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Sam Brown - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 8 / 12 / 2014

Sam Brown - Interview


Nick Dent-Robinson speaks to bestselling 80's star Sam Brown about her new career as a vocal coach

Oxfordshire singer-songwriter Sam Brown has performed with the elite of the UK music scene for thirty years. Daughter of top 60’s guitarist Joe Brown and his vocalist wife Vicki, Sam had a major international success with her own composition 'Stop' in the late 80s. A series of albums and a world tour with Pink Floyd followed plus years on the road as a lead vocalist with Jools Holland. Sam has performed at the Albert Hall on over fifty occasions, she has sung several times for the Queen and for prime ministers as well as for US President Bill Clinton. She has also written songs recorded by some of the biggest names in the business. But in October 2007 Sam had a cyst removed from her vocal cords and her career had to take a new direction. Starting with a small ad in the classified section of her local paper, Sam became a music coach. In time this developed into the formation of several ukulele orchestras. I talked to Sam and some of her students about her new role – which Sam says is one of the most satisfying things she has ever done. With a welcoming smile, Sam Brown shows me into the music room at her village home near Henley-on-Thames. A magnificent black Yamaha grand piano dominates but there are numerous guitars, ukuleles, keyboards, an accordion plus a large drum set and an array of speakers, computers and recording kit adorning the small space. Do some students find this a bit overwhelming? “Occasionally,” Sam agrees. “At first the whole experience of singing in front of somebody is frightening anyway. Especially when you are singing to someone who has done quite a bit of it. But I quickly get my students through that.” “I always stress I don't see myself primarily as a singing teacher, but more as a music coach, a mentor. I can help people with their singing but also with song-writing, I can give basic skills on piano or ukulele - showing people short-cuts – and I can help with knowing where to take things later...advice on contacts, stagecraft, PR, photographs, press. A whole package of help really.” Had Sam always been interested in teaching? “Yes. As a child I didn't especially think about a singing career. My little dream then was to live in a nice house somewhere pretty in the countryside and be a teacher. Maybe teaching music, but not necessarily. So, I am kind of accomplishing that finally.” “It wasn't a planned career change,” Sam explains. “After my marriage ended a few years ago I developed voice problems and had a cyst removed in 2007. I needed remedial therapy, which still continues, to rebuild my voice and I have performed far less recently. It was great to have more time at home with my two children when they were still at secondary school – Vicki (who is now 21 and a professional photographer) and Mohan (who is now 19 and forging his own musical career). It was also good to have an opportunity to relax a bit, see old friends and do things I'd always wanted to do. Teaching was one of those things. I just placed a small ad in the local papers and quite quickly there was a lot of interest. With my students I have been able to apply the extra knowledge I've gained from my own remedial voice tuition with a specialist vocal coach called Mark Maylen, who is excellent. This has helped my students a lot. I have also been in touch with the British Voice Association who have been very helpful. But I have always run some master classes – including internationally – and for years I have been involved at Vocal Tech in London plus I was a tutor at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. The study of vocal techniques, breathing well, tuning in to what you are hearing, maximising muscular control, has always fascinated me. I enjoy building up my own knowledge and then using it to help others improve their performance.” “When I used to do backing vocals I tended to lead and have strong ideas. Though I was always open to input from others. I remember working with David Gilmour and Robert Wyatt and David Bowie at the Royal Festival Hall and there was a 12-piece choir which I led...it just happened that way. We did some beautiful things - like ‘The Dimming of the Day’ and some classical pieces including some Bizet. So, teaching and guiding others comes quite naturally to me.” But is it more difficult and frustrating, working with amateurs? “Not really,” says Sam. “Whatever someone wants to achieve, I like helping them with that. Even if it is just to sing a bit better in the local pub karaoke competition, that's fine. Though I have found with vocal tuition I prefer one-to-one teaching to working with a group of thirty where you have to go at the speed of the slowest. It is only through actually teaching that I have appreciated how extensive my knowledge is. I now realise I can use my vocal expertise best in a one-to-one situation where I can use the full range of my experience. Everyone can be helped to improve their singing, so long as they are committed to it.” 35 year-old Naomi Vallance, one of Sam's students, described how her own confidence had been boosted after just a few sessions with Sam. Naomi worked as an executive secretary for the director of a shipping company in Henley but she now sings professionally. “I had no idea what to expect when I met Sam,” Naomi says. “And, though I have my degree in drama and have performed quite a bit, I was a little overawed and hugely nervous meeting someone so experienced. But we hit it off immediately. Sam was so relaxed and welcoming and lovely. I have not always been happy with past singing teachers but Sam's approach was so different. She's really helped me make the most of my natural ability and under her influence I've gained true self-belief in what I can achieve. I am so much more confident now. Plus Sam has helped me in so many practical ways too. Shown me the best route forward; I now know that success in music need not be some impossible dream. We have made a demo CD together and she was a great help in getting me through to the finals of a national singing competition. Fantastic! Plus she was very supportive of my song-writing efforts too.” Megan Henwood, winner of the 2009 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award, is another of Sam's successes. “It was seeing Sam perform that finally convinced me I should follow a music career,” Megan says. “I was in my early teens. My parents took me to Henley Festival and I saw Sam sing with Jools Holland. As soon as I heard the power and passion in her voice, I turned to my mum and said, 'That's what I want to do'. Sam just looked so excited as she sang and everyone around was so excited by her performance too. It was amazing. For me it was a seminal moment.” “Then, years later, I started my vocal coaching and mentoring with Sam. It has been so valuable. Sam has so much knowledge of the music business and key people plus she is also a brilliant song-writer. She has helped me with my musical writing and in so many ways including steering me away from a disastrous potential management deal and introducing me to my first record producer and co-manager, Barrie Barlow (formerly of Jethro Tull). Sam also plays ukulele on my album, Making Waves’. Her dad, Joe Brown and step-sister Mollie Marriott, daughter of Steve, are on that album too. You know, sometimes when I am sitting in Sam's kitchen, drinking tea and she is being so positive and advising me as we listen to my music I still can't quite believe it. She has had a huge and positive impact on my musical career.” It must be satisfying for Sam, when she sees how much difference she can make to someone like Megan or Naomi. “It is,” Sam agrees. “It's one of the most rewarding things I've experienced. There are some great people out there. It's so exciting when you meet someone like Megan or Naomi who has real ability. Though, like most people, Naomi was nervous of making a recording. It can be frightening hearing your voice. And I wouldn't rush everybody into that. I don't talk much about recording techniques. I've learned you can throw too much information at people too soon. When I think the time is right I just say, 'Okay, I think we should record something now' and you see them look horrified but you just set up the mic and you say, 'Off you go...sing'. And they do it and then do another take and by the third they are relaxing. By the fifth attempt they are liking it and soon you have a good and usable take.” “A girl called Lucy came to see me. She's a doctor's daughter. She'd been taught classically in a very operatic way. But she wanted to try singing in a more contemporary style. So we worked at getting her to use her larynx in a different position, in a less cropped way. It was hard. But then one day she suddenly got it and it was really fantastic. She was just so thrilled. Immediately we recorded her and she was delighted and just kept saying, 'I can't believe I'm singing like that...it's wonderful!'.” “And another girl came round, the daughter of two classical musicians. She had never sung in front of anyone before and was desperately nervous. But then, rather tentatively, she sang - and this most gorgeous voice came out. And she developed so quickly and learned so much. I lent her a ukulele to help her write some songs. And she was just so happy with everything. These are some of the moments that can make music coaching quite magical!” Does Sam discuss stagecraft? “Yes. I'm big on stagecraft. It's vital to be comfortable on stage. Often people forget the little practical things. Ensuring the microphone is the right height and secure, thinking where you are standing, having room to move and use your hands. I often get my pupils to walk around while they are singing because when you are moving you are more relaxed and not holding everything back.” “And engaging with the audience is important too,” Sam adds. “It can be scary singing to lots of people from a stage. I remember my first solo performance at a packed Albert Hall when I was sixteen. I was terrified and just wanted to turn and run. I didn't, though, and once I started I was fine. There are simple techniques to help learn and recall lyrics, though I always believe the brain remembers more than you imagine it does! Writing out the lyrics can help you memorise them. And you should never think about a mistake you might just have made or how difficult the next part is. Instead you need to be organised in what you are doing, try to enjoy it and put your gaze slightly out of focus and then somehow the performance will come through. It is very much a two-way thing and when you reach out to the audience they will instinctively connect with you. But, really, there is no substitute for experience. Anyone who wants to sing professionally should just grab every opportunity to do it – wherever it is, whoever it is with, however big or small the audience. And they should keep watching and learning from others too. That's how stagecraft and confidence develop.” Is image important? “Yes, it is,” Sam agrees. “But there's a simple way to look at it. I try to encourage people to be themselves and look like who they actually are. If you go to a bookshop and pick up a book because you like the cover, it is very disappointing if the text inside bears no resemblance. And it is the same with a singer; it is important the way they look represents the style of their performance. I often say to my pupils, 'Imagine you're recording an album, what songs do you really love?' And I ask them to think of the whole picture those songs create and how they would want to look to represent that image. That is a good starting point for the development of their own style. But many in the music business don't get this right!” What advice does Sam wish she'd had? “I didn't have much advice really,” Sam reflects. “And the advice I had from my dad and my mum as well as occasionally from people like David Gilmour was all pretty good. But it would have been useful if I'd had proper singing lessons for vocal technique. That might have helped preserve my voice better. After performing worldwide in 1994 on Pink Floyd's ‘Division Bell’ tour, I had some voice problems and saw an excellent voice coach in Scotland. With three simple exercises lasting four minutes – to do with positioning the tongue when making particular sounds – she made a huge difference. After training each day, soon I could do twelve gigs in a row again with no problem. Previously doing just two had become a struggle.” “Though occasional mistakes will always happen,” Sam muses. “One of my worst was on live television in Italy. I was wearing a fancy, flowing dress and high heels and had to make a dramatic entrance down a long flight of stairs before singing 'Stop' straight to camera. Throughout rehearsals the whole area was brightly lit. But when we were live for the actual performance, the director cut the lights for the introduction and I fell all the way down the stairs, somersaulting and cascading my way, crashing to a halt right in front of the camera. The lights came up and I jumped to my feet just in time to hit the first note of the song. Lighting and sound problems so often cause the biggest catastrophes!” Despite the risk of such dramas, does Sam miss performing live? “Of course I miss it,” Sam admits, a little wistfully. “For most accomplished musicians or singers, playing live is what you live for. Not long ago I was offered a role in a long-running hit West End musical but my voice was not ready for that. I used to enjoy working with my brother Pete and my dad, and a while back I played piano to accompany my friend Aitch McRobbie - who lives just down the road from me - when she sang at the Kenton Theatre during the Henley-on-Thames Literary Festival. It was a tribute to Sir John Mortimer. Aitch and I performed the music with Joss Ackland and some other excellent actors performing extracts from some of Sir John's work. Many of the great and good were there. I knew Sir John and have quite a few long-standing connections with his widow Penny and their family. It was a lovely thing to be asked to do but quite nerve-racking” “I have also done more song-writing. Several of my songs were on a Tom Jones album recently, and I have also written with a girl called Polly Wood who is an up-and-coming young artist with an amazing voice. I have also written with a very successful Norwegian soprano called Sissel who performs a range of music internationally from operatic arias to folk and pop. And I compose with Charlie Dore (of ‘Pilot of the Airwaves’ fame). One of my past pupils, Mark, who is a driving instructor, is a fantastic song-writer too. I'd like him to enjoy the success he deserves with his songs.” “I've been producing records too – for several professional artists and also demos for some of my students. I hope to do more of that. And of course my various ukulele groups – starting with the original International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common - have all really taken off. The interest in that has been amazing and the different groups - which have involved well over a hundred players - now have quite a following. We perform in Henley each December at the Kenton Theatre and have appeared on TV and radio, plus we've played in France and at various major festivals in the UK - but really that's another story for another day! Considering the major shift I've had to make in my career, I have been amazingly busy. Yet I do have more time to reflect and appreciate my life now, and I feel so much more in control of things. I do relish that!” Photos by Vicki Rose Evans

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