Interview: YolanDa Brown, the UK’s premier female saxophonist

"I've always said that the saxophone is my voice"

We love talking to talented and intelligent women who do great things with their success, so of course we were excited to get the chance to chat to multi award-winning saxophonist and composer YolanDa Brown. With two master’s degrees and a massively successful music career at the age of 33, YolanDa is as impressive as she is interesting. We’ve been talking to her about her love of music, education, and her experiences in the industry.

Hi YolanDa! We’re in awe of your career. Let’s start with teaching yourself sax at age 13 – how did you do that?

Thank you! My parents invested in a saxophone for me and I remember exploring it and making music before lessons were meant to start a month later. I really enjoyed playing along with the radio and music that was playing in the house, as well as making up my own melodies. When it came to having lessons and learning scales I found it restrictive at the time and didn’t last long before deciding to go it alone and go back to playing for myself and exploring music more organically.

What drew you to the saxophone?

I had played a range of musical instruments from the age of 6 including the piano, drums and violin. At 13 I was really interested in playing a wind instrument and experiencing music with a more physical interaction. The fact that the source of the sound was my breath made me feel more connected to the music and gave it an even more personal feel.

How do you feel when you play?

I’ve always said that the saxophone is my voice. Playing the sax is very emotional for me and is a way of communicating. Initially, when playing for myself as a teenager, it was like playing my diary. Now it’s amazing to be able to communicate with audiences around the world. It’s very therapeutic!

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Every day is so different that it’s hard to pick! I would say a combination of meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace, touring with the Legendary Motown group The Temptations and being the Special Guest on Errol Brown’s Farewell Tour. Every day is a highlight and I’m very grateful and privileged to be able to call this my job.

Have you faced prejudice being a woman of colour in the music industry?

I’m so grateful for an upbringing that taught me to be me and work hard. I don’t think of myself in terms of my gender or colour and so don’t let it hinder me in different settings. I also choose not to see prejudice and always aim to present myself for who I am. I haven’t experienced any direct prejudice… but also I choose not to see it!

Who and what are your musical influences for Reggae Love Songs?

I have always loved Monty Alexander and Ernest Ranglin’s approaches to instrumental reggae music and bringing in jazz inflections. I also love Bob Marley and the Spanish reggae movement. Having toured my album and in covering so many genres, I found that there was always a buzz in the audience when I played Reggae and the subject of love covers a wide span and speaks to all. I decided to mix it all together along with my natural rhythm and soul… Reggae Love Songs was born!

You’re collaborating with some very cool artists on Reggae Love Songs – who would you like to work with in the future?

I’m really excited to be joined by Mica Paris, Omar, Lemar, Shingai Shoniwa (The Noisettes), Levi Roots and Michelle Williams (Destiny’s Child). It’s going to be a fantastic time on stage. For the future I’d love to work with Sting, Stevie Wonder, and Alicia Keys.

You work with (and run!) charities to help young musicians. How do you inspire young people to take up and stick with music? What does it mean to you?

It means so much to be able to share what music means to me and to illustrate new ways to create music based in improvisation. I go into schools and do workshops with young musicians and shed light on what a career in music can entail – from being an artist, playing in an orchestra or bands, to composing scores and theme tunes, or artist management and more.

I also speak about my journey to students that are about to take A-levels and go to university and help them understand the possibilities that are available to them. It’s important to give back to the next generation and also offer perspectives that they might not have thought about. I know I would have loved to have that.

You have two master’s degrees and you were in the middle of a science PhD when you took a break to play music – will you be going back to science or are you pursuing your music career now?

I really loved studying and researching Management Science and had a fantastic time at the University of Kent. I remember finishing my undergraduate dissertation and knowing that I could research more into combining methodologies, which led me to my PhD studies. It was in the summer before starting my PhD that I met my manager and started performing solo.

I was gigging and studying at the same time for 4 years, before realising I couldn’t live the double life anymore and that a music career had blossomed. It was the hardest decision to make but being awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of East London for my contribution to music in East London let me know I had made the right decision. There’s always hope that I will go back to my research and I do keep an eye on the journals to keep abreast of developments, but I think it’s a little way off yet!

If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say?

Keep doing what you’re doing, they are all life experiences that will help you out later in life. Life is a journey… so enjoy the ride.

Main image: YolanDa Brown/Facebook