About Yolanda Brown
As much entrepreneur as she is musician, as much gifted singer-songwriter as she is the UK's premier saxophonist, this is a young lady with an entrepreneurial bent who is going to make a considerable mainstream splash, her name in lights at last.
After several years on the jazz circuit, not just London's jazz circuit but, as we shall see, the world's, she has now released her debut album, April Showers, May Flowers, that will surely see her cult reputation brought to the fore. This is an album of effortless unfurling grace and impeccable soulful poise. It is the product of a two-time MOBO Award winner who knows exactly what she is doing, and precisely how to do it.
"People often ask me what my target audience is," she says. "Thing is, when I look out into the audience at my shows, I can't really tell. I see all sorts: all ethnicities, all ages, either sex. So really, I guess, I'm making music for everyone." She smiles broadly. "I mean, why limit yourself?"
She was born in Barking in the early 1980s. By six, she was already something of a musical prodigy. Her first instrument was the piano, the violin, and then the drums followed. The next few years saw a fleeting interest in several more instruments, the oboe and the recorder among them. But by 13 she had settled for the saxophone, with which she felt most comfortable, and also most naturally inclined towards - so much so, that she simply did precisely what it is that defines all musical prodigies: she taught herself.
"I'm not sure why the saxophone of all instruments appealed to me the most," she muses, "but I just felt at home with it. I love the music it made."
By her mid-teens, it was clear to her that music was what she would go on to pursue in life, but, unlike so many musicians who get the bug early, her pursuit did not come at the cost of her education. Quite the contrary: she juggled both. A head girl in comprehensive school in her native East London, she sailed through her GCSEs and A-levels, and gained First class honours in her Operations Management degree, before gaining two Masters. After a year studying in Spain, she came back not only even more versed in the world of business, but also fully bilingual.
A career in management consultancy beckoned, but YolanDa resisted.
"I simply couldn't imagine spending my life inside an office," she says. "Music was still my overriding love, and as long as I could pay the rent, I was going to pursue it for all I was worth."
This she did with impressive industry. Playing live as much as she could over the next few years, she quickly gained a reputation for herself - to the extent that, in 2008, she won a MOBO for Best Jazz, and then again in 2009. She played sax with everyone from Alexander O'Neal to Mica Paris, Soweto Kinch to The Temptations, and released a lovingly crafted EP. She began increasingly to tour further afield - in the US, in Italy and Spain - and for 18 months even hosted her own talk show on Sky.
And through it all, she kept up with her studies, pursuing a Ph.D. in Management Science at the University of Kent.
"I remember just about to go on stage in Rome one time, and sending off my dissertation to my supervisor at the same time," she says. "It was pretty difficult to sustain sometimes."
And so in January 2010, she decided to put her PhD on hold, "though I will return to it," she promises. "I just wanted to concentrate on my album; a tricky decision to make, but, I felt, the right one."
Music fans would likely agree. April Showers, May Flowers is a beautifully sculpted record that touches lightly on jazz and soul and Reggae, each track bestowed with the kind of lyrical insight - on love, on life - that suggests its author is something of a poet, too.
Though YolanDa has been courted by several major record labels over the years - and continues to be happy to meet with any label that shows both interest and initiative - she is in many ways perfectly positioned to remain entirely self-sufficient. Perhaps it is her business studies background, perhaps her tireless work rate and self-motivation, but in an era where those who do exist independently can struggle, she continues to somehow take giant steps.
After her MOBOs success, for example, she was invited to play before the President of Russia at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg ("I played them some jazz but also introduced them to reggae; they loved it!"), as well as travelling to Jamaica to perform for the country’s Prime Minister.
She now increasingly works within the charity sector, as ambassador for both the Prince's Trust and the Yamaha Class Band, an initiative that visits schools in underprivileged areas encouraging children to pick up an instrument. "It's amazing the confidence it brings them," she says. "They really come to life."
She is also currently backing Plan UK's Because I Am A Girl campaign, and is a patron of the Mayor of London's Fund for Young Musicians.
There is, dizzyingly, yet more: last year she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by the University of East London, and in 2011 was invited to meet the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham.
YolanDa Brown’s Debut Album April Showers May Flowers went to No1 on the Jazz Charts.
It is pretty superfluous here, then, to suggest that in the last decade on the peripheries of mainstream music, YolanDa has achieved more than most artists would in a lifetime. That much is obvious.
But she hasn't finished yet.
Nov 15 TuesdayLondon, UK Barbican Centre