Changes in direction don’t come much more radical than the one you’ll see in Vanessa “V V” Brown. She arrived in 2009 as an elegant streak of pop energy, riding the post-Winehouse wave of new retro with a sharp rockabilly look and a series of punchy garage-pop singles. Though V V Version 1 never quite broke into the winner’s enclosure, she did well in Europe and delivered at least one bona fide gem in “Shark in the Water.”
Four years on she’s transformed herself in quite startling fashion. Having parted ways with Island Records and hooked up with Jessie Ware’s polymath producer Dave Okumu of the Invisible, the new V V Brown makes her old contemporaries seem callow and timid. Her new album Samson & Delilah embraces epic, emotive electro-pop and her voice has grown into a rich and powerful instrument. Stately, grand and tragic in a look she describes as “black geisha,” these days she resembles some hitherto-undiscovered mix of Grace Jones, Kate Bush and Klaus Nomi.
Now the boss of her own cottage industry which includes her record label and her fashion brand VVVintage, the child prodigy from Northampton seems to be relishing her freedom. Always a film fan, she’s now shooting short movies around the new album and promises a tour that will be “very theatrical, with dancers, actors, stage dressing, movies, the lot.”
“I hope that people will see this is the purest V they could possibly see,” she says. “This is the V that was trapped in the shark’s mouth. And now I can do what I want.”
Andrew Harrison talked with Brown about her dramatic transformation.
From shiny megapop to grandiose electronic opera…how on earth did that happen?
It was a big spiritual transition for me. I made Travelling Like the Light in 2007-8. That’s six years ago and I’ve changed quite dramatically as a person since. I was coming into my late 20s — I’ll be 30 this year — and I started to read different books and get interested in different forms of culture. I became more educated about my art form rather than chasing after this pop mainstream sensibility. I used to have panic attacks if I didn’t get playlisted! That stuff doesn’t matter so much to me anymore. What I want is to make an incredible piece of art that I can tell my grandchildren about.
How did you develop this extraordinary new vocal persona, where you sound like a Blade Runner version of Kate Bush?
Kate Bush was a massive influence on this record — she has these amazing ways of organizing melody — and I listened to a lot of opera too, which is also about experimenting with structure. Plus my boyfriend is an artist and he’s heavily into prog rock and math rock. I got really into Battles, for instance. But vocally this record is definitely about opera. When I was singing I imagined two heavy planks squeezing my voicebox into a different shape, to get the operatic vowel sounds. It became a bit of a joke during the recording [laughs] but before long it became natural to sing that way.
You abandoned a whole second album, Lollipops and Politics, and left Island Records to make Samson & Delilah. Why?
I was thirsty to be challenged, really. Lollipops and Politics just felt like more of the same, and I wasn’t that girl any more. I couldn’t even listen to it. I’m still proud of my debut album [Travelling Like the Light] but it was the classic case of getting all the best session musicians in, throw millions of drum fills in, work on every little last bit and try to make it perfect. There’s a lack of humility and vulnerability to it, and that’s what makes music human. This record is my baby, it’s on my label, and when we play live there’s hardly anything programmed. There’s clarity to it.
Working with Dave Okumu has radically changed your sound. Do you turn one another on to different music?
Dave’s pretty knowledgeable — he’s a proper music head. I learned much more from him than he did from me. He’s all over opera, punk, electronic, UK hip-hop and everything. He’s an all-rounder. He’s quite amazing, really. He sits in the studio pressing all these guitar pedals by hand to distort the vocals, like playing the piano with pedals. He’s really low-key and quiet too. He’ll say things like, “Yeah, I’m working with Grace Jones at the moment,” and I’ll go, “Whaaaat??” I didn’t even know he’d produced Jessie Ware. I’m like, “Oh God, you’ve done all these massive people and I’m going to ruin your career…”
You described your current look as “black geisha.” How did you get into Japanese culture?
I’ll admit that I’m obsessed — I love Japanese food, Japanese film, Japanese design and fashion. It’s a fascinating culture. I don’t know where it comes from but I like the humility and discipline, the respect for one another that runs through the Japanese worldview. It’s a serving culture. You don’t put yourself at the center. I admire that. And the spirituality is very powerful. I’m Christian but I respect the Buddhist way of looking at things. Maybe I was Japanese in a past life?
You’re the boss of your own small label now. Isn’t that daunting?
You know what, it’s not that difficult! Pop music is going back to being a smaller-scale industry, where artists have more ownership, and that’s got to be healthy. You can make an amazing video for £10 if you’ve got a strong idea. The more expensive something is, the more likely it’ll be shit. [Laughs.]