Brandy: Still Intoxicating
Multi-Platinum-selling, Grammy-winning R&B/pop music superstar Brandy - whose worldwide album sales exceed an impressive 25 million - this week performs a rare, one-off UK show at London’s IndigO2.
“Well, I haven’t been to London in a very, VERY long time. And I think, just from reading my myspace, that it’s definitely time for me to come back there”, begins the soft-spoken one-time teen phenomenon, speaking to Pete Lewis from her LA home: “You know, I just didn‘t wanna put out another album and then not come over and at least show my face! So I’m bringing my band with me, and I’m definitely gonna be performing some of my new songs as well as a lot of my OLD stuff. And it’s gonna be a great show!”
On a more serious note, the IndigO2 show will also mark the now-30-year-old singer/songwriter/actress’ first visit to Britain since she was involved in a tragic, life-changing accident on a Los Angeles freeway in December 2006, which claimed the life of 38-year-old mother Awatef Aboudihaj. While Brandy was not charged with vehicular manslaughter due to “insufficient evidence” (an eyewitness claimed Brandy didn’t stop when traffic in front of her slowed, struck the car in front of her and triggered a four-car crash), she nevertheless reportedly still faces a 50-million-dollar wrongful death lawsuit filed by Aboudihaj’s family.
“Well, just to touch on it briefly, the whole experience did completely change my life”, she admits soberly: “And I can say that I think I’m a better person FROM it. You know, I still don’t understand all of it and WHY all of it happened. But I definitely have a heart, and my heart goes out to everyone involved. I pray about it every single day, and that’s all I can really say on the subject.”
Indeed, it was the aftermath of said accident which provided the environment in which Brandy wrote and recorded her last (and fifth) studio album - the emotionally resonant, 2008-released ‘Human’. Which found her reunited with mega-producer Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins, with whom she first collaborated on her world-conquering 1998 sophomore LP ‘Never Say Never’: “Well, I’d obviously gone through a lot before the ‘Human’ album came out. And a lot of it really humbled me”, she recalls genuinely: “It made me realise a lotta things about myself, and human nature in general. I just wanted to get a lotta things off my chest. Which is why the album is so deep lyrically. It reflects the space I was in at the time. I basically just wanted people to share my experience with me, and just hear where I was at in my life... And I think I ACCOMPLISHED that.”
Nevertheless, upon its release last December, the under-promoted ‘Human’ (Brandy’s first release for Sony Music’s Epic label) enjoyed only moderately-successful first-week sales before pretty much falling completely off-the-radar just weeks later: “Yes, I am a little disappointed about that”, admits Brandy honestly: “But, at the same time, I’m also pleased that Sony has given me another chance to do another project that I feel they’re totally behind. In hindsight I do feel the last album was a little political. So a lotta changes have been made since ‘Human’ - and hopefully they’re changes for the better! Because, having got all the deep stuff off my chest, I’m now able to really tap into the fun part of music again. And the producers I’m working with for this next album - StarGate, Ne-Yo, Tricky & Dream, Brian Kennedy - are AMAZING! It captures EVERYTHING - the love, the sexiness, the club vibe… And it’s exactly the type of album that I need to be MAKING right now!”
Born Brandy Rayana Norwood in February 1979 in McComb, Mississippi, Brandy - with her father being choir director (and former R&B singer) Willie Norwood - started out singing at Brookhaven Church Of Christ in Mississippi at just two years old. Nevertheless, by the time she was four, her parents had moved the whole family to Carson, California in the hope of jump-starting “showbiz” careers for their two children - Brandy; plus her younger brother William Raymond, Jr. (aka ‘Ray J’).
Meanwhile, with her cousin interestingly being rock’n’roll/blues legend Bo Diddley, at the age of six Brandy amusingly enjoyed her first taste of the limelight by spontaneously joining both Diddley and fellow rock’n’roll icon Little Richard onstage at the Los Angeles Forum! “Oh yeah, I completely embarrassed my parents!”, she laughs: “Because I got onstage with these legendary people, and then I kinda veered off, distanced myself from everybody, and started bowing and blowing kisses to the audience - as if everybody in that arena was there to see ME! But, you know, I basically was just dreaming that that was gonna be ME some day, and that all those people were my fans! Because I took the moment in, and I’ll never forget it! I can remember it like it was yesterday! And, while I never really knew Bo Diddley that well, even at that age I still used to brag to all the kids in school that he was my cousin!”
With Brandy going on to perform at many West Coast functions as part of a youth singing group, at 11 she met established music manager Chris Stokes who immediately landed her a gig as a backing vocalist for the then-big-selling male teen-R&B trio Immature. Meanwhile, in 1993 - after performing in front of hundreds of people at an industry party - Brandy was eventually offered a solo deal with Atlantic Records. Who in turn released the then-15-year-old’s self-titled debut album in late l994.
While ‘Brandy’ (powered by its US R&B chart-topping singles ‘I Wanna Be Down’ and ‘Baby’) went on to sell an impressive two million-plus units Stateside, international mainstream success nevertheless evaded the teenage R&B prodigy until the release of her 1998 sophomore set ‘Never Say Never’. Which (mainly produced by Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins) went on to sell a whopping 14 million worldwide, pioneered by ‘The Boy Is Mine’ - Brandy’s global smash duet with then-fellow teen-R&B princess, Monica. A single which spent a record-breaking 13 straight weeks atop the US Hot 100, and whose lyrics - of two girls fighting over the same boy - exploited the media’s presumption of rivalry between the two young singers.
“Oh my God, it was one of the best times of my life!”, gushes a genuinely-enthusiastic Ms. Norwood: “Because I had a chance to do a duet with Monica - who I was a big fan of - and it was EVERYWHERE! You know, I‘d never experienced anything like that before. And, looking back today, I appreciate it more now than I did when it was happening. ‘Cause, when something like that is happening and you’re that young, it doesn’t really REGISTER - you’re just totally in-the-moment. And, as for that whole rivalry thing between Monica and me, I just think that, if you have a song where you’re fighting over a guy and it’s Number One for 13 weeks, then people are definitely gonna create a back-story to it. You know, there’s no way we could be cool or friends - because we’re fighting in the SONG! So a lot of that rivalry thing was basically the media just making up their own stories about it. But, you know, I guess you just have to go with it and accept what comes with that type of success. Although the truth is that Monica and I are actually friends, and I talk to her on the phone to this day.”
While the multi-award-winning ‘Never Say Never’ unquestionably established Brandy as one of the most successful of the new breed of urban R&B female singers to emerge during the mid-to-late Nineties, its record-breaking success would nevertheless not be repeated in the forthcoming decade. As Brandy’s 2002 LP ‘Full Moon’ (despite its offshoot worldwide Top 10 single ‘What About Us?’) and its 2004 follow-up ‘Afrodisiac’ found now-single-mum Brandy’s international sales steadily decreasing. To where, in late 2004, she asked for - and received - a release from Atlantic Records, after being signed to the label for 11years. Which in turn may explain why her next high-profile gig was outside of music, as one of three talent judges (alongside Piers Morgan and David Hasselhoff) on the first season of the Simon Cowell-helmed reality TV show ‘America’s Got Talent’ - the national amateur talent contest which became one of America’s most-watched programmes throughout the summer of 2006.
“Well, in 2005 I made an appearance on an episode of ‘American Idol’ as a guest judge”, explains Brandy with a smile: “And, while I was there, Simon was teasing me and saying ‘Oh, we’d love to have you on ‘American Idol’ full-time’. So I told him I’d always wanted to be a judge, and I guess he REMEMBERED that. Because, when he launched ‘America’s Got Talent’, he brought me in as one of the full-time judges! And it really was so much fun! Because David kept me laughing; Piers was so much like Simon… And just to see all the different diversity of talent was just great! Plus I got to dress up and wear all these different hairstyles every week! But, while I definitely had a good time, eventually I just started to feel I should be the one up there and somebody should be judging MY talent! You know, I basically just missed being onstage while sitting there behind the table with my glass of water. So, though they asked me to return for the second season in 2007, I decided to step down - and eventually Sharon Osbourne replaced me.”
Meanwhile, in addition to the forthcoming solo album she’s currently in the process of recording, Brandy’s upcoming plans also include a collaborative album with her now-successful-R&B-star brother Ray J, tentatively - and cleverly - titled ‘R&B’. Which should hopefully fulfil the promise displayed when the twosome’s cover version of Phil Collins’ Eighties global smash ‘Another Day In Paradise’ (recorded for the tribute album ‘Urban Renewal: A Tribute to Phil Collins’) became an international Top 10 single across most of Europe and Australia back in 2001: “Well, that album project with me and Ray is still in the works”, she confirms: “But it’ll definitely be very different from my solo work, because we’ll be singing a different type of song. So, while we’re still trying to figure out what our angle is gonna be - we still don’t know exactly how it’s gonna work and pan out - it’ll definitely be a duet-driven album. As opposed to, say, one of us producing and the other singing.”
With Brandy having enjoyed ongoing success as an actress alongside her music career (most notably as the star of the 1996-2001 US TV sitcom ‘Moesha’; plus the lead role in the two-hour, Emmy winning 1997 Disney television movie ‘Cinderella’), her immediate plans also take in a promising new TV acting role: “Yeah, I just did a pilot for ABC that I’m REALLY excited about”, she enthuses: “I mean, this show is SO good that I really, really hope it definitely goes into long-term production. You know, with me not having been on the acting stage in years, just to be doing that again in itself is gonna be a lotta fun! And, while I’m not able to really go into details right now, all I can say is that it’s a great show about a family that’s all living together. I play a materialistic woman that’s lost all her money, along with her husband. So they have to move back to Portland to live with his brother, his wife, their two kids, and their sister who doesn’t know who she is half of the time. But, while that’s pretty much all I can say for now, I am definitely hoping that it can develop into a significant role for me in the near future.”
Brandy performs at IndigO2, London on May 7
Words PETE LEWIS