VV Brown wants to do it all – and it looks like she just might. The queen of fusion tells Anna Carey about her magpie-like musical tendencies and why, if you ask her for her autograph, she’ll ask for yours right back
ELEASING ONE of the most thrilling albums of the year would be enough for most people, but not VV Brown. In the middle of touring and promoting her dazzling debut, the 25-year-old has also just co-produced an independent comic book about Marxist revolution, called The City of Abacus, and launched her own online vintage clothing store.
“I just love being creative,” says Brown from London, where she’s about to head to the studio. “I want to be a renaissance woman.”
Brown, whose first name is Vanessa but has been known as VV since her teens, grew up in a middle-class family in Northampton, where her parents ran the private school she and her five younger siblings attended. “The school was very musical,” she recalls. “The curriculum was very much about creating things. I think if I had gone to an ordinary state school, perhaps I would have had to sacrifice my studies for music.”
Instead, music was “just a natural part of my life. I used to spend my break times in the music room writing – I didn’t have a lot of friends in school. When I was 15 I commuted to London every Wednesday with my mum because I was in a funk band, and I would do my homework on the train. Then on Sunday I’d go to church and sing there.”
Brown’s studying paid off (she earned four As in her A Levels), but she turned down places at Oxford, King’s College London, the London School of Economics and York to concentrate on her music.
“I did my A levels at 17 rather than [the usual] 18. So I think my parents were comfortable knowing that I had a year to play with, like a gap year. They know I’m quite a free spirit, so it would be difficult for me to be bogged down learning about law or literature when, really, I wanted to be playing instruments.”
One year after leaving school, Brown was offered a major label record deal and flew out to Los Angeles to work with major r’n’b producers. But she hated it. Her music was, she says, taken out of her hands, which is why
Rshe now likes to do everything herself. “I’m a little bit of a control freak because I was so let down in the past. I felt I was musically molested, and I didn’t really have a say. So when I got to do it again I was adamant that I’d make sure the music was all me. I didn’t want anyone else to get involved and mess up my sound, so I spent a lot of time alone in the studio.”
The result is Travelling Like the Light, an irresistible album that mixes everything from rockabilly to soul, from The ShangriLas to synth pop. But how to describe her eclectic sound? “The first description I came up with was ‘doowop indie’. After I got really bored of saying that, I came up with the second definition, which was ‘1950s synthesised madness’.”
Despite the influence of rock’n’roll’s early years on both the music and Brown’s retro style, this is no hollow pastiche; Duffy she ain’t.
“I’m a huge fan of fusion,” she says. “I never wanted to be a pastiche artist making records that sounded like they were from the past. Which is why I like to use more modern, contemporary sounds, like electronic buzzes and sampling Nintendo games, and mix that in with older sounds.”
VV’s eclectic tastes can be seen on her new online shop (www.vvvintage.com), which sells customised and untouched vintage garb.
“Even before I had a record deal, people kept coming up to me on the street or tapping my shoulder on the tube, asking where did you get that? A lot of the time it was something I’d made or customised, or it was vintage. So I thought, why not sell these things?”
She tries to check out local vintage shops while touring. “I head out after the soundcheck. I’m always looking for old instruments as well – I love musical gadgets.Right now I’ve got about nine old keyboards and lots of maracas and xylophones, and I’ve got nowhere to put them. I think I’ve got to get a shed.”
Brown has been known to create her own instruments, although her celebrated onestring guitar was born out of necessity.
“I made the one-string guitar because I was broke and couldn’t afford any instruments. I’d sold my keyboard to get a plane ticket back from Los Angeles. But I later discovered that hillbillies in the 1920s would make their own guitars and basses. Even in African countries they’ve made their own amplifiers and stuff like that. It’s quite cool to be part of little movement of people not only making sounds but making instruments.”
VV also feels an affinity with other innovative female musicians. “I really relate to Florence [Welch, of Florence and the Machine],” she says. “We’re very different musically, but there’s an energy about her that I can relate to. I think she’s incredible. If you were to cut open our hearts and our musical souls, they would be very similar.”
She welcomes the new wave of young women who write and produce as well as perform their own material. “I call 2009 the year of the eccentric woman. Last year we had Duffy and Adele, who were quite straight and very easy to understand. Duffy was straight-up Motown and Dusty Springfield, and Adele was straight-up soul. But this year it’s not so straight at all, it’s very much about fusion and fashion and eccentricity. It’s exciting!”
As she begins working on new songs, VV is well-aware of the dreaded second album syndrome. “You’ve got your whole life to write your first record and then everyone expects you to write a better record in the space of eight months.”
Whatever happens, fame isn’t going to go to her head.
“I’ve got an idea that will hopefully become an exhibition. I really believe fame is delusional, and I think reality shows are teaching kids they can become famous in a quick-fix way. So whenever someone asks me for an autograph, I ask them for an autograph back. And I’m putting together a collection of fan’s autographs as a way to say I’m no different from you. I make music, you’re a banker, you’re a nurse, or a cleaner. But now you have my autograph and I have yours.”