Six years ago VV Brown quit music for good. The indie singer-songwriter – who first rose to fame with the jangly Noughties hit Shark In The Water before leaving major label life behind and branching out into increasingly experimental art-pop – left London to live in the Northamptonshire countryside. Shortly afterwards, she told fans that she was done with the industry altogether. “I put out a statement saying I wasn’t coming back,” she says today. “I was done.”
Brown describes her time away as a tough six years in which she felt trapped in a creative rut, and disillusioned with the music industry. Though she would privately dabble in the studio from time to time, she genuinely believed her music career was over; she became a social media manager, started a law degree, and spent some time working at a YMCA Community Centre. “People would go, 'Aren’t you that girl who wrote that song about sharks?' I was on a mission to change it up.“
During this time she was also struggling with postnatal depression after having two children. “I was so unhealthy,” she says. “I wasn't just depressed. I was very, very overweight. A lot of the fear of going back into music… I thought that if I went back in the industry as a full-figured woman, I would be ridiculed, and made fun of. Now even if I was to put the weight back on, I don't care. I love myself. I didn't love myself before. I actually hated myself, and that was because of the music industry.”
"I hate the diva thing. I think divas are dickheads.”
Which makes her return all the more surprising. Her first album in eight years, Am I British Yet?, brings together multiple poets and choirs with beats by her Australian collaborator Sensible J. Though Brown herself is high in the mix on Am I British Yet? she is less a front person, and more of a compère; leading the charge and welcoming in all manner of voices to explore different facets of black identity and British culture. There’s a particular focus on voices that come from outside of London; her collaborator and friend Liam Bailey, for instance, details the microaggressions he remembers from growing up in a “posh” part of Nottingham.
On the cover of the single Black British, a warped and blurred likeness of Brown retches onto the union jack. It’s not immediately clear whether she’s gorging herself on the national symbol until she feels sick, or vomiting in disgust.
“As a black woman, I'm digesting the culture, I'm eating in the culture. I'm eating in Britain,” Brown says. “Because I don't feel like I belong, it causes me to have nausea. I became sick of the culture. A lot of people thought that I was just being sick into the flag, but it's more nuanced than that. I don't want to be sick. I want to eat and be full. I want to be nourished by British culture.”
Fuelled by a powerful collective energy, Am I British Yet? is an exceptionally rich exploration of black Britishness today. “This is for the underdogs and all of the marginalised,” she chants on Marginalised. On Inhale, Brown remembers having her hair “poked and prodded” during high-end fashion photoshoots, and “dancing in the mirrors of pop star likeness” back when she felt pressure to stay quiet about the racism and microaggressions she encountered every day. “They feel scared by our excellence,” she recites.
This time around, Brown is determined to do things differently when it comes to releasing music. We meet in one of her favourite cafes in north London, no interfering publicists or flashy lunches to be seen. “I like to keep my feet on the ground,” she says. “I hate all of that celebrity malarkey. I think it's delusional. I think it's unhealthy. I think it's f**king horrible.”
For the most part, she stays grounded by spinning a lot of different plates. Family is hugely important, and Brown's family all live nearby in Northamptonshire. She’s also forging a career as a journalist, and is a regular contributor to The Voice, the UK’s only national black newspaper. She has spent much of the last week “in tears” about the current situation in Israel and Palestine.
“Israel has a right to defend itself, but it's important that there's context to the story,” she says, drawing a clear distinction between innocent civilians in Israel, and the actions of the country’s government. “It has broken international law, this is obvious… what if nothing happens? What if there are no repercussions for this breaking of international law? What does that mean about the legitimacy of these treaties? It means there is no law. That it is only in the hands of the powerful. If we don’t have democracy, and we don’t have law, we have anarchy. That’s the bit that’s f**king me up.”
As well as founding the Milton Keynes-based creative charity Say Something Collective, which supports marginalised communities living outside the UK’s big cities, Brown is also a lecturer at the LMA in London, and has passed on many of the lessons she's learned in the industry to her students.
“I'd rather talk to a nurse on a bench in the park, than some big shot influencer,” she shrugs. “It's not healthy,” she says, of fame. “It's like a beast that attaches to the ego. And if you're f**ked up before fame, what it does is it feeds it, and the f**ked-up-ness – excuse my French – is enlarged. All your issues are enlarged, and you become addicted to it to validate yourself. It’s just not right.”
She has two young children, and worries about how best to shield them from that same culture.“They’ve just realised what I do. They were like, ‘Mummy, someone told me you have a song about a shark… are you famous?’”. Shark In The Water – from 2009’s vintage-influenced debut Travelling Like The Light – is by far VV Brown’s biggest hit, a jaunty breezy slab of indie-pop with 38 million Spotify streams and counting. It’s also something of an outlier in her back catalogue, in terms of its staggering popularity, and though it’s not the sort of song Brown would make now, she has jokingly thanked it in the past for paying her mortgage. “I always say, 'No, that’s just my work, my job.' I’m trying to protect them from being in awe of it.”
“I bought a house, and I lost my house. I negotiated myself out of my first record contract, aged 19. So many lessons learned.”
Admittedly, this is a lesson that Brown has learned from harsh experience. Raised in rural Northamptonshire, she turned down a place to study law at Oxford in order to try and land a record deal, and moved to London as a 17-year-old, hell-bent on making it. She and her friends would sneak into clubs like 10 Rooms to rub shoulders with Blur’s Damon Albarn and Amy Winehouse. “We would sleep in the day and go out at night, and get wasted. That was our life, for a year. That's how I got a record deal,” she laughs.
Looking back, however, Brown was also incredibly vulnerable, and some people around her exploited that. “I got sexually assaulted in that era, which was horrible. I’ve had therapy, and all of that lot. But it shows my naivety… I was meeting the right people, but I also met the wrong person. That was quite traumatic.”
Initially, landing a deal felt like a dream come true; Brown was whisked away to Los Angeles, where she sang backing vocals for Pussycat Dolls, and would bump into Pharrell and Queen Latifah in her label offices. Everything felt so starry, and so surreal, that Brown felt under “massive pressure to fulfil the needs of others”. She also felt that showing any weakness could put an end to her music career before it had truly started. “If I decide I can't do it, or I take my foot off the gas pedal, or show any vulnerability, then boom, in with the next artist. It is so ruthless. It is cutthroat. They will move you along. They did move me along. Especially being a black woman… it was like ‘You’ve had your time, out you go.’”
“I didn't know who I was,” she says. “I was easily moulded. They were projecting their ideas of what I should do. I was being tossed around like a Caesar salad. I was in LA. I was on my own. I got addicted to sleeping pills because I was just completely depressed.”
Looking at her nieces and nephews – who are now the same age as Brown was back then – has thrown her vulnerability into even clearer focus. “I bought a house, and I lost my house. I negotiated myself out of my first contract, aged 19. So many lessons learned.” Brown is now completely independent, and released albums on her own label YOY Records in 2013, 2015 and now this year.
She has immense respect for other black women in the music industry who are now leading a conversation about the poor treatment they’ve endured. Laura Mvula has named and shamed Sony for allegedly dropping her from her deal over email, while Raye and Mahalia have both spoken about being trapped in never-ending artist development cycles, unable to release new music.
Arlo Parks and Rachel Chinouriri have both highlighted their frustrations at being labelled as hip-hop or R&B musicians, despite making alternative indie music. “It's lazy and stereotypical, really, and I experienced that,” Brown agrees. “I was doing this 20 years ago, and trying to rebrand what it means to be a black woman. Why does it always have to be diva, or soul? I hate the diva thing. I think divas are dickheads.”
“I don’t want to be… ‘Ladies and gentlemen, VV Brown’ anymore,” she concludes, doing her best impersonation of a TV host. “Moving forward. I don't want to be at the centre of it anymore. I want to be a vessel for other stuff.”
VV Brown's new album Am I British Yet? is out on October 27