Interview: Brandy Discusses Early Beginnings At The Forefront of R&B

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I remember first listening to Brandy in my home in Baltimore, Maryland. I was maybe 8 years old when I was first introduced to her, and I couldn’t get “I Wanna Be Down” and “Sittin’ Up In My Room” off of replay. I had multiple copies of her debut album, but a few backups on tape that I often recorded from my parent’s radio.

At just the tender age of 8, what did I know about the lyrics from “Sittin’ Up In My Room” or the movie Waiting To Exhale, from which the song was lifted from? All I knew is that Brandy was who I wanted to be years down the line. I begged and pleaded with my mother to get long, luxurious braids like Brandy, and I constantly emulated her subtle, yet buoyant dance moves from the official video in my very own vanity mirror. I sat in my room, alone, for hours dreaming of my elementary school crush.

I had no idea that Brandy would grow to be one of my favorite artists of all time, but I did know that her sound was refreshing. It was something about her raspy vocals that pitched melodiously over a Darkchild-produced instrumental. It was part of my introduction to pure R&B. Not to mention, her debut show Moesha was a television staple in my household.

Now, nearly 20 years later, Brandy is still one of my favorite powerhouses. When I was given the opportunity to speak with her recently, it was surreal. I felt so privileged. She was so welcoming and humble, and after a short hiatus from the spotlight, more thrilled and inspired than ever to be back on the scene with new music and a brand new television show. Here’s how our exchange transpired:


Saint Heron: As young women, we were always pushed to identify with our favorite R&B star, and for some people there was always this sense of Brandy being this “good girl” or the “girl next door.” Meaning this in the absolute most positive way possible, we’ve always kind of viewed you as the left of center or the more abstract girl. You were always extremely soulful from day one, yet there was always something alien about you but never alienating. I kind of wonder, did you ever see yourself that way?

Brandy: As a young girl I didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t really have a sense of self. I knew what my talent was. I knew I believed in the gift, but I didn’t really know who I was as a person. I knew everything that everyone wanted from me was on full blast, and that wasn’t who I was. I think that it is hard to find who you are in this industry growing up and everybody telling you who you are. So, everything kind of gets muddied especially when you haven’t truly built a solid foundation or a self esteem. When the only thing you’re building is your career, it’s very hard to really see yourself as anything but a celebrity or whatever that is, whatever comes with fame. So thats a difficult question to answer.

Regardless, we, as women, all connected to you. So, it all worked out because we grew up right along with you. You may have thought that you weren’t as easily acceptable to your audience, but we grew to accept and adore you – if that makes sense.

And I felt that! I think that I was really cognizant about my music. That was so genuine for me. Growing up through the eyes of Moesha – she was a really grounded kid from the hood who was doing her thing and had a dream and went after it. She had a perspective. I think all of that connected with young girls and people who were looking at what I was doing. I appreciate my fans for that.

Albums like Full Moon and Afrodisiac, which are both Saint Heron favorites and R&B monuments as far as we are concerned, are both very experimental, innovative, and sonically light speeds ahead of their time. Can you walk me through the creative processes of those albums?

Full Moon felt like a continuation of Never Say Never. With Never Say Never, I was in a space of wanting to do something different. I wanted to explore my voice, see what I could do differently with my voice, and play with different sounds. And, you know, I was blessed to work with Rodney Jerkins because he was fearless. He wasn’t afraid to go against the grain or pull from different artists that we were both inspired by and create our own thing out of it. I just think we were at a place where we were not afraid to do what we were lead to do. So, out of it, came this sound. Rodney helped to change the way R&B sounds and to be a part of that – I’m forever grateful to be a part of that experience. With Full Moon, I wanted to go even further vocally and sonically. I just wanted everything to be new and fresh and, like you said, innovative where people would freak out. The music made us freak out and we knew that if it made us freak out it was going to make everybody else relate to it, want it, love it and need it. I needed that music. I needed what we did. I needed the studio. I needed to hear that. It was a great time, and music didn’t feel like that for a long time after that.

It felt uninspired?

Yeah, it just didn’t feel the same. I got to a point where I was like, “It doesn’t feel like the Never Say Never Era or the first album, or the Full Moon album which is my favorite. . . what’s the point of doing music if you can’t feel it the way it was felt then?”

One of the things we love most about Full Moon is how certain songs are sequenced to flow right into the other. I was recently listening to the album and “When You Touch Me” has this rainy outro that flows into the airy intro of “Like This.” And then you have the outro of “Can We.” It just goes right into “What About Us.” How did that concept come about? It kind of takes you to another place, and you kind of don’t hear that as often in records today.

Well, I can’t take any credit for that. That was definitely a Rodney genius move. He wanted this album to flow together like it was one song throughout the entire record. And he loved connecting the songs together because he knew that no one else was doing that. He just took the interludes to another level, and I just loved it. Back in the day when you got albums it would be an experience to hear the whole thing all the way through. And just feel it. It was just about making it one experience. I remember sitting in the car playing Full Moon for some of my friends, and you know how people hear one song they wanna go on to the next. But they stayed throughout the entire experience of the album because that’s what it was. It was an experience. That’s all Rodney.[laughs] I was like, “Yas, Rodney!” It was perfect.

You definitely don’t get that same effect when listening to albums today. Also, what’s very interesting about Full Moon too is that it takes on this very futuristic and almost technological sound and aesthetic, including the artwork and videos. How much did futurism go into the concept of that project as a whole?

I think it naturally just happened I didn’t even realize what was really going on. Again, it’s like you’re being lead. You don’t have words for what’s happening, but after you hear it back you’re like, “Oh my God! This is before it’s time.” It was, like you said, futuristic, and for me, I was really into stacking my vocals and harmonies. Coming out of everywhere with vocals. I wanted to get the full experience of my vocals. That’s what I was trying to do with my sound. Rodney fell in love with the stacking and harmonies and all of the different notes doing different things. When you hear it back together it sounds like a mini orchestra, you know? So we wanted to do what no one else was doing. Without even really saying that but just doing that. And it came out to be that way. I’m very very proud of that record and how timeless it is.

So we’ve been talking about Rodney Jerkins for a while now. Every artist has that dream chemistry with that one producer. Do you feel like Rodney is that producer for you, and how would you describe your working chemistry?

Well, I think that Rodney and I have a match made in heaven chemistry. We were meant to work together. We were meant to create a sound together. We were meant to do all of the things we did together. Because, he’s really one of the greatest producers of all time. To have so much success with him and to have touched so many people with him, us together, I mean – that’s God. You can’t force chemistry. That has to come from a place that you don’t have any control over.

Let’s touch on your sound. Your vocal tone, in our opinion, is unmatched. We think it’s so unique. How conscious are you about how much your tone really defines a song for you?

Wow, that is so nice! I don’t know how this is going to sound but, I feel like I’m being used. I’m aware of what’s happening and when I hear it back it’s like, “oh ok,” but I feel like I’m just a vessel. I don’t feel like it’s me, so I don’t really understand. It’s a strange thing. I don’t really remember it sounding the way it does when I hear it back. I don’t think I ever want to be able to process it because then it becomes about me. I don’t want to get in the way of it.

So, basically while you’re singing you’re not really conscious of yourself hitting these powerful notes or sounding as good as you do?

I feel like I know that I can sing, but the way people have responded to my singing – I never knew that that would take place. The word “unmatched.” I think of my top five singers of all time and they are that to me. So, I don’t understand it when people say that about me.

I’m sure it’s hard to grasp. Moving on to Afrodisiac, soul was really at the core and forefront of this album. With songs like “Focus”, “Say You Will”, and “Who I Am,” they all really have this soulful oriented sound. Was that the intent for that album?

Soul was the intent. I wanted to do something a little bit more soulful but also with hard beats as well. I feel that Afrodisiac was a lower register album. It was more of a vibey album. “Focus” is one of my favorite songs ever. I feel like I was in a different place. Timbaland is also one of my favorite producers of all time, and I really wanted to work with him. So we really created a different type of vibe. Timb just showed out on that song.

I’m also really curious as to why Afrodisiac took on the spelling with the word “Afro” versus the traditional spelling of Aphrodisiac. What made you do that? We love it.

[Laughs] I could’ve had an afro on. We should’ve really done it up, but I guess that I really wanted to spell it the way it sounded.

Speaking on the topic of hair. Since the beginning of time, Black girls have worn braids for either convenience, stylistic expression, or to just protect their natural hair. How did braids become such a defining style for you early on?

The truth is that I permed my natural hair, and all of my hair pretty much – well, not all of it – but a lot of it fell out. So, I had to get braids in my hair because my hair was just not what I needed it to be. It wasn’t healthy. It was damaged. I then went and got some braids in my hair, and it became part of who I am. Even to this day it became about how I love my natural hair. I love the natural look. I love my twists and feel the most beautiful in my twists or in my afro hair. If I had it my way, that’s how I would wear my hair for the rest of my life. You know? Because I love it. I was even thinking of doing sisterlocks to my hair. I’m still thinking about it because I love the natural look. I embrace it. If you check my Instagram, all you see pretty much are twists. Apart from Zoe, the character I play on my new show Zoe Ever After, she has a cute little bob. But me, myself, and I? I’m gon’ rock with twists.

We’re here for it! Changing topics a bit, we did a piece in the past on how Kim Burrell influenced the voice of R&B. We know that she is really an influence for you but, aside from her, who are some of your other favorite voices of all time?

Whitney Houston is my favorite voice of all time. Of all time! Kim Burrell, of course, is definitely one of my favorites as well. I also love Jazmine Sullivan. She’s definitely one of my favorite singers. Adele, for me, is now one of my favorites as well. Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Céline Dion, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Enya. It just goes. It’s a list, but it’s great one. It’s a long one.

Back in 2013, our founder Solange took to Twitter to share a few of her thoughts on the current state of music. How did you feel about her comments in terms of your deep album cuts and music journalists not really understanding or capturing the essence of R&B culture?

I remember feeling just so flattered and appreciating her for loving music, and also for being brave enough to stand up for what real art is. I’m a fan of Solange’s as well. I just love that she’s able to speak up for all of us and have our backs even when we feel like we can’t have our own backs. She’s always spoke highly of me, and I always return the love and ReTweet and ReGram everything she does. So, that made me feel very, very good. Being the artist that she is and being connected to her sister, if I had a little self esteem issue, that boosted me up real quick!

So aside from your musical catalogue, you’ve really grown to be within the world of television, theater, and film. How was that transition, and how did you manage to keep a balance between your roles and being a music artist?

I think just balancing and prioritizing your time. You have a schedule. You have a team who’s helping you make sure you can get everything done. You also have to take time for yourself so you can prepare for everything that you are going forward to do. So now, it’s just being a mom. It’s just finding time for everything. Because everything is meant to be and it can be trusted, I trust it now. Everything kind of works out the way it should. I love both. I love acting. I love singing. I love that I’m able to do it simultaneously because there was a time where I wasn’t really doing either one of them. So this last year, 2015 was a big, inspirational year for me because I was able to pull myself out of a space to actually do what I love to do again. I got to do it in Chicago, which was a life changing experience for me because I got a chance to do live theatre, singing, acting, and dancing. It was just a great story. It’s such a great musical, and to be a part of that changed my life. Now I’m going back into television with Zoe Ever After and back into new music with the new song “Beggin and Pleadin” . I’m in my truth. I’m in my purpose. I’m very grateful for this space, and being able to do what I love to do. I feel good about myself, personally. That’s priceless.

Speaking of music, we haven’t had a project from you since 2012, and you’re really inching right on back into it. People are very, very excited about this moment with you. Doing new music and returning to television is kind of a turning point for you. What can we expect from your new offerings this year?

More new music. More of everything I’m doing. I’m in the space to just give, give, give. I feel inspired. I feel like I’m on fire right now. I want to just keep spitting it out, and I’m not afraid. I feel fearless. I feel free. I feel liberated in my journey and just with everything I’ve come through to still be here. I’m happy about my life and I’m going to show that in everything I do.

Photography: Renny Vasquez

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