by Ed Lopez-Reyes for Brain Damage
Sarah Brown's resume includes work with icons such as Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Duran Duran, George Michael, and Simply Red, but she's recognized most for her work with a specific set of epic classic rock acts: Roxy Music, Simple Minds, and now Pink Floyd. We wanted to find out a bit more about Brown, given the illustrious space many Pink Floyd background vocalists have come to inhabit in the band's 50-year history. Brain Damage had the opportunity to catch up with Brown. We began by asking Brown about her upbringing and its impact on her as an artist.
Brain Damage: Sarah, where are you from?
I'm from a small town called Aylesbury – in Buckinghamshire. It's about 40 miles north of London.
BD: Did you come from a musical family?
No! There wasn't a lot of performance in my family. Certainly, I didn't see that. My mother comes from a family of 13 brothers and sisters and they did sing but they didn't perform, they just went around singing. My father was the same: he sang all the time but was not a performer. I grew up hearing my mother and father singing at Church. In my family, performance wasn't encouraged. My mother was very happy with me singing in the choir at Church but the idea that I would be singing on a secular stage was frowned upon. My mom is a very humble lady and she expected her daughters to be the same. Performers are more confident and loud and my mother would frown on that.
BD: Can you tell me a bit about The Inspirational Choir, which is where you began your musical sojourn?
It was my first public immersion in the music scene. I was very young, in my teens. We were signed to CBS. The choir was based out of Islington, London.
BD: Did you join it expecting to build a life-long career in music?
At that age, really, it may have been the arrogance of youth – certainly the arrogance and the innocence of my youth! I joined The Inspirational Choir to break away from the clutches of my parents. I had really strict parents and was not allowed to listen to pop music of any kind; however, my dad played only reggae and Sam Cooke: on the other hand, my mother was very strict and religious and didn't want me to be influenced by the secular world. My father, who loved secular music, was quite happy that my mother was that way because I then could be protected by my Mom's way and he didn't then play a part in that heavy discipline role.
The Inspirational Choir was my 'freedom ticket': it was a way out of the strict home. By then, my parents had separated – I was very young – and that's about the time I was introduced to The Inspirational Choir. When my parents had separated I used that opportunity to break free. I knew my mother wouldn't mind me going to a gospel choir rehearsal so I took full advantage of it. It wasn't about being a full-time singer as much as it was about breaking free. It was in the choir that I recognized that I had a voice that could be used or that people would take seriously. Up until then I would sing as just another voice in church – but I would sing at home on my own, secretly, in front of the mirror.
BD: So The Inspirational Choir became a vessel for expression and escape?
The Inspirational Choir was a way for me to express freedom. My mother was a battered wife and my upbringing was very, very strict and very oppressive. I grew up very afraid because my father told me I was ugly and stupid and wouldn't amount to anything. On top of that, I saw him beat my mother and my brother – he was quite an angry man. So music – and The Inspirational Choir, specifically – was a vehicle to express and feel free and not really care whether I sounded stupid or not. Singing with the choir gave me freedom. Coming out of that, I would really express myself through the choir. The choir director noticed that I wasn't afraid to sing – because it comforted me. He asked me to be a lead singer and that was the beginning of this sojourn.
BD: It sounds like religion played a substantial role in your upbringing, what is your religious background?
I grew up Pentecostal, which was very much like the American black Baptist churches with the tambourines, the basses, guitars, the Hammond organs, people stomping their feet, dancing in the aisle and really having a good time! Back in the 50s and 60s Pentecostalism wasn't that common or popular but for a lot of Caribbeans (my mother and father were Jamaican born), Pentecostalism was a medium to voice their oppression. They would sing spiritual songs and really vent frustrations and anger through those songs and gain comfort: that is the arena that I grew up in.
BD: Do you maintain a close relationship with your parents despite the challenges growing up?
My father passed away about 16 years ago. He was a real party animal and loved women; smoked a lot and loved music… the smoking is what got him in the end. My mother is still alive, she's 85.
BD: Does your mother still see secular music the way she did when she was raising you?
Now she accepts that she can do things that make her happy and focuses on that. She's not 100% happy because she'd like me to sing gospel full-time.
BD: Is your style very gospel-influenced?
Yes, I would say it is. My sound is rooted, fundamentally, in gospel. I was brought up listening to Jim Reeves, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Andraé Crouch – it was a lot of gospel and a lot of reggae. Still, today, I absolutely love reggae. As I got older, in my 20s and 30s, I found blues, and jazz, and jazz fusion: after working with The Inspirational Choir I went on to work with a jazz fusion band called Incognito for 10 years, which was a fantastic learning experience. Up until then I was singing gospel and it was a different school of thought. It opened me up to a completely new arena of what's out there.
BD: That’s an interesting blend when you think about it – reggae and gospel?
Culture is your identity and your identity covers your spiritual and emotional self and your mental self and spiritually, reggae touches my heartbeat. Gospel music, to me, has come out of slavery, which was an oppressive time. The sound and the expression given to the melody or the note resonate deep in the soul of my being or anyone's being. For example, Aretha Franklin… or Mahalia Jackson: she was singing during the 50s and it was a difficult time in America. The interesting thing about Jackson's sound is it pierces right through anyone in the auditorium. Her pain vibrates through your body. That's the power a gospel singer has. It's not necessarily that they are exceptionally brilliant singers but they can conjure up the emotion of pain and put it very clearly within the note. I think it works because they were really suffering. Reggae artists – well, Jamaica, what can I say? – Bob Marley was not rich; Marley was brought up poor… and the beats he was using attack the heart and spirit – it's really gritty stuff.
You’re asking a great question because the two genres are actually so similar. Gospel and reggae are very spiritual and very powerful forms of music. They are both very spiritual forms of music.
BD: What was that turning point for you – that point where the 'two roads diverged in the yellow wood,' perhaps an epiphany that compelled you to focus on music?
Consciously or subconsciously it must have happened whilst I was singing with The Inspirational Choir. But I was not that conscious of it if at all. I will tell you this: I went to teacher-training college. When I first left school I worked voluntarily at a jobs rehabilitation center for five years because I considered a career in counseling. I also worked in a factory trimming hats. At the time I was also in The Inspirational Choir. After doing this for about six years I said "no, I've had enough of this." I wanted to sing full-time… but the guilt – the church made me feel guilty: I felt I had to choose full-time singing in the choir or singing secular music. In the end, I went to teacher-training college for two years. In the second year I failed an assignment and was told I had to re-sit it but there was a great guy called Mr. Cox and he said to me (and this was an epiphany moment): "Sarah you don't really want to do this, do you? Why don't you just go and sing?!" And I thought to myself, "Blinking heck! I really do just want to sing." I only went to teacher-training because it was the safe option: something to do if the singing failed. Mr. Cox obviously had some kind of intuition on this. He knew I was in The Inspirational Choir because we were on television and had an album out and he just said, "Look, go and sing because you're basically wasting your time here." I decided not to re-sit the assignment and left to pursue music.
BD: What did you expect in that new path?
I gave myself 10 years in which to penetrate the backing singer world because I was too afraid to pursue a role as a lead singer. So I went for the easy option. I knew the backing singers in England were not a threat to me, I didn't feel threatened at all. And literally, it took me 10 years to reach what I had set out to do. After 10 years I started getting the calls to audition for many of the artists you've mentioned.
BD: To what extent were you familiar with Pink Floyd, Simple Minds, Roxy Music, Duran Duran, and Stevie Wonder (any of the artists you’ve collaborated with) growing up?
The familiarity absolutely came much later. I will be completely honest in the humblest of ways: the world I was brought up in was like a completely parallel world to what was going on in the scene you're asking about. I had nothing to do with Roxy Music prior to singing with them; it didn't influence me in any way because I had no exposure to it.
BD: Was it a bit of a shock to learn of these artists' statures?
Let me tell you a story: when I got the call to work with Roxy Music in 2000, I said "who is Bryan Ferry?" I didn't know any of their songs. Actually, the only song I knew was Slave to Love but didn't know anything else! So I learnt on the job and it really was work for me – but it was a great experience and I soon realized I was working with a giant. I mean Roxy Music is incredible! A similar thing happened with Simple Minds: Jim [Kerr] called me to work with Simple Minds and I didn't know anything about the band. I was so frightened… it wasn't until I started working for Simple Minds that I realized again, 'wow I am dealing with a giant'. I also realized this because I could hear the different layers of music and instruments and where they were going: there are bits of reggae, gospel, and that religious aspect you asked about going through their music. It was the same with Roxy Music. It's been fascinating for me – a real educational journey because had I not been called to work with these guys, still today, in 2015, I wouldn't be able tell you anything about Roxy Music and Simple Minds.
BD: Would you say the same applies to Pink Floyd?
The same applies to Pink Floyd, totally. That's just how insular and vacuous my world was.
BD: At the same time, that may have emancipated something stylistically that these bands could capitalize on as Roxy Music, as Simple Minds, and as Pink Floyd: things that they may not have capitalized on if you had grown up influenced by them.
I totally agree with that. I remember auditioning for Roxy Music, for instance, at Abbey Road. I walked into this very large room where Bryan was filming the audition. I had to stand in front of the camera. They prepared to play a track and I was asked to sing a part for it – and as soon as I started singing, about a minute in, Bryan literally left the booth and came and laid down by my mic stand. He lay on his back and smiled up at me – and that was it: I had the gig! It was definitely something about my sound that Bryan – after auditioning over 100 girls – said, "yes it's you that I want". I'm neither a great singer nor a complex singer – but I agree with you there is something about where I come from that these people like: the simplicity of it and that may have a lot to do with the fact that I grew up around a different musical environment.
BD: How did you connect with all these epic acts?
It took me 10 years: as I said I had given myself 10 years and, precisely at the 10-year point, auditions started coming in. They were all different. I auditioned for Duran Duran, with Simon Le Bon, over the phone, for example. Le Bon called me and had me listen to something. I sang it back to him over the phone and he told me to come in the next day to begin working with them.
BD: What about for Simple Minds?
I didn't even audition for Simple Minds. Jim asked me to meet him and come to a show in Denmark, listen to the guys, get a feel for it. So he flew me over and I listened to the guys during soundcheck. Jim asked me to sing with them and said, "I want you to stay". That same night I was performing on stage with Simple Minds!
BD: That's amazing!
It's incredible. Absolutely gobsmacking amazing!
BD: That was in 2009?
That was in 2009 and I was at a really low point. I was about to say goodbye to the whole thing. I had been working with Simply Red for nearly 14 years. I was in the middle of a tour and 20 minutes before going on stage the production manager came into the dressing room I shared with the other backup singer and told us we weren't going to be completing the tour. We literally still had about another nine months to go. It was worse for the other singer because she had been working with Simply Red for 20 years. It reminds me of the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom because, as the documentary conveys, backing singers are invisible – not really regarded at all, and when that happened to me was a prime example of how we're not really respected at all.
BD: What has it been like being a part of Simple Minds for the past 10 years?
Jim has been a complete gentleman and an encouraging mentor. He has recognized me and what I can add to the show even if it's a splash of a primary color. Jim recognizes and shows me that. I have been fairly fortunate to work with some good artists, including Bryan Ferry: they wanted this figure, this person, this being… and I fit the bill and as a result of that Bryan, Phil Manzanera, and Andy Mackay treated me with great dignity. I didn't feel invisible, whereas with some artists, like Duran Duran, had an attitude of "them and us" and I was definitely "them" and they were "us". I felt I was invisible in Duran Duran.
BD: Does that dignified treatment in bands like Roxy Music and Simple Minds translate into the fans and how they perceive you?
Yes, I absolutely hear what you're saying – completely. Funny enough, this morning I got up very early and was thinking about this very subject – thinking that I am so grateful – really, really grateful - for how empowered I feel by Jim's hospitality and kindness to me. He has allowed me to paint a color on his canvas. Jim understands the working man and he knows that I'm a working class and a hard-working woman. Because of that, he has extended his arm to me and he knew if he extended his arm to me his fans would also accept me and I appreciate that. I definitely think that the fans have accepted me as part of the band or the team because Jim has been so inclusive. He's included me so very openly. Absolutely; Simple Minds fans have also accepted me at that level. And it's been deliberate. Jim said to me "I don't want a backing singer, I want you to give me a little bit of yourself" and so that's what I try to add to the show – but with his invitation. I think his fan base recognizes that and they've been kind. Because I was worried, I could see the fan base were really, heavily into Simple Minds. That frightened me!
BD: Had you worked with David Gilmour, Nick Mason, or any of the other studio musicians that worked on “The Endless River” before?
BD: How did you connect with Pink Floyd?
I don't know how Pink Floyd got my telephone number but I got a call from the manager. I think because he saw me with Simple Minds or Roxy Music. He called and I went to the studio the next day.
BD: Did you know right away that you were being called to work on a Pink Floyd project or did you think it was a David Gilmour solo project, as most fans seemed to have guessed when they heard there was activity in the studio?
I thought it was a David Gilmour album! I'm not very technical so I don't go on Facebook much and am not very good about messaging people there. I'm really bad about this! So I didn't even know who the manager was when I got the call nor familiar with any news about these projects. I know it's really narrow but I'm being very honest!
BD: How familiar were you with David Gilmour?
I knew of David Gilmour but didn't know how important he was, to be fair. Pink Floyd is a very big deal… I'm not that much of an ignoramus! But I didn't believe I would be called to work on a Pink Floyd album. I really just thought it was a David Gilmour project.
BD: Did people ask you about your work with David Gilmour at the time?
It wasn't discussed because when I get called for work I don't really discuss these things. For me its work, I get the call and I go and do it. It's a job. They are calling you to sing your little part and go home. So I don't see it as me being a part of the vehicle. I will always do my best and give ideas but I never get in the state of mind that I am up there with them so I don't go and shout it on the mountain top! So, no, I didn't really discuss it with people.
BD: What did you think when you realized you were working on a Pink Floyd project?
I didn't know… even during the recording. They didn't discuss that; they don't discuss that kind of information. I wasn't told! I'm not sure if they knew that the track I was working on was going to be part of the recent Pink Floyd album or the upcoming David Gilmour solo album. I think they had been working on several tracks. In fact, David said they were working on different tracks and he wasn't sure he would use it for his album or use it for Pink Floyd. So I left the studio and David said to me "well-done, loved your contribution and I will see you in the future." So I left feeling like David liked my contribution and that I may be called to work with him again in the future for David Gilmour but not Pink Floyd.
BD: But he did at least say that he wasn't sure if the material would end up in a Pink Floyd or David Gilmour album?
Yes, but even when he said that I felt it was for a David Gilmour project and not Pink Floyd.
BD: At that point, had fans known this, it would have sent huge ripples through the internet!
I wasn't told that this would definitely be on a Pink Floyd album… it was suggested as a possibility.
BD: Was the experience quite different from what you expected going in?
I knew of David's excellence: he is a great singer and I have always wanted to work with him so I was absolutely nervous. The studio was amazing but very humble in the way it looked – even the setting was very humble. Quite a few studios have closed down; gone are the days you turn up to work with a massive star in flashy studios. David was extremely laid back but all ears and all attention – you knew you were in the presence of someone who is bloody brilliant. You knew you had to sing in tune and, boy, I felt like I was going back to school for the time!
BD: Having recorded with Pink Floyd, do you see and perceive the band differently now?
I don't at all: it's exactly what I thought it would be. David was very, very relaxed and self-assured – like he was sitting in his living room. I knew he would be like that. I didn't see Nick Mason, which is one reason I didn't think it was anything to do with Pink Floyd.
BD: You recorded a solo album in 1996: what was that experience like and have you done or planned on doing additional solo work since?
I have a following in Japan; I worked with Incognito and the following started there. Then I branched off from that and I worked with a trumpet player by the name of James McMillan, on his album Lush Life. The first single got to number three in Japan, I think. We did another single and it created quite a wave but I wouldn't say that I was huge in Japan. I would love to do more solo work. I've started working on things but haven't been able to finish. I am typical of most backing singers: once you have done a tour, by the time you finish that tour and get home it takes such a long time to get over that tour. It really does take a good two or three months to level out and get back into the rhythm of home: where I am a daughter, a wife, and a sister… well, by the time I have bloody woken up back into that rhythm it's time to hit the road again! It's hard. It's a challenge. It's not impossible. But you need money and time to work on your own material and if you're tired you can't work on your material. Not at the same time.
BD: Simple Minds released "Big Music" to great reviews at about the same time "The Endless River" was released; no two Simple Minds albums sound alike: how much influence do band members other than Charlie Burchill and Jim Kerr have on the writing and the sound on each of these albums; in other words, how much do you feel the rest of you have contributed to the texture of the band's sound during the recording process?
All the band members have a definite impact, for example, the track Broken Glass Park: I remember listening to it from the very beginning and it has taken on different shapes through rehearsals and performances until it got to where it is today; throughout the journey, the band – including myself – would rehearse it and give it shape until we developed what would eventually end up on the recorded release. I most definitely think everyone in that band brings their own signature sound and that contribution influences the sound.
BD: Simple Minds went through a pretty significant line-up change shortly after you joined the band when they switched bass players unexpectedly: Eddie Duffy left the band and Ged Grimes (formerly of Deacon Blue and Danny Wilson) replaced him. His first gig with Simple Minds was the 2010 Fête de l'Humanité in front of an audience of 80,000 people! What impact do you feel this change had on the band?
Ed is a brilliant bass player… but there are different levels to Simple Minds and I think Ed picked up on the edgy, rock side of the band and he played to that – that is his strength and leaning. Ged plays to the more melodic, holding-the-rhythm-down, soulful side of Simple Minds. He really captures the soulful, melodic bassline which I love and I think works better with Jim's vocal style.
BD: What does Sarah Brown do when she is not singing, recording, or doing anything having to do with music?
I do a lot of horse-riding. My husband and I have three dogs: two Pointers and one Boston Terrier. My partner works at a fishing lodge and shooting lodge and he's basically out in the mountains with the dogs. When I get time off I join him there and we walk the mountains. We also do fishing. But I love walking with my hubby and dogs.
BD: Would you like to collaborate with Mason and Gilmour again?
I would love to.
You can see Sarah Brown on tour with Simple Minds; for tour dates, visit simpleminds.com. For more information on Sarah Brown visit her official Facebook page. For information on Pink Floyd's The Endless River visit pinkfloyd.com/theendlessriver and our review can be seen here. Pictures were taken on the 2013 Simple Minds tour, at the show in Red Bank, New Jersey, USA, taken by Marie Lopez of Marie Lopez Photography.