INTERVIEW: SAM BROWN – August 2015

INTERVIEW: SAM BROWN – August 2015
By Shane Pinnegar

“I just moved right out into the country in Dorset,” a cheery and chatty Sam Brown explains, opening the door to her private life without any inhibitions. “I moved out in April from Oxfordshire which is still countryside, but it’s a bit busier there. It’s a bit more cosmopolitan. The village is really in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got lovely birds outside and just gorgeous places and it’s a beautiful, slightly breezy summer day. So, it’s very nice.”

Sam Brown ukelele 04

Reknowned the world over for her 1988 hit singles Stop, Walking Back To Me and Can I Get A Witness (all from her debut album, Stop), and follow-up album April Moon, Sam Brown went on to become a much sought after backing vocalist in the studio and on the road with Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Nick Cave, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and many others.

Her ensuing solo albums may not have sold as well as that first cracker, but they remain cult fan favourites to this day, especially the intensely personal 43 Minutes from 2002, and 2007’s Box. They are by turns, beautiful, fragile, raucous, and magical works of art which enrapture the attentive listener.

Jools Holland calls Brown, “without question, one of the greatest singers I ever worked with,” and she has peformed for The Queen, U.S. President Bill Clinton, not to mention sung at the Royal Albert Hall more than fifty times and released three albums with the band Homespun, which she formed with Dave Rotheray, lead guitarist for The Beautiful South.

Sam with Jools Holland

Sam with Jools Holland

In 2007 tragedy struck, leaving her singing voice – the basis of her career and her life’s work – in jeopardy after a cyst was found on her vocal cords. She had the cyst successfully removed, but problems with her voice persisted, leaving her unable to hold a note.

“Basically, all the doctors say is there’s nothing wrong with my voice,” Brown explains. “One little thing that I couldn’t do, and I still can’t, is I couldn’t call my kids in the other room. If I need to shout out and say, ‘dinner’s ready,’ I couldn’t do that. My voice would just crumble and just kind of break. It would do something but it wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do.

“I tried explaining this and last year, someone recommended a doctor in Los Angeles, and I went down to her, Dr Gupta, and she found polyps on my vocal chords, and a broken blood vessel. But that wasn’t the problem – and I KNEW it wasn’t the problem, because I had a cyst on my vocal chords in 2007, and I had that removed and if that wasn’t an issue – there’s a muscular problem. Well at least, that’s what I thought it was. And she confirmed that: basically the muscles that you use when you use your voice are destabilised. So I can’t hold a note. I can’t hit a pitch and hold a note at the same time. So at the moment, I’m just trying to do that several times a day to try and retrain the muscles a bit.”

Sam Brown onstage with Pink Floyd

Sam Brown onstage with Pink Floyd

Brown has been taking the past few months out to work on the problem and try to resolve exactly what is causing the vocal damage, and hopefully get her voice back to the amazing force of nature it once was, but no-one is prepared to predict her chances of success.

“They don’t know. I’ve been working [on it] – I’ll go back to Dr Gupta in September. So the doctor, which would be the laryngologist, Dr Gupta, once she’s done her bit — this was the problem I came up against. – once she’s done the bit that concerns the physicality of it and what you can see when you do an endoscopy or laryngoscopy, there’s not anything else she can do. They can’t test the muscles. So, she then hands me over to the therapist. There’s a lady called Amy Chapland, she actually was fantastic and she has been able to recognise and diagnose actually what the problem is. So, I’ve been working with Amy, but she basically said, ‘this is what you can do and this is all you can do.’ Which indeed are certain exercises and that’s what I do five times a day. And it’s not improving so, I don’t know…

“I can still swear, though, so that joy’s not gone out of my life!” she quips.

Arguably more traumatic than not being able to sing, is not being able to earn a living after doing this for her entire adult life (Brown’s first working job was singing backing vocals on the Small Faces album 78 In The Shade in 1978, aged just fourteen). Having your livelihood and your passion threatened in the same fell swoop is unimaginable.

“Yes. I mean… when something bad happens, there are two aspects to it. There’s the kind of outside view of what it must be like – like for instance when someone dies. It’s awful when they die, and it’s upsetting, but it’s not the kind of tangible thing that you can suddenly go ‘okay then, I know how to deal with this because I feel this way every day,’ because that’s not what emotional issues are. It comes in waves and it can sometimes be indiscernible in your life. It might just be that you kind of notice that you just feel a bit kind of, you know, dead inside occasionally [chuckles]…

“So you have to deal with things on a daily basis. And I’ve certainly come to terms with the idea that I might not ever be able to sing again. You know, I’ve worked on it, and I’ve seen lots of different people and I’ve come to understand the problem a lot more and certainly know what the issues are now. Whether or not it can be fixed, I don’t know. The point is, I had to make a living now – I’m on my own with my two kids, and I went from earning a lot of money to earning nothing.

Sam Brown ukelele 01

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“So, that caused problems, and that was one of the reasons I moved, because I had to sell my house, because I’d sort of got into debt over the years – and that’s fine. I’m a lucky person. I have a small royalty income. I’ve always owned properties – this is the first time in my life I haven’t had a mortgage, which is quite nice. It’s alright though – you’ve just got to get on with it. It wasn’t very nice, but it was coupled with what I’d come out of, which was a nervous breakdown really, throughout my divorce, and having… just doing all the wrong things in my love life,” she laughs self deprecatingly.

“So, coupled with that – now, whether it was the result of having the break-up, because my voice was fine through the whole thing, but it’s afterward that I started having problems – who knows what it was, but you have to take life as it comes. There have been lots of positives as well as lots of negatives. It’s been shit, but it’s also been great, as well. I’ve done things I would never have done if I continued to work, as I had been working my whole life in the music industry.”

The main thing Sam Brown did to ensure she could provide for her kids and herself was to take on a few ukelele students. That led to more, until she was running five ukulele clubs.

“Actually, there’s two that I run on an on-going basis in Oxfordshire,” she says, “where I just moved from. I’m starting back in September. And, basically, what happened is when I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t work, I started off just teaching a few people in my front room. About nine of them, I think, initially. And it just went really, really well. People loved it.

“I started out doing, like a drop-in session where people just turned up and paid. And it didn’t really work, because I was doing a whole lot of preparations, and then people just didn’t show up, so there was no kind of commitment to it. So, I did a course, which was better for me – and better for them as it turned out, because when people pay for something in advance, you’re going to show up, aren’t you!”

Sam Brown 03

Not to mention giving it structure and goals that you work towards.

“Yes!” she continues. “So what I did was an eleven-week course, and they pay for ten sessions and we do a gig at the end of every course. So that was the original idea, which worked fairly well for a long time. But now we actually have five clubs and two other clubs which are run by my brother.

“So, the umbrella group, the Fabulous Ukelele Club, and the first club is the International Ukelele Club of Sonning Common – which was a bit of joke, because we didn’t really think anything would happen,” she laughs at the Monty Pythonesque club names, “and then the second club is The People’s Ukelele Brigade. The third one is The Jumping Flea Club. The Fourth one is The Hot Cups and then amidst all that there’s the London club which I actually started up quite early in the beginning as well.

“So, all four clubs have got approximately forty people, some slightly less, some more. And we just go out and do village fetes, fund raising fetes for the village, for one of the villages near where I used to live. So it’s really good and it’s been a real learning curve, actually. I’ve really, really enjoyed it, and I’ve met some amazing people. It’s a good thing.”

Look at any clip of Brown’s clubs performing rock standards on a choir of ukeleles and you’ll see her students get an enormous amount of pleasure out of it.

“Yes,” she laughs heartily. “They’re not allowed to be miserable – there’s serious punishment [for that]! Wine and cake! The thing is, the sessions are three hours long, and for me, having done what I’ve done for a long time, I know very well that it’s not all about technical ability. It’s about relaxing into what you’re doing and enjoying it. It’s taking care about what you do.

“So, don’t be tempted to do something that is really beyond you, just go for what you can do and practice that. So it’s about coming along, having a bit of a jolly, having a glass of wine, doing some playing. I mean, don’t get me wrong – everyone has got much better. I mean, we’ve gone from three chord songs to us teaching them Pinball Wizard, for instance.

“Which is really tough for people who are, let’s say, mid-life, never played an instrument before, have very busy lives. They’re working. I don’t want it to be a pain in the arse for them – I want them to have a nice time and learn to play and play as part of a group. So, it’s really good fun.”

Sam Brown ukelele 02

Brown says that financially the ukulele clubs have filled the gap while she hasn’t been able to do vocal work, but more important has been the emotional aspect of the work. Dark and threatening clouds are again gathering on the horizon, though.

“Emotionally, from a personal level, it’s been fantastic,” she explains. “The difficulty now is that my voice isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. And if it doesn’t get better, I will have to stop, because I can’t play four three-hour sessions a week motivating people and playing. I’m trying to lead them, so I have to sing a little bit to lead them through the songs and actually now, if I’m in a crowded room, I can’t speak loud enough for people to hear me. So, that is going to be a problem.

“And also, I think, as much as I really, genuinely love and value the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met, I have lots of things I’d love to do: I like drawing, I like knitting, I like making clothes, I like gardening. And I have lots of various ideas I could make money out of, but I need to stop doing these ukulele clubs in order to start doing them. So, I think I need to rethink the whole format of it because it is a full time job.”

I tell Sam that I have a cassette bootleg of a show I saw her perform at the Camden Jazz Café on 18 November, 1992, for the 43 Minutes album.

“Wow, that’s before it was even released,” she exclaims.

Sam Brown - 43 Minutes cover

On the recording, Brown explains that it hadn’t yet been released as her record company thought it wasn’t commercial enough, before proceeding to deliver the entire album from start to finish to the jaw-dropping amazement of the sardine-packed room. It’s a stunning performance of a beautiful work of art, and it must have been such a weight on her shoulders as an artist dealing with that sort of corporate short-sightedness.

“Well… yeah. What happened was, the people I signed to at A&M, the managing director was Brian Shepherd and the A&R man was called Chris Briggs. Chris was great in a lot of ways and I got very close to him and we made some good records, I think. He and Brian, I don’t know what happened but they left A&M. Brian is a fantastic man and is still a very good friend. He moved and lives in San Diego, I think now. He and his wife Janine are lovely, lovely people. Brian had been involved with my parents in the ’70s with something my dad [‘60s pop star Joe Brown] did called Brown’s Home Brew, which was a much heavier — I don’t know how much you know about my dad, but my dad [in England] is known very much as a ‘cheeky chappie’, and he wanted to do something where it was just about the music, but it never took off for him because he was a ‘cheeky chappie’ and that’s what people wanted.

“So basically what happened, was before and after my mum [session singer Vicki Brown] died, I wrote 43 Minutes [about her passing], and I said to the company, ‘this is what I need to do to demo it,’ because I needed a van to demo it. So they paid for the demo, it cost £11,000 pounds. This was after the success of Stop and April Moon, so it didn’t seem like a big thing to ask, particularly. In fact, we made the record for that money, and that is pretty much what you hear – we went in and did [a little] more work on it afterwards.

“But the managing director then was a guy called Howard Berman. He then became I think MD of Universal Records. I’m not quite sure what he’s doing now, and he came from a marketing point of view and basically said, “Creatively, this is brilliant and commercially it’s a disaster” and he wanted me to kind of record a cover and stick it on the end of the album – which as you can imagine I didn’t think a great idea. So I just said, ‘look, this is a good place to stop. We don’t have a future relationship as far as I’m concerned.’

“I’ve never had commercial ambitions, I just met the right people in Brian and Chris. So that was it, we went away, we released [the album] ourselves and we sold 4,000 copies, compared to the 2.5 million of Stop – but I was much happier with it and the people liked it and the people related to what I was saying, and people who got something out of that record because, let’s face it, everyone experiences those things in their life, and when a musically creative person expresses something that you feel, then it’s useful. It’s useful for me and I hope it’s useful for the audience.”

Sam Brown ukelele 03

From the outside looking in, it appears Sam Brown had a bit of a magical childhood. Her Mum and Dad were pop/rock stars. She had people like George Harrison coming around to play ukulele with her Dad and things like that. We would imagine that music was a completely natural thing for her to fall into with that sort of an upbringing.

“Yes, I think it was,” Brown agrees. “I think when you’re a child, obviously you’re not aware of the wonders of celebrity, you know, and turning into an adult, probably, I’m not either. I think it’s great to be surrounded by music. My Dad had one of the first multi-track recording studios in London and I loved that. I loved meeting people. I didn’t see my parents very much. I got on great with my Mum, always got on with my Mum, she was lovely and we worked together a lot as I got older. We were very close.

“My Dad [was a] really, typical, kind of old-fashioned dad. [He’d] run out to work, when he came home he was grumpy, and best not to risk going near him,” she says with a good-natured laugh, “but he’s an amazing musician, and certainly because of his kind of old-fashionedness, all of those work ethics and stuff like that, that’s what my Dad applies — he could be a carpenter or a plumber. He has that work ethic. You have to work, you have to earn money, you have to have a home, you have to look after your family, and that is my Dad’s basic thing. He doesn’t need to be nice about it – that’s what he does. His show business persona, if you like, is such a happy thing. He’d be fucking insane if he was like that all the time. He’s a great musician, he’s a self-taught musician – he’s an inspiration from that point of view, and he had some really fantastic ideas, I think. I didn’t particularly like him for quite a long time, but that’s a typical thing for a kid I think. I get it now and I respect him and I’m very pleased because for the first time in fifty years, he’s taken some time off and when I say that, I mean it. I mean he hasn’t taken time off in fifty years! That’s… that’s ridiculous – even including holidays and stuff, he very rarely grabs a holiday. So I’m very pleased he’s done that. He’s 73 or 74 and he’s just bought himself a little house in Nashville where a lot of his friends live, and my stepmum’s daughter lives out in near Oxford here. So they’ve got a small house here and a small house there and he’s very, very happy and it’s lovely to see.

“So, yes, growing up, it was great, but my main thing I took away from it was two things: a) that anything you want to do, you have to work hard after it, and b) everyone is just a person. The Queen picks her nose on the toilet the same as the rest of us. George Harrison is actually one of the most down-to-earth people I think I’ve ever met, possibly because he’s able to put aside all of the financial worries that the rest of us have, but he was a really good bloke. I mean that in the truest sense of the word. He was great, George was great. And so were a lot of people. Albert Lee, lovely, Steve Marriot was great, big inspiration for me, and I met a lot of those people, but they’re just people, aren’t they? We’re all just people.”

Sam, Joe & Pete Brown

Sam, Joe & Pete Brown

As an interviewer of some pretty big rock names I agree wholeheartedly – we wouldn’t get much work done if we were starstruck and fawning! Brown of course, had a good grounding – one she says helped her deal with fame and the media & fan attention when it struck, in that she’d been working as a backing vocalist for five or six years before releasing the album Stop.

“Yes, I think it did [help], very much so. I think celebrity is an incredibly difficult thing to deal with emotionally and in retrospect, I don’t believe I was actually that grounded. I always thought I was – it’s funny isn’t it,” she laughs, “as you get older you think, ‘I didn’t quite get that right, did I?’ I think, yes, it did help me, but I suppose the most difficult thing was the realisation that you couldn’t know people, you couldn’t know all the people I met, all the journalists. I used to do 20 odd interviews a day when I was doing promos. Some of the photographers I met were great, some of them I can’t remember their names because it just went by so quickly and so much was crammed in. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live your life because it tends to devalue things and you don’t appreciate [them]. I think it’s just too fast, it’s all too fast, it’s too much to absorb and I’m very happy to not be in that situation.”

Brown has said in previous interviews that she was never tempted to go back and deliberately repeat the commercial success of Stop, something she still stands by today.

“No, I didn’t. The commercial success of Stop was certainly not the highlight of my musical career!” she states emphatically. “It was a fantastic experience and I love traveling, so from that point of view, it was great, but it invites a different audience. When you sell a product in that way, it invites a particular audience. I mean, it’s very well highlighted, I think, between the sales of Stop and the sales of 43 Minutes. Now anyone who knows any of my music — you say, ‘what’s your favourite Sam Brown album?’ they’ll say 43 Minutes: they won’t say Stop, because Stop wasn’t really a true reflection of me, whereas 43 Minutes WAS a true reflection of me at a particular time in my life. So, yes, interesting isn’t it? I think the psychology behind it is a very interesting thing.”

Sam Brown onstage with Pink Floyd

Sam Brown onstage with Pink Floyd

Talking hypothetically, if Brown’s voice improves a bit, but not enough to go out on tour as the Sam Brown we know, would she consider taking a ukulele troupe on tour around the world?

“Oh God, yes!!” she exclaims. “We already went. We had a little jaunt to Paris with the original club. We had a fucking brilliant time, excuse my language. We had a great, great time. We took 38 people out to Paris – and yes, no-one got paid, I didn’t get paid, no-one got paid. We took all the gear ourselves, everyone had to carry [theirs], even those conductor-stand things and they’re bloody heavy, so everyone kind of booked their own accommodation and paid for it – we all did Air B&B. I went out in March and organized a few gigs in some tiny places, and we had a ball. I’d love to do that, and in fact there’s a theatre near us called the Kenton Theatre, which is on Henley-Upon-Thames, near where George [Harrison] used to live, and he and my Dad and some other people really fought to keep this very old theatre alive. Last Christmas we did a gig with the Sonning Common Club – the International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common – and some of it is on YouTube, and it just turned into this kind of mad variety show – there’s tap dancing and all sorts. We actually had a guy over from New Zealand called Fraser Ross. He’s very funny and he’s like a real singer/songwriter. He’s a very gentle man; he’s lovely, very talented – I met him through my ex-husband… and his songs are great, very acousticey, really nice, he’s a bit edgy.

“So we started off with his set, then we had some of the people in the ukulele club doing solo spots – so things that wouldn’t necessarily be right for the uke club, and then we had the main act and it was just hysterical. It was absolutely brilliant. And two people came up to me, a film director and a promoter. The promoter said, ‘I have to take this on the road, we have to do this,’ but you know, financially how are you going to do that? Impossible really, I think.”

Adrian Edmondson does something similar, playing mandolin-driven folk versions of old punk songs – but it’s a very different proposition taking a three-piece around Australia to taking a 38-piece around Australia.

Brown goes on to reminisce about touring the East and West coasts supporting John Farnham circa 1998, before mentioning a visit to our shores is on the cards for 2016.

“I think I’m going to be out there [in Australia] in January/February. I’m coming to visit a friend in Melbourne. He said there’s a youth festival there in March or February or something.”

Sam Brown 01

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We have time for one last question: If, fingers crossed, her voice gets back to full power, who would she make a duet album with, if she could pick only one artist?

“One artist? I don’t know,” she laughs. “My son probably. He’s great, and actually, I think, my biggest regret about my voice is that I can’t sing with my son. He’s just such a great singer and a great artist and writer, and just to make a harmony occasionally together would give me a great deal of pleasure.

“Funny enough, I don’t think I’ll stop making music, I think I will make music. I might not be able to do it live, but I am a creative person and that’s where my skills are – I’ve got a little studio that I’ll be setting up here, and I’ve got a lot of ideas for music… but the problem is, it’s difficult to write – you have to write to what you’ve got, if you know what I mean. So I definitely think I will record something anyway, I was thinking of making a duets album and I had another idea – even if I didn’t get my voice back, making records and inviting other people in to sing the lead.”

We have no doubt Sam has the address book to make that work!

“Possibly,” she says coyly. “There’s some amazing singers out there, all the people I’ve worked with, Mica Paris, Beverley Knight, Eddi Reader, loads, and I’ve met some great young people with my son, working. There are a lot of fantastic singers out there, and in a lot of ways, I’m not bothered about it anymore, I don’t want to do the ‘dear diary’ style of songwriting anymore, I want to write something that’s not necessarily about me, because I think there’s only so much you can do that, because it’s so intense, you know what I mean?

“If you look at Joni Mitchell and her first few albums, they are very much about her and her experiences, and then it kind of diversifies until you get to something like Dog Eat Dog, which is actually just social comment, isn’t it?”

To find out more about Sam Brown and her ukelele clubs, and buy her music, click this link – http://www.thefabulousukuleleclub.co.uk/

INTERVIEW: SAM BROWN – August 2015

Filed Under: Interviews

About the Author: Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

RSSComments (5)

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  1. Falcon Randwick says:

    Cool interview, Shane!

  2. Phil Houghton says:

    Great interview. So sad the troubles with the voice don’t seem to be ending, but she’s a great songwriter too and hopefully that can be an outlet.

  3. Shane says:

    That’s right Phil, and we are not alone in hoping to hear more from Sam, if not from her divine voice, then from her wonderful talent as a musician and lyricist

  4. Hoo Man says:

    incredible! to be able to read such a long recent interview with Sam, and also in which she shares so much of how she’s doing and the things that occupy her and how she feels about those…. i’ve really enjoyed this – thanks Shane! 🙂

  5. Lilly Arrieta says:

    He is such a wonderful artist, a great human being. Discovered her watching the memorial Concert for George [Harrison]. Absolutely stole the show! Didn’t realise what magnificence I was seeing until I heard the song ‘Horse to the Water’. Then it hit me… “why haven’t I heard of this singer before?” Now I have heard and read all I have found about her. Thanks for this interview. I really hope and pray Sam gets her voice back. wish her the best.

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