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Sam Brown - Interview 2008

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 29 / 7 / 2021

Sam Brown - Interview 2008


In this 2008 archival interview, which she believes to be definitive,, renowned singer-songwriter Sam Brown chats to Nick Dent-Robinson about some of the highlights of her thirty year career, including working with George Harrison, Jools Holland and Pink Floyd, the massive success of her 80's single 'Stop' and her then recently released fourth album 'Of The Moment'.

Singer-songwriter Sam Brown has performed with the elite of the UK’s music scene since the late 1970s. Daughter of top 60s guitarist Joe Brown and his vocalist wife Vicki, Sam had a major international success with her own composition ‘Stop’ in the late 80s. She has enjoyed a packed career since. This has included a world tour with Pink Floyd, years on the road as a lead vocalist with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra plus penning songs for some of the biggest names in the business. But last autumn Sam had a cyst removed from her vocal chords and has had to pause a while as her voice recovers. With her latest album ‘Of The Moment’ recently released, Sam takes the opportunity to reflect on some highlights of 30 years working with the world’s most renowned rock musicians. Nick Dent-Robinson reports. It is an early spring evening as Sam Brown welcomes me into her village home in rural Oxfordshire. She is casually clad in green top and red slacks. Her hair is dark brown with a touch of titian. It contrasts strikingly with her smiling blue grey eyes. Inside, the scene is a familiar one. Sam’s two children, Vicki, 14, and Mohan, 12, are with friends, focussed on school projects; food is being prepared in the spacious kitchen; sophisticated music plays in the background and attractive artwork adorns the walls. There is the usual clutter of ordinary family life and the atmosphere is cosy and warm. All very middle England. But Sam is not just your average 43 year old mother of two. There is a hint of this from a guitar and ukulele resting in the corner of the lounge. Further evidence is the magnificent hand-bound book Sam passes me to look at while she serves the children’s meal. For this is the commemorative album presented by Olivia Harrison to every artist performing at the 2002 ‘Concert for George’ at the Royal Albert Hall. Sam was the only solo female vocalist in the rock section of the concert. Eric Clapton was musical director and Jeff Lynne oversaw recording of the event which took place one year to the day after George Harrison died in November, 2001. It was an historic occasion in rock’n’roll. “That was definitely a high spot of my career,” Sam tells me later as she settles in a comfy sofa with a glass of red wine. “I felt so honoured to be included. This event finally convinced me I had the respect of some of the greats of rock music, people I really admire. Eric and Jeff were so kind to me. Until then, despite all my achievements, I’d always lacked a little confidence.” The line-up was spectacular. As well as Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne others included Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dhani Harrison as well as Klaus Voorman, Billy Preston, Gary Booker, Albert Lee, Jim Capaldi, Ravi and Anoushka Shankar plus Jools Holland, who accompanied Sam. Although Sam had sung at the Albert Hall on at least 40 previous occasions, she was nervous. “But adrenalin provides the spur which can make a performance special, give it charisma. As soon as the music started I was fine,” she recalls. Sam’s dad, Joe, brought the concert to a close with the perfect finale. His rendition with ukulele of the standard ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ was unforgettable. As he played, red flowers started to fall from the ceiling over the whole auditorium. There wasn’t a dry eye anywhere. “It was a very emotional evening for all of us. The atmosphere was charged in a wonderfully warm, almost spiritual way. George had been one of my dad’s greatest friends. He was a very special person. He was spiritual but forthright and grounded, too. George was best man when dad remarried after my mum died. Dad was just so glad to have the opportunity to pay his respects by doing that song”. Besides her Albert Hall performances, Sam has been involved in quite a few historic highpoints in the music world. Barely into her teens, her first professional recording job was with her mother Vicki providing backing vocals on the last Small Faces album, ‘In The Shade’. Not much later and still in her young adolescence, Sam was to make her live singing debut with Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane when they performed together as ‘Blind Drunk’ at the Bridge House pub in Canning Town, East London. “Yes, I did that with my foster brother Richard (Newman) who was even younger than me, playing drums! Dad was supposed to be there but couldn’t do it so we helped out. It was great. Fantastic East End atmosphere and others in the band drinking volumes of neat brandy. Steve had such a strong, rich voice as well as being so impressive instrumentally. He was always very nice to me, though I know he could be a nightmare, sometimes.” Sam also sang backing vocals on the last recording George Harrison made, his composition ‘Horse To The Water‘, which was later released on a Jools Holland album. Although terminally sick by then, George was somehow lifted by the music. “Somewhere upstairs I still have a mini-disc from that recording session with George chattering away. It was not long before George died,” Sam recalls. This was the song that Sam was later to sing at the ‘Concert for George’. Inevitably that performance brought back memories of recording it with George just over a year earlier. There have been numerous major charity and benefit events, too, including Sam’s participation with Mark Knopfler and Phil Collins in the first Prince’s Youth Trust concert in the early 80s. Subsequently Buckingham Palace invited Sam to sing for the Queen at the Golden Jubilee and she has been involved in a variety of other royal occasions over the years, often with Jools Holland. And when Tony Blair was hosting his first G8 summit in Birmingham Sam was again invited to sing with Jools Holland’s big band. The leaders of the world’s eight most powerful countries were present. Afterwards Bill Clinton came over to the band to present Sam with a yellow rose. She accidentally dropped the flower and, to the amusement of others in the band, President Clinton reached down to pick it up and present it a second time. Later tales circulated in the British Foreign Office of the President seeking out Sam’s phone number with a view to inviting her to perform in Washington. The suggestion was that the US Embassy in London vetoed this. Sam finds the story uproariously funny. She cackles with laughter but firmly denies all knowledge. Then, diplomatically, she adds, “I was impressed, though, with how charming Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both were. Very pleasant, but it was all a bit of a blur”. Sam pauses a moment as she sips her wine. Then, with a grin, she quickly brings things right down to earth by adding, “Mind you, it was not my best moment personally. I had not long had my second child and wasn’t keen to perform there. But Jools insisted I do it, overweight, leaky tits and all! From what you say, it sounds like I got away with it as far as Mr Clinton was concerned.” Sam also featured in Pink Floyd’s last ever ‘Division Bell’ tour in 1994. It was 9 months and covered most of the USA plus 25 other countries, playing Earls Court as well as many of the world’s major stadiums. She recalls, “It was hard. I told Dave Gilmour I’d have to take my daughter with me as she was just six months old.” That must have been difficult? “She was a happy baby. But the point was, Dave had asked me to do a few tours before and I’d always had to turn him down which was an incredibly difficult thing to do. I mean, I turned down Pink Floyd at least three times. And I love Pink Floyd and like Dave so I really wanted to do it this time.” The way Sam sings with Pink Floyd is pretty demanding. It must have been hard on her voice, night after night? “It was. I’m amazed I got through it. At that time I’d had no voice tuition whatsoever. Later, after I’d had my second child I became exhausted and lost my voice. I went to have singing tuition in Glasgow and the difference was remarkable. With a few new techniques I could sing anything, 12 nights in a row.” Sam first sang at the Albert Hall when she was just 16. It was a Colombian charity event with David Gilmour. She remembers being petrified and wanting to turn and run off the stage. The performance went well, though. Amongst Sam’s many Albert Hall appearances since then were a benefit concert for Ronnie Lane where she sang with Paul Weller and other occasions with Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. Plus the annual Jools Holland event when the whole auditorium would be turned into a gigantic pub. Sam suddenly recalls another time with Deep Purple in Hamburg. “We’d all had a few drinks. The Beautiful South were there, too. I don’t remember why, but Ian Gillan and I ended up swapping clothes. He looked good in my dress. But you know it never ever smelled quite the same again! I won’t bore you with too many of those old rock‘n‘roll stories, though.” We talk more about her work with Jools who has described Sam as “without question, one of the greatest singers I’ve ever worked with”. “Jools and I met on a TV show called ‘The Happening’ in 1989, or was it 1990? We have a close relationship musically and I do have great respect for what he has achieved. I have learned a lot from him. Working with Jools has enabled me to perform with such an incredible range of talent. Sometimes it is all a rush and there doesn’t seem enough time to prepare as I would like to. But that kind of pressure working with class performers does raise your game. I enjoy singing backing vocals, too. People have said to me I shouldn’t do that, shouldn’t lower myself, but I love doing it. I think you can learn a lot from any performance with others and I don’t really give a toss whether people think I shouldn’t do it! “For me music is a learning process. There’s so much to take in and absorb. And when you meet and work with people like Solomon Burke or Dr John or BB King or Robert Plant who have been around a bit and seen so much, you really gain. These people are always learning, too - looking around, soaking things up. It is the same with writing songs. There are so many different ways of doing it, new approaches. It is constantly challenging which is one of the things I love about music.” Sam has written with Jools Holland, too. “Yes, I enjoy writing songs with Jools. I was lucky to be able to do that. He is great musically but also a skilled lyricist. Together we have written for Chrissie Hynde, Sam Moore, Nick Cave, Edwin Starr, Dionne Warwick as well as a song for the Dawn French film, ‘Milk’. And once we did a song for Ray Charles, though he died before he was able to make the record. Later Paul Rodgers recorded it. I believe ‘Valentine Moon’, which Jools and I wrote together, was featured on 'EastEnders;. The Jools album the song appeared on reached the UK Top Ten in 2007.” Outside the music industry many are unaware how prolific and successful Sam Brown has been as a songwriter. She has written with Jon Lord of Deep Purple for his solo albums and has had scores of her songs recorded. In 2004 Jamelia released her own version of “Stop” which was featured in the second Bridget Jones film. Why don’t more people associate the name Sam Brown with songwriting? “I don’t understand why that has never come across. Maybe it’s because of the way ‘Stop’ was marketed? The platinum hair and so forth. You know, the dumb blonde.” The Monroe-style image? “I was OK with that. But I hated some of the nonsense that went with it. I wasn’t really that comfortable with myself back then. Didn’t feel I looked good at all and hated having my photo taken. I’d never have had the confidence to do what some of the young women do now! But I didn’t mind the Monroe look. In fact I have just done a photo-session which included a copy of a Monroe photograph and it was really nice to do.” When did Sam start writing songs? “As far back as I remember music was one of the most important things in my life. I always wanted to write songs. I’d had piano lessons from age 5. My teacher was tough. She had a ruler with a brass edge and used to rap my knuckles if I didn’t hold my wrists high enough to allow a mouse to run underneath, as she put it. In truth I didn’t learn much from her. It was my dad who put me on the right track by introducing me to Scott Joplin. If you can master his tunes then it is an introduction to playing stride piano. “As I had a good ear, it was a short step from playing to composing tunes and adding lyrics. Or sometimes writing the lyrics and putting them to music. I was quite a solitary child and from the age of 13 I spent a lot of time in my room working on songs. Even then I used to try to avoid the worst clichés of love songs. I was fascinated by words and their meanings and rhythms. At school English was a favourite subject and even today I enjoy crosswords.” Hundreds of successful compositions later, has Sam’s song-writing method changed? “Not much, really. Though I compose on the ukulele now, rather than the piano. What often works best for me is when I have the basic concept for the lyric and then find a melody, fine-tuning the words to get the best fit. But there’s no hard and fast rules. Sometimes a song just comes, which is what happened with ‘Stop’, as I was driving down the Pacific Highway near Los Angeles one day. I was 19, spotty, wearing dungarees, a beret and Doctor Martens and I loved it there. My record company had asked me to go out for a few months to do some writing. I didn’t fit in, though and I didn’t really go down that well. Hardly your typical Southern Californian beach babe, was I? But I did write some good songs and ‘Stop’ was one of them. “I do like to collaborate with others sometimes like David Rotheray of The Beautiful South or Jools or Jon Lord. But more often I work alone. For me, passion and truth in a song is important. My best work does come from the heart. The songs on my latest album, 'Of The Moment' are very personal and truthful and I think that shows. But women and many men of my age will connect with what I am saying. It is a strong album and it features some of the best musicians anywhere.” ‘Of The Moment’ does have some stunningly powerful tracks. ‘Do Right By Her’ is almost chillingly painful and honest. It is performed with real passion by Sam. She is supported on the album by Herbie Flowers, one of the best bassists in the business with the hauntingly beautiful clarinet of Julian Stringer and the slide guitar of Melvin Duffy. Sam’s brother Pete has produced the record. ‘Show Me Your Love’ is another potent, edgy, blues-influenced track and ‘Over the Moon’ provides a lighter, lyrically happy and pretty contrast. Listening to the new album reminded me of what one of the UK’s top rock performers had said off the record about Sam. “She has stunning stylistic range and virtuosity both as a performer and a song-writer which is a rare combination. And she is so passionate, committed and professional, too”. This virtuosity across a range of styles does make Sam hard to pigeon-hole. She has the ability to transcend musical genres with ease. She can switch from silken-voiced to smoky, from soft to tumultuous and she is always too sophisticated to simply belt out a song. But has this professional versatility counted against her commercially, as some commentators have suggested? Maybe some music critics are less comfortable when they can’t simply assign someone to a particular slot? “Well, I like singing different kinds of music. And it’s a shame if people have a problem with that. Musicians admire and respect versatility but perhaps it can make marketing more of a challenge. Sad if that’s true, though.” ‘Of The Moment’ is the creative response to several difficult years for Sam, personally. The end of her marriage to record producer Robin Evans and a disastrous affair which left her in a low place, culminating in her breakdown. She managed to work throughout all this trauma and after therapy now feels stronger for suffering the whole experience. The music that has emerged is positive, too and ‘Of The Moment’ is already winning acclaim from music professionals. Yet such passion in music is not currently fashionable in this post-modern era of irony, cynicism and smug superficiality, especially amongst some of the many new women singer-songwriters. So, does Sam believe the new album will sell as well as it deserves to? “I hope so. But what has always mattered to me is touching people with my music. I would rather 100 people buy the album who will connect with what I am saying than a million who don’t really get it at all. With ‘Stop’ which sold almost 3 million internationally and was A & M Records’ biggest ever success, one of the horrors of the promotional circus for me was the huge volume of fan mail. Because almost none of it ever mentioned the music. To most fans the celebrity aspect was everything. All I wanted was to reach out to people with the best music I could make; to really connect with them in a way that means something. ‘Stop’ was a good song and a huge commercial success but it never really achieved this. “I believe my third album, ‘43 Minutes’, which I wrote when my mother was dying in 1991, was far better work. Yet at the time it was a commercial catastrophe, only selling 4000 copies initially. I bought back the rights from A & M who said the album was ‘creatively brilliant’ but would be ‘commercially disastrous’. My brother Pete did a superb job of producing that album. Now it is seen as almost a collector’s item - though it is still available. And some of the biggest names in music have lavished praise on it.” And what happened to Sam’s second album, ‘April Moon’? “Well, A & M did release that one. But the band and I used to act a bit outrageously sometimes. And one day we managed to moon Jerry Moss who ran A & M with Herb Alpert. American record executives don’t always see the funny side of things or appreciate a bit of British bawdiness. And, from that moment on, A & M didn’t really push ‘April Moon’ - yes, I see the irony in the name - as hard as they might have. It did OK but was never in the same sales league as ‘Stop’ had been.” Is Sam still outrageous? Sam’s blue grey eyes twinkle momentarily. “Only in a rather low key way, I’m afraid. I do say what I think, though. And I like the occasional glass or two of wine or a gin. I have never smoked or been much interested in drugs. I am probably too busy being a mum for too much outrage.” Does she like being a mum? Sam’s face softens. “I really do. One of the best things about having to rest my voice and not tour is that I get to spend more time with my children. I enjoy family things. I like to knit, cook, do the garden and am surprisingly domesticated, really. Both my children are musical. Mohan plays drums and Vicki guitar. She writes songs, too. It has been great having more time with them to do ordinary things. Like walking through the beautiful woods near here. I really value that.” Is Sam a firm disciplinarian? “I am a soft arse, actually. I do believe in some boundaries, though. And in open discussion and mutual respect. So far I seem to be achieving that and there’s usually a warm atmosphere. The main thing is that the children are happy and confident in themselves. When I left my husband after 15 years together we were living in Scotland. It should have been an idyllic existence, but it hadn’t quite worked out like that and we had fallen out of love. The move away was tough. But we all got through it and Robin, the kids and I have a good relationship now which is important for the children. I am pleased Vicki and Mohan can see more of my own family now, too. My dad and his second wife, her two daughters and my brother Pete and his wife all live quite close by and we do spend time together.” Although Sam left home at 17 to find her own way with her musical career, she works closely with both her brother and her dad now. She sometimes tours with them. “ And I really enjoy it. But when I was young I didn’t get on particularly well with my dad. Despite his friendly cockney stage image he was a strict father with old-fashioned values. He has mellowed now, though, and we have a strong relationship. Music draws us together, too. I have the greatest respect for what he has achieved. Like me he has never had much interest in fame. It is just the price you have to pay for performing live which is what all good musicians live for. Sometimes, though, I do wish my dad had more recognition. He’s achieved so much in 50 years in the business. He’s composed some beautiful songs, starred in West End musicals and is accepted by many in the music world as one of the country’s best guitarists. Yet because he is so unassuming in that traditional working class British sort of way, the wider public are not aware of the great talent he has.” How was it being raised in a music family? When Sam was a child both her parents were household names. What was that like? “Well, they were away a lot touring so we were largely raised by nannies. Though I saw quite a bit of my dad’s mum, ‘Ma Brown’. She was a real character; six feet and an inch tall, a staunchly working class Londoner, tough but with a heart of gold. She had run a pub in the East End. The singer Billy Fury used to lodge with her in the Sixties. She took pity on him because he was so homesick for Liverpool. “My mum was more like a good friend to me in many ways. Occasionally my mum and dad would be outrageous and crazy like firing cap guns at each other. They had a deep relationship, though. There were always musicians around when we lived near Chigwell in Essex. But when I was 12 we moved out to Oxfordshire. Despite the grotesque cartoon image many people have of rock musicians as riotous and crazy, actually most of them I have known have been gentle and caring with real insight into human nature. There are always exceptions and excesses of drugs and drink obviously cause problems sometimes. “One of the best things about my childhood was that it showed me that making a living from music was not some impossible dream. It could be a reality, provided you worked hard enough and committed totally to it. That gave me a basic professional confidence from a young age though I still had to face the world and develop my own musical style. Later it was a shock, though, to find other people believed the way you looked was so important. In my family the music came first, always. Image was not something people cared about much.” Looking back, does Sam have any regrets about her younger years? “Not many. My brothers and I went to a posh private school in Essex.mWith our strong London accents and working class attitudes we stood out a bit but it wasn’t too bad. I had passed my 11 plus exam a year early and when we moved to Oxfordshire I went to a state school. Again my brothers soon joined me. I have no memory of being bullied or teased about our parents’ career. In fact I made some good friends. School work was always easy for me but I was involved in the Jack Good TV show ‘Let’s Rock’ and doing some session work singing with my mum. I was also invited to perform with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and I toured in Turkey with them. So, sadly, I missed out on quite a few lessons. I also regret not reading more. In fact I have just started to read myself through some of the classic English literature. I do envy those who are better read than me.” Did Sam shine in music at school? “No, not particularly. It really isn’t very well taught in Britain. I am a patron of the London Vocal Tech School for college age students and I do some occasional master classes there. It is good to see music being taught well. I have also recently done a master class in Russia. I do enjoy doing that and hope to do more in the future.” Looking ahead, what ambitions does Sam still have? “Well, obviously I would like ‘Of The Moment’ to be the success it deserves to be. And I want to do another album, soon. Perhaps a covers album. Stuff like Jacques Brel songs and I want to do ‘Wild is the Wind’ which Johnny Mathis first sang for the Fifties film of that name. That would be a good album title, too. Except that those who know me well might associate it with my tendency to flatulence! “If I had the chance I would really like to go to a good music college myself and study the piano and singing properly. Perhaps I could pay my way by doing a bit of teaching there, too. Another wish is to learn about the psychology of musical performance. What works and why and whether and how commitment and truth in a performance can be detected by an audience. I do find all that fascinating.” What are Sam’s own favourite album tracks? “That’s easy. I’ll give you three. ‘Stay With Me’ by Lorraine Ellison; ‘In Germany Before The War’ by Randy Newman and ’Blame It On The Sun’ by Stevie Wonder.” And her major influences? “My main singing influence was Stevie Wonder. But I liked Thelma Houston, Kate Bush and Blondie. And of course Aretha Franklin.” Sam has been called “the white Aretha Franklin”. I mention that in the UK charts, Sam’s single ‘Stop’ actually outperformed Aretha Franklin’s biggest (1968) hit ‘I Say A Little Prayer’. “Did it really? Wow! But it is flattering even to be compared with Aretha. She is such a huge talent.” Has Sam suffered embarrassments or made major mistakes over the years? “I’ll tell you one. I opened a performance at a women’s prison with one of my favourite songs, called ‘One Candle’. It is from my ‘43 Minutes’ album. That was an error. With that title it got a pretty ribald reaction!” And, working with all those top rock performers what are the best tips she has been given? “Again, I can think of three. - ‘Never apologise and never make excuses’ from David Gilmour. ‘Remember you are there to entertain, not to educate’ from my dad. And, most important of all, ‘You must always be able to believe what you are singing’ from my mum.” And what matters most professionally? “Self-respect. You must be happy with what you are doing and have the confidence to do what you believe in”. And personally? “Don’t be too self-important. We are all just specks of dust. And try to take the time to be kind to others. Plus remember the power of music to do good in the world.”

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Sam Brown - Interview 2008

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