VV Brown

VV Brown causes ripples of excitement when she walks into a room. She’s beautiful, an inch shy of six feet tall and has a unique fashion sense some call “thrift store meets high couture.” The first single from her debut album, Travelling Like the Light, was iTunes’ Single of the Week in February, and she’s set to be the next big international star of Britain’s current retro-soul movement.

Brown sings, writes killer songs and plays piano, trumpet, Melodica, xylophone, drums, bass and one stringed guitar. “I stumbled on the one string guitar when I came back to London, after my catastrophe in LA,” Brown says laughing quietly, her soft speaking tone a remarkable contrast to her bright, lively singing voice. She’d been accepted at Oxford, but on the basis of tunes she’d written for the Pussycat Dolls and the Sugababes, a major label came calling. She put college on hold. The label sent her to LA and pushed her in a direction she didn’t feel comfortable with. When she balked, her album was shelved. Her contract kept her from performing for two years. “The band was just about to go on tour. It was depressing. I asked God why he was torturing me, but I’d allowed myself to be put in a bad situation. The failure and compromise [of that album] led to a determination to be self-expressive.

“I lived with my aunt and sisters after I got back to London. Since I don’t play guitar, I took off all the strings but one and stripped everything back to the melody. I layered up tracks on my Mac using GarageBand, playing all the instruments myself. Since I couldn’t afford to hire musicians, I’d sing a line on the demo going, ‘string part here’ or ‘guitar part here.’ When I got a little money, I’d hire musicians to add what I’d been imagining.”

Island Records heard Brown’s demos, which merged swing, doo wop and girl group R&B, and hooked her up with producers Steve Dub and Segs. “The album was about 80% finished,” Brown explains. “It was very organic. The label wanted some electronic elements in the mix. [Dub and Segs] added beats and samples and cleaned up some of the amateur programming I’d done. I was afraid they’d try to change my vision, but we worked together to add stuff without ruining it.”
The album came out a year ago in England and made Brown a headliner. She is now ready to launch her stateside career and has moved back to the United States, “Although I haven’t landed yet. I’m living on American airplanes like George Clooney in Up in the Air.”

Brown’s fashion sense came out of necessity when she was broke and spending every spare penny on finishing her demos. She redesigned used clothes and now has an online store (www.vvvintage.com) where she sells recycled clothes. “We buy from second hand stores, customize vintage clothes and sell them online. My sister runs the site and makes sure people get what they need.” When she’s not wearing her own funky threads, Brown is just as likely to appear in an outfit by Ashish Gupta, and has already done fashion shoots for British Vogue and graced the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. Next Model Management is handling her runway career.

At 26, Brown is a successful songwriter, producer, singer, bandleader, model and small business owner. Where does her drive and good humor come from? “It goes back to my mom and dad,” Ms. Brown says. “They had nothing when they came to England. They were two black people from the Caribbean and despite the racial tension, they started Overstone Park School, which now employs 300 people. Mom’s the headmaster and teaches religion and English; dad is the accountant and teaches PE. I went to school there as well. They start languages at a young age, the ratio of pupils to teachers is low, and they were keen about developing every child’s artistic intelligence. Everybody learns an instrument. I think that enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I instinctively loved art and blossomed and excelled there. They worked hard and passed that ethos on to me and my brothers and sisters. I have a brother that plays drums, a sister that’s a ballerina and a sister in a punk band; she’s gonna be the black female Bob Dylan, I reckon. I’m very hands on with the songwriting, producing, design and business end of the music business. I want to be a renaissance woman and dip my hands in many different pots.”

– J. Poet

Photography by Alex Lake