I still can’t get used to online video interviews, and this one with Sam Brown was definitely one that caught me out. When in-person one-to-ones are ruled out by time and impracticalities, it’s arguably the next best thing, somewhat more intimate than a phone call. And yet, when you’re talking to people who have helped form the patchwork of your life as a music fan, providing part of the soundtrack to your formative years, you can’t help but feel a little more nervous and, in my case, come over as a bit of an awkward fan boy … a teenage one at that.
Okay, I was already 20 by the time I heard her debut hit single, ‘Stop!’ And she’s barely three years older than me (although she looks far younger). All the same, I had our video call to look back over, but made do with the audio file when it came to transcription, as I struggle to get past my voice and demeanour, squirming as I think, ‘Why didn’t I ask that?’ or ‘What did you say that for, you bloody idiot?’
That said, as much as she does online, it’s clearly as odd a situation for my interviewee as it is me, as became clear soon after my opening gambit, asking if it’s good to be back … or has she never really been away?
“Ha! No, I was definitely away … away with the faeries!”
She’s quoting one of her own songs there, the gorgeous, dreamy last track on Of the Moment. On which the esteemed Herbie Flowers contributes double bass while Sam adds ukulele, tenor guitar, piano, and keyboards, as well as that breathy, rather exquisite voice.
“It is nice though, and quite strange. And it’s been a long time since I’ve done all the PR stuff. But it’s been really nice to meet new people and have a chat. I get a bit bored of talking about myself, but …”
The release of her new solo LP, Number 8, completes a series of studio and live albums where the first letters spell out her name. Mind you, Sam admits that naming convention passed her by until fifth LP, Reboot in 2000. She carried it on from there though, with this latest offering her first studio album since 2007’s splendid Of the Moment, and following 2021 archive live offering, Wednesday the Something of April, which featured recordings from 2004.
Sam had by last year accepted the loss of her voice as it was as permanent. So how did Number 8 – released last week alongside its lead single, ‘Doll’ – come about? Well, apparently it required a little thinking outside the (voice) box.
“When I began experiencing difficulties with my voice, I started on a rigorous pursuit of answers. I worked with top voice trainers, here and in America. I saw reputed voice doctors, did speech therapy, hypnotherapy, therapy therapy! Yoga, acupuncture, nutrition, crystal healing …
“Nothing changed my inability to achieve pitch and closure simultaneously. A fundamental problem. Along with my voice, my creative impetus also disappeared. I didn’t play anything or write anything. I didn’t want to. It was upsetting, to say the least.”
That was until lockdown, when close friend and long-time associate Danny Schogger suggested they try a little writing.
“Long story short, we tried, and we did. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, and there were tears. Danny was amazingly patient, and we ended up with an album’s worth of tracks, the recording a wonderful revelation, all done on Skype and Zoom.
“Danny did most of the instrumental side of things in his home, I worked at home with my Melodyne programme, allowing me to sing something in any pitch then move it to where I wanted it … and tune it – essential!
“It also meant I could add harmonies, double-tracking, etc. My brother Pete came on board at the mixing stage, fine-tuning what I’d done already. The end-result? Like nothing I’ve ever done before. In short, it’s all fake!”
That seems to be typical Sam, doing herself down. Arguably, she never quite fitted into a more egotistical mainstream pop way of operating, and certainly never seemed to take herself too seriously, despite an obvious talent as a singer and also a songwriter.
I had my first exposure to Number 8 this weekend, ‘Doll’ my earlier raised-eyebrows introduction, seemingly pitched somewhere between Thomas Dolby and Goldfrapp. And from more ‘90s dance-centric opener ‘It’s Okay’ to the disco throb of Adamski-esque penultimate number ‘4 on the Floor’, if you listen with ears open, I’d like to think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s not what we would have expected from her a decade ago, but take for example the Art of Noise match-up with Depeche Mode feel of track three ‘Injured’ or Teutonic-electronic feel of ‘Another Day’, a move towards ‘80s electro-pop surprisingly suiting her. And as a long player, it’s a grower.
If I heard this 30-plus years ago I’d have checked to have seen if Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were on the credits, not least on ‘The Story’ and ‘Tribe’, the latter a surefire hit if released with Madonna’s name on it. Meanwhile, ‘Showgirl’ reminds me of Alice Hubble, who I recently caught supporting Blancmange, and who also kind of provides a modern twist on the past.
If I’m honest, perhaps we need a couple of Brown/Schogger instrumentals breaking things up in places, the pitch-too-perfect programming moments a little wearing by the time we reach ‘Marionette’, while ‘Not For Anyone’ has the feel of a lower-charting Spice Girls 45, before ‘Shift’ lifts us again. As for my personal highlight, that’s Gallic-tinged finale, ‘Ghost’. Imagine the Pet Shop Boys channelling Vanessa Paradis, with shades of The Kinks’ ’Village Green’.
More to the point perhaps, Number 8 perhaps proves what the power of optimism and self-belief can lead to, providing an unexpected return, Sam reclaiming her voice, the songs personal and affecting, and the album landing 35 years, give or take a few months, after debut album, Stop! – which sold more than two and a half million copies – followed the hit 45 of that name, both reaching No.4 in 1988.
That first single opened the door on what would prove a busy career, Sam also having featured as a backing singer for some of the world’s biggest artists, from Small Faces (her first work in the music industry was in 1978, aged 14, providing backing vocals on their final studio album, 78 in the Shade) to David Gilmour and Pink Floyd, Jon Lord and Deep Purple, The Firm, Gary Moore, and Spandau Ballet. And then there was a certain fella by the name of George Harrison, plus a long stint on our TV screens and on the road with Jools Holland’s band.
But back to the interview. and Number 8 sounds like it was meant to be, I suggested, the way it all came together.
“Definitely. I am really excited. It’s been quite a while since we finished it, but everyone seems to quite like it, which is really nice.”
It must have been an anguished time with the voice problems. Did that knock your confidence? Because, let’s face it, you had one hell of a voice on you.
“Ha! A bit of a shouter! Yeah, it hasn’t been easy. Singing was my whole life, apart from my children. There’s been difficult moments. But lots of people go through things like that, don’t they, and you’ve got a choice. You’ve got to come through the other end, really.”
The day before we spoke, I started going back through her album catalogue while out driving across Lancashire, playing debut LP Stop! for the first time in a long while. And I couldn’t help but wonder if she brought it upon herself by pushing that mighty voice of yours from the start.
“Ha! You’re not the only person to say that! Maybe. I definitely had a very loud voice, but did a lot of voice training from about 1995, which I hadn’t done with Stop! or Pink Floyd. I went through a marriage breakdown, and definitely channelled everything into my singing. Perhaps not the best thing to do. Who knows? I don’t know is the answer, Malcolm. I’ve no idea why, and I still don’t know what’s wrong with it.”
What also struck me, looking at the credits for that first album, having realised your brother, Pete, had been there with you all this time, was that Danny Schogger was also involved back then.
“Absolutely. I met Danny in a recording studio when I was 15. He was in the kitchen making tea, and made some cheeky, sexist remark. As he was walking away, I threw a hot tea bag at the back of him, hit him right square on his nice new clean white t-shirt. We’ve been firm friends ever since! He’s a really nice bloke, and on this album we’ve done everything together. It’s been great fun, really easy, lots of laughing and a bit of crying when I couldn’t sing things. But then we got the auto-tune out, you know … fantastic.”
Ah, tea. Sam has long professed a love for a cuppa. Builders’ tea in her case, I understand. I was wondering, now things have changed at the top, sovereign-wise, is it time to replace our national anthem with the delightful ‘Tea’ from her debut LP?
“It’s a fucking genius idea! Ha!”
It’s not too long either. Just about right.
“Yeah, probably shorter than your average national anthem.”
How it would work on the football terraces, I don’t know, but …
“Yeah, I’ll write to the King and suggest it.”
You’ve got his personal email, right?
“Definitely. I mean, he’s gonna go for it, isn’t he?”
Let’s face it, the old one’s tired and dreary.
“Well … you know, change is good.”
I mentioned the first album, but for my better half and I – together since Summer ’89 – April Moon, out the following Spring, was one of the first LPs we both listened to together, when we lived 240 miles apart. She recorded it for me on a C90, and as I told Sam, the first time I played it and heard that doorbell ring at the start, someone answering it, I instinctively wondered if it was – more in the manner of 1970s recordings on tape recorders – my better half inviting some other fella in for a romantic evening, jealousy briefly kicking in, what with me being in Surrey and her in Lancashire.
“Ah, that’s brilliant! And you’ve been together a long time – congratulations.”
If the debut single and LP of the same name announced her arrival and showcased that great voice, April Moon took Sam forward, flagging up that talent for songwriting. And alongside three cracking singles (only one of which, somewhat criminally, made the top-40) for me there’s a melancholy beauty on various tracks. Looking back now, I equate it with Squeeze’s Play, even though that wasn’t out until the following summer. It carries that same Difford and Tilbrook minor key feel in places, both LPs proving perfect for when the days are shorter. A winter warmer.
“I can’t remember what time of year it came out, but I’m very thrilled to be put up against Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, amazing writers. I loved doing that album. The band was very heavy at that time, a good thing in a lot of ways. But I did think it was a bit long.”
I agreed there, but only later recalled that maybe that was because the CD version I later bought carried an extra four tracks. that said, in the years that followed, the music industry tended to ‘front-load’ records, thinking people would only have staying power for the opening tracks, getting the potential hits out of the way. And there are elements of that with April Moon. You were ahead of your time.
“Yeah, it tails off. But there’s some lovely songs on there. Lots of good co-writes.”
True. Here’s a confession though – be it down to personal circumstances or whatever, I didn’t buy another of your LPs until Of the Moment, although aware of and enjoying your work with Jools Holland, not least numbers like the gorgeous ‘Valentine Moon’, which I was convinced at first must be a classic ‘40s or ‘50s cover rather than a Julian Holland/Samantha Brown composition. It has that quality.
“Yeah, it’s quite old-fashioned.”
Was that your song initially, Jools adding to it around the piano?
“Definitely. All the writing with Jools was based around the piano. Always. That’s how we wrote best. And also with ‘Stop!’, lots of people didn’t realise I’d written it. They thought it was an old blues song. The same as with ‘Valentine Moon’, it’s got that old-fashioned feel to it.”
Clearly, you could knock out all those old soul and blues classics, and you got to perform with many an icon via Jools, including the likes of legendary namesake Sam Moore.
“Ah, that was amazing. You’ve never met a bigger character. Him and his wife Joyce are just lovely, lovely people, and Sam’s got such great atmosphere about him. A nice man and a great voice, of course.”
It was only while working on a little background research to this feature that I realised I could have asked about her duet with Nick Cave on ‘Kiss of Love’ with Jools’ band in 2003, but had said I wouldn’t go through all her collaborations, or I would have also asked about Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and songs played with Kenney Jones’ band the Jones Gang for 2001’s One for the Road: Ronnie Lane Memorial Concert, including Small Faces classic ‘Tin Soldier’. Then there was 2002’s backing vocal duties at Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s golden jubilee’s Party at the Palace.
But I did mention rewatching her perform ‘Horse to the Water’ – a George and Dhani Harrison co-write, and George’s final appearance on a record, released on Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra’s 2001 LP, Small World, Big Band – at November 2002’s memorable tribute show, Concert for George, where she was on typical top form. And, I suggested, it must have been difficult to not turn around and lose it, catching sight of a backing band including Eric Clapton, Jeff Lynne, Albert Lee, Jim Capaldi, Dhani, and Jools.
“Yeah, I’d met most of them. I hadn’t met Jeff Lynne. He keeps himself to himself. I didn’t really talk to him. I would have loved to. But yeah, you’re right. It was incredible and I was given such a warm welcome with Jools on that gig. I loved it. I knew George and I know Olivia and Dhani. Nevertheless, it was amazing.”
Sam’s father, pioneering UK rock’n’roll star Joe Brown, also performed that night at the Royal Albert Hall. How’s her dad doing these days?
“He’s good, yeah. He’s 82, bumbling about, you know. He likes to make things. He’s got a workshop and works with wood – always restoring things, building things for the neighbours, fixing things, making cupboards. He made me this clock. Look at that – innit nice?”
Sam holds up an impressive work of art. A new vocation, it seems. My dad, I told her, before becoming a postman for 30-odd years, was a loco fireman on the railways, so I always think of the two of them doing that same role in their formative years. And at one stage it seemed that whenever they talked about steam railways on television, Joe would be invited to add insight from his own days in that role. That would – much to our amusement – rattle my dad, eight years his senior, saying, ‘Oh, here he is again – what a surprise!’ Or words to that effect.
“Yeah, lightweight! Ha!”
In a filmed interview for the National Railway Museum in York’s British Rail – a Moving Story exhibition in the early 2000s, Joe, who spent two years in the late 1950s as a loco fireman at Plaistow, east London, said: “I loved it, but the smell of the diesels drove me out when they took over from steam. There was no shovel to cook your breakfast on.” Does Sam think he could have hacked that role longer term? I’m guessing the pull of the entertainment industry was always too strong.
“Erm, he’s pretty tough, my dad.”
It was a dirty old job, wasn’t it.
“Yeah, really hard work. You don’t really get it anymore, do you. But he always treated doing music like a normal job. He was very workmanlike about it. And he went to work. That’s what he did. So I think he probably – whatever he did – would have been quite good at it. But he’s got a very big personality. I don’t know how that would have been in normal day-to-day life.”
Well, we need those characters to get through life.
“You do. How long did your dad do it for?”
Eight years – from 1953, after RAF national service, to 1961. So their spells would have overlapped. I think by the time Joe left, my dad could also see the writing on the wall, steam coming to an end. As it is, getting out when he did to better support a growing family, financially, helped him retain that love for steam, as was the case with Sam’s dad, I imagine.
And talking of family, have either of her children followed down a similar career music path? Or did she put them off?
“Ha! Well, they both are very musical. My daughter can play and sing really well, but she does photography and videography. She’s doing a degree at the moment, in Edinburgh. But my son’s firmly on that financially unrewarding path of being a singer/songwriter musician. It’s so much harder now, but he’s very good and loves it. I think it’s his vocation. I guess we’ll see what happens.
“Both my kids were born up in Scotland. We moved up in the ‘90s, bought a house and – when I was married – built a studio.”
These days Sam lives in Dorset, and I told her I spotted she had a ukulele club on her adopted patch.
“Oh, there are bloody ukulele clubs everywhere! I still teach in Oxfordshire, where I used to live. I’ve still got three clubs there, I’ve got a couple of clubs in Dorset, and a club I do occasionally in London. In fact, a week tomorrow I’m going out to Australia to teach ukelele.”
In fact, Sam was leading a ukelele show – the culmination of a week of workshops – in Busselton, Western Australia this weekend. She started the first club in 2010, and also runs online classes. Is this something she got more into when she started suffering voice problems?
“Well, I can’t sing at all, I haven’t been able to for a long time, and needed to earn a living. I was on my own with two kids, and needed a job. I tried lots of different things, but that took off very quickly. It started off with nine people and before I knew it there was 20, then 50, then 60. It really snowballed, so I just went with it really. And it’s been great. I’ve met lots of lovely people.”
Was playing the uke something learned from your dad?
“Not really. Dad was often working when we were kids. My ex-husband bought this ukelele, it was lying around the house in Scotland, I picked it up about 2000, started writing songs on it, then started playing.”
Igniting a passion?
“Yeah, I love it. It’s great”
My roots are in Guildford, and I see you tutored there for a while, at the Academy of Contemporary Music.
“That was quite a while ago, when I first lost my voice. I don’t know Guildford that well. I taught there for a while, but it wasn’t really right for me. There are some lovely people there though, and I met some lovely musicians.”
Are you still in touch with Jools Holland?
“I do keep in touch. I went for lunch with him the end of last year. He’s doing the same as he was when I left – touring, making albums, always up to something. I don’t know where he finds the time for it all. He’s great, isn’t he. Brilliant.”
Putting you on the spot, if there’s one recording you made with him that stands out, live, in the studio, or for television, what would it be?
“Erm, ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ – a really old song. I did that, I think, on one of the Hootenannys.”
I remember that clearly. Great choice.
“We used to do that live and I’d go and sit with him on the piano at the beginning, and he’d always try and nudge my bum off while we were doing it! It ended up with my knees killing me to stand up, always a bit of a funny moment. And I love that song, loved singing it.”
Regarding friendship with George Harrison and his family, did you get to know him through your dad?
“My mum and dad both knew him. My mum’s from Liverpool.”
Ah, of course, Vicki Brown, who died aged 50 in 1991, having started out with The Vernon Girls before joining vocal trio The Breakaways in 1962, seen as Britain’s premier session vocalists in that era.
“Yes, she met George, presumably in the ‘50s. Then The Beatles supported my dad, and George very cheekily snuck into my dad’s dressing room and had a picture taken with dad’s guitar, which Olivia recently brought out to show us. Other than that, I used to see them because we lived nearby in Oxfordshire. When Mum was ill, we spent some time with them. They were very kind, lovely people, and I did a few sessions for George, when he needed a couple of bits of backing vocals.”
I was also reminded, reading back on your career, of the Homespun band project with David Rotheray, someone I met briefly when The Beautiful South took off. That seemed to be a bit of a swerve-ball career move for you.
“Yeah, but a really nice thing to do. I knew the guy who played trumpet and keyboards, Tony Robinson, and he’d spoken to Dave, who wanted to put together a different thing to everything else he was doing. He’d written some songs on his own, rather than – presumably – with Paul Heaton. I went up to Leeds and sang these songs, which were fantastic, really different, really good lyrics, very gentle. All the people involved were just lovely. Kind of a little holiday in Hull, you know! I sang some demos, and it went on from there. Always very easy, nothing stressful, a really nice departure, musically, for me – something completely different that was original. It wasn’t old blues stuff or my own stuff. I really enjoyed doing it.”
A penchant for the blues and soul always came out in your songs. Was that what you were listening to, growing up?
“Funnily enough, not really. Well, I say that, but I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder. But that’s not obvious blues and soul, although it’s very soulful. I listened to a lot of Aretha, but other than that, I didn’t really. I listened to Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman …”
“When I wrote ‘Stop!’ I didn’t really realise it was a blue song. I didn’t know where those influences had come from. I know that sounds a bit naive, but I had no idea. I just sort of wrote it, now realising it’s a blues ballad, really.”
I definitely hear Joni in a few tracks on Of the Moment, now I come to think of it, having revisited that record a couple of days over the last couple of weeks.
And did that fine voice come from your mum? Was she the first in the family belting something out?
“Mum had an amazing voice. She was fantastic. I used to sing a lot with her, growing up. We had a studio at home, so I’d help out with BVs in the studio. Then I’d go to sessions with mum and get involved in session work, which I absolutely loved. At the same time I was writing, so it was a very musical life.”
Right from the beginning, your work was at least co-produced with your brother, Pete. Were you both sponges in the studio and live, picking up stuff as you went along?
“I think we were both sponges. It’s just the way it happened. I did more going out and singing, and Pete was always the sort of kid who’d take a radio apart and put it back together. Very natural at being able to fix things. And instinctive, you know, which I definitely am not, never have been.
“He went to work in a recording studio at the age of 16, and was recording full orchestras. From an engineering point of view, he’s been doing it a long time. He can produce, but he’s also an absolutely brilliant musician. He plays guitar, piano. He had piano lessons recently, which was brilliant.
“And he’s got a really fantastic voice. He does everything. We both do all of it, but he’s much better on the technical side. I wouldn’t say I’m any better than him musically. I think writing-wise though, that’s where my experience lies.”
It says at the end of your press release, regarding the Sam Brown LP naming convention, ‘what comes next?’ Well, when the Salvo label repackaged Madness’ albums, they added letters to each LP, but I seem to recalled they had licensing issues over The Madness, so it spelt out M-A-D-N-E-S, followed by an exclamation mark for the following release. Maybe you should call your next one ! That would work … maybe.
“That’s a good idea. There have been all sorts of suggestions, as you can imagine.”
I’m guessing because of how things are with your voice at present, there’s unlikely to be a tour this time … unless you do a Voyage style show, in an ABBA style.
“Haha! I’d like to think I could afford to do that. At the moment I can’t see it happening, but there’s definitely a possibility that with some technical trickery, and I have some fantastic singers and musicians around me, there could be something at some point.
“I couldn’t go out and do a gig now, I just wouldn’t be able to do it, but you just never know. Maybe we can put something together.”
For more information about Sam Brown, including her new LP and back catalogue, head to her website. You can also follow her via Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.