Chances are if you're familiar with V V Brown, it's because of her 2009 breakout hit "Shark In The Water" off of her debut album "Travelling Like the Light."
Two years later Brown was set to release her follow up, "Lollipops & Politics," when she shelved the album at the last minute and decided to leave Capitol Records. Then, after taking a little time off, the musician, who hails from Northampton, England, retreated to her newly outfitted home studio and created what is one of the most unexpected and best albums of 2013.
On "Samson & Delilah," which hits stores and iTunes today in the US on Brown's newly founded YOY Records (YOY is an acronym for You Own You), gone are the breezy pop songs Brown was known for and in their place are 11 dark, brooding tracks that together tell a stunning story of love, loss, power politics and rebirth.
V V Brown recently called The Huffington Post from her home to chat about how she managed to make a concept album with so much heart, the moment she almost walked away from the music industry, why she'd never want to achieve One Direction-level fame and more.
The Huffington Post: Often when artists attempt to make a concept album it can end up feeling forced or belabored but "Samson & Delilah" doesn't feel that way at all. What is the secret to creating an album with a strong concept and storyline but also making it feel organic and authentic at the same time?
V V Brown: The record is based on the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. I fell in love with the journey of Samson, this man who lost all his strength and was deceived by the woman he loved and who over time gained his strength back. I just decided to set up my own record company and leave the major label company and at that point it was the scariest moment of my life because I was walking away from financial gain, commercial gain, all of the things that as an artist you want to enjoy. I was walking away from all of that and I felt weak and when I started making this record, I felt strong again. There was just such creative freedom that it became organic because there wasn't anybody telling me what I could or couldn't do. There wasn't any pressure about what radio stations would play this record. It was just me at my home studio, making and writing music without knowing where it was going to go. This record is the truest V V -- it’s the purest piece of work I've ever made. I think it’s the closest you'll get to sitting in a room with me and kissing me.
Whenever someone says something like that or dramatically changes their style of music, people -- fans, critics -- have a lot of theories about why that happened. Sometimes when artists claim their new work is the “purest" or the "most honest” people wonder, “Well, was everything that came before this disingenuous?”
Making art and music, for me, they're typically like taking photographs of your life or how you feel in that moment. I'll forever be proud of [my first album] “Travelling Like the Light.” I still listen to that record and I still love it, but it’s a different part of my life and it’s got me to where I am now, so I'll always have respect for it. But this record is where I am at now. I will be very honest, “Travelling Like the Light” was quite a fight to make it even what it was. There were still restrictions on that record because I was on a major label but thank goodness it happened and to still have an identity, despite the fight that there was, that maybe a lot of the fans didn't see. That’s why when I say this is the purest because there has been no struggle with this record and this is totally a pure photograph of where I'm at right now. I really believe strongly that artists grow and artists change and I made “Travelling Like the Light” in 2008, so if you think about that, a good five years of changing and I'm a woman now, I'm going into my 30s -- scary, I'm 29. I just have to embrace that growth and that’s why I didn't want to do "Lollipops & Politics" because when I listened to that record it was a perfect sophomore record to “Travelling Like the Light.” If you put the two next to each other, it would've been a great transition, but it just wasn't me. I was so convicted to stay true to that, that even though it was so drastically different, I had to take that risk. This is the best feeling I've ever had in my career, ironically.
Brandy has a song called “Should I Go?” and it's about trying deciding whether or not she should stay in the music industry. She sings something like, “You know I have enough money and I could just walk away from all of this.” Did you ever have a moment like that where you thought I’m just going walk away. I'm not going to do this anymore.
Absolutely. 100 percent. I think when I set up VVvintage.com, which is my online fashion store, I did that for a year and a half and that was my time to figure out what I really wanted to do. It was in that year and a half when I was not really making much music. I came off the road from America in 2011, finished “Lollipops & Politics” and there was some down time, maybe like six months of down time before we were going to promote the record. It was in that window where I was tempted to walk away. I even believe there was a headline in an English paper that said, “V V Brown Quits Music Business,” to which my management was like, “Oh my God, this is the worst it could ever get. What have you been saying V?” I was ready to go, ready to have babies, get married and run my online vintage store, which is doing quite well. But then I think what brought me back is that my friend, who is a studio engineer, one of my best friends, he actually wrote “Faith” on the album, said “We should go studio shopping” and I was like, “What do you mean studio shopping?” He was like, “Come on, let’s go get some studio equipment,” and I was like “Why?” He was going to buy stuff for himself and when we got to the studio shop where they sell all the equipment I ended up spending about six grand and bought my whole home studio and went home and started writing. The vibe of writing again was like, “Wait a minute, I can't leave yet.” That made me realize that “Lollipops & Politics” wasn't right. I wrote a song just for fun and it represented what I really was. I was like, “Wait a minute, this is so different this feels exciting." And I feel proud to represent it. And that’s when it started and I was walking away from the label and then the conversations came and then I made this album.
You recently said that you couldn't handle the kind of fame that One Direction has but there were points in your career when you had a considerable amount of fame -- especially when “Shark In the Water” was huge. Were those moments uncomfortable for you? Now that the new album is getting so much attention, do you worry about dealing with fame?
The thing is, the kind of fame I have is quite different from One Direction. My fans -- it feels like we’re friends. I have an admiration for them and they have an admiration for me and it's this sort of friendship, so it isn't so hysterical like the One Direction kind of fame. I could walk down the street in New York or LA and get people saying "Hey, V V!" but it's never sort of screaming and stuff and I think I'm really comfortable with that sort of level of being known. If it got to a point where I felt I was living in an aquarium, which I haven't ever really had, I think that would be very, very uncomfortable, so I feel very grateful that there's a real balance between people who acknowledge or respect my work and just hysterical obsession. My relationship with my fans, it’s like we’re friends and it's really weird because a lot of people that listen to my music I genuinely think I would be friends with them all. I don't know why -- every time I meet or speak with someone it's just like -- like so many people on Twitter, they've actually become people that I genuinely know.
The reception to "Samson & Delilah" has been astounding. When you're in the process of making an album, are you able to zoom out and get any prospective about how “good” it is? Is there any point where you think to yourself I think we’ve made something really incredible here and I think this is going to be huge or do you have no clue about what you've got until the reviews and reactions start trickling in?
What I've learned since being in the business is that you are your own best demographic. I say that because if it feels right to you and if when you're listening to it and all the right parts in your mind, body and soul are all connecting and it just feels like you're listening to another record that you love, then I think you're onto something. So whenever I listen to the music that we make I have to genuinely like it as if it were somebody else who just played me a song on the radio. I have to be as honest as possible and you tend to find that if you connect to your own music like that, then you tend to be on to something because you know there has to be a level of trust about your own instincts and your own taste. You'll find that if you feel excited about something, somebody else is probably going to be excited about it as well. When I was on my major label, there were some times when I would listen to a song and it was like 80 percent whole and there was that 20 percent where I was like, “The mix isn't just quite right…” On this record, every single song on that album is 100 percent. I can listen to ["Samson & Delilah"] and feel complete. The second thing is that I really trust my best friend and my partner and my family, so I always play my music to them. My boyfriend, he’s an art director and he's got incredible taste and he's annoyingly good at knowing what is great.
And he’s brutally honest with you?
He’ll say, “Yeah, I think that sounds shit. That totally doesn't sound very honest.” [Laughs] Or “It sounds like you're faking it.” He's a hipster [laughs]. I tease him but he’s that whole Brooklyn type. He’s an artist, a real artist. And I come from a very a sort of -- an artist background but I was in a very pop world, so I like bringing the two together. But since dating my boyfriend, who is a pure artist, we have massive arguments about what art is. He’ll say that a glass of water in the middle of a gallery in a white room is art and I'm like, “How is that art?” but he will justify that. He is very good at evaluating culture and I really love that about him, so when I would play him this record he would really critique it like he was writing a review. He would send me links to really obscure music that I had never heard of that had like 500 hits on YouTube but it was really beautiful. My family is very honest as well, especially my mother. I trust my instincts and I really respect the people around me who I play my music to who are very honest.
I just read a really powerful essay you wrote about the disappointing and troubling lack of black models in the fashion industry. There aren't a ton of black women making the kind of music that you're making right now and all of the comparisons I've read regarding this record have been to people like Annie Lennox and Kate bush and Bjork. I hear Grace Jones on there, too, but do you feel you are helping to pave the way for other black women in this genre?
All those artists I do look up to, but I do feel -- I hope I'm creating a movement where black women can be whatever they want to be. Whether its alternative, R&B, soul, rock heavy metal -- it's just about being whatever you want to be and I think there are other artists [doing this kind of thing] like Janelle Monae, who is another one of those kind of artists who I love and admire. Its almost like we’re similar souls. Whenever I hear her being interviewed or listen to her music, I feel what she’s trying to represent: you can be who you want to be, you don't have to be limited by stereotypes. There’s power in individuality and power in loving you who you are in its entirety. So I wouldn't want to say that’s what I am doing because I wouldn’t want to be arrogant about it, but that’s what I want to do. I want to express that as a black woman -- or as a woman, not just in music, but in business, in journalism, like when I wrote that piece, any way I can champion the idea of be who you want to be. I want to leave this earth with that mark.
How do you respond to people who say that celebrities shouldn't get involved in political or social issues? Do you think artists should use their spotlight to champion social movements?
Absolutely. I think if someone has a platform and has the ability to talk about all kind of human rights, they should be allowed to do so because we are human beings and if something isn't right, then we should shout out about it. If we have a platform, then we should encourage others to do things that are right. I wouldn't say that it is celebrity’s responsibility to shout out but if they choose to, I commend them for that and I encourage celebrities and people in the public eye to get involved with things that are of more substance than just pop culture.