘Game Over’ there is a punk influence. With ‘Crazy Amazing’ there is a throwback to kids’ music in the ’80s [when Brown was a kid, that is] with the ‘Heart and Soul’ sample. Sometimes there is even a reggae vibe when I perform live.” V.V. concludes her defense by standing firm that “Amy and Duffy make music that serves as a time machine to a specific era. My music is a time machine that bounces from era to era.”
What question about your music has become your pet peeve?
Brown does not give in to what her biggest pet peeve question is. However, she does fill me in on a very common inquiry asked of her during interviews: Why did you write an album filled with happy melodies, but such sad lyrics? “That is the most consistent question that I get asked by people interviewing me,” Brown admits. “I love that question because it’s not along the lines of ‘What’s your favorite color?'” I am happy to say that I did not ask V.V. what is now the most consistent question in an interview with the singer/songwriter. Being just like every other interviewer is far from what I am trying to achieve when chatting with an artist.
Make sure you catch V.V. Brown when she performs at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, IL on Thursday, April 1st, 2010.