Exclusive: YolanDa Brown on storytelling, her new live venue and Tileyard London

YolanDa Brown OBE might just be the busiest woman in British music. On top of recording and touring her own music, the award-winning British saxophonist, composer, and Jazz FM broadcaster is an advocate for music education, championing philanthropic endeavours including the The Drake YolanDa Award, which supports emerging artists across the UK, and the YolanDa Brown Foundation, which supports music students, going on to be awarded the OBE in 2023 for services to music, music education and broadcasting.

Oh, and the younger members of your family will know her best from her CBeebies series, ”YolanDa’s Band Jam,” which she tours as a live show and which also earned her a BAFTA nomination last year.

What links all of these endeavours, of course, is a passion for playing music, the UK’s industry, and a love for storytelling through music.

Now, she adds her prestigious role as chair of the BPI to the list, to which she was appointed in July 2022.

Bex April May caught up with YolanDa to talk about her unusual recording process, what it’s like to take video calls with Elmo, and the exclusive details on her next project…

AMI: Congratulations on the BPI appointment. Could you tell us a bit about how that came about and what that role looks like?

YolanDa Brown: Thank you very much! I’m chair of the BPI, so I’m strategizing alongside the board to make sure that the mission and objectives of the organisation are run well. It’s really great to be representing all of the British recorded music, and also making sure that the relationship with the rest of the industry is strong, as well as looking out for the best interests of the artists and the labels.

You work on so many different projects. How would you describe your recording process?

It’s about making sure that I’m taking the listener on a journey. I like the idea of working across genres. Being a saxophonist and working in jazz, reggae, and soul, it’s about improvising and feeling free, but also bringing joy. I love making music that people want to move to, I’m always thinking about what it’s going to feel like live. Then, it’s about telling a story every time.

Tell us about your Tileyard studio…

I set up my Tileyard studio during lockdown. I’ve been there many times, and there’s such a hubbub and it’s such a hive of creativity. So, when it was time for me to open my own studio, I wanted to be at Tileyard. The reason for it was actually that Sesame Workshop, who make Sesame Street, asked me to be the Head of Music for a new animation on HBO Max called “Bea’s Block,” doing all the music and the underscore. Moving in during the middle of lockdown was strange because it was so quiet, but I love the idea of making music there, and the community, now it’s returned back to its glory. There are people in different nooks and crannies of Tileyard being so creative, and it’s infectious.

And all down to Sesame Street!

Exactly! It’s amazing. The wonderful thing about having that space is it’s available 24 hours, so once I’d finished a day’s work for the animation, I could write for my own projects and build my own body of work, which I absolutely did – I work all hours I can there. I really love having that space and being creative.

What’s one of your favourite memories of Tileyard?

Every day is different. The main thing that I remember is bringing my team together in the studio, and that it never felt like a hard day. I also used to video call into the studio over in New York to record with characters and artists, too, so I think having a Zoom call with Elmo was definitely a highlight!

What’s your favourite piece of gear in the studio?

We have an amazing Roland electric drum kit in the studio which I absolutely love. Being able to be in that space and get a sound like that was really helpful in our production.


Tell us about your saxophones of choice…

I play the tenor, alto and soprano saxophones as my regular touring set, so I tour with three saxophones all the time. I’ve got a wonderful case made by Wiseman London, in which I can carry all three in one, which is really handy for touring. I play Yamaha saxophones and I do love the tone of a black lacquer saxophone.

When you’re recording, how do you typically work, in workflow terms?

The main thing for me is to get the base of the music down. A lot of the time, I will focus on all of the rest of the instruments in the production first, so I know where the song is going and what I want from it, and then I will have a separate day where it’s just me in the studio, playing my bits on top, which is very different from how I approach music live.

If you could bring anyone into the studio to collaborate with, who would it be?

I’d love to work with Sting. Knowing that he has the experience of being in a band, being a producer, being an artist, but also being an instrumentalist, I think there’s a lot that can be garnered from the actual recording process. I’d then like to extend it and take that to the stage as well; it’d be really interesting.


What are you listening to at the moment?

A lot of K-Pop at the moment, because I’ve got two children, a nine-year-old and a three-year-old and we listen to absolutely everything. I have a radio show on Jazz FM as well, so I’m always listening to lots of new music and traditional old jazz and blues. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Nubiyan Twist and PJ Morton.

From Brexit to the cost of living, there are a lot of factors which have impacted the live music scene in the UK. How do you feel about it in 2023?

I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. I always like to see the silver lining in things. As hard as it has been, I still don’t believe it’s going to be overtaken. There’s something fresh and emotional about it that you can’t get anywhere else. We recently sold out the Royal Festival Hall with the live tour of my children’s TV show, “YolanDa’s Band Jam”, and seeing a new generation discovering live music and that feeling of shouting and singing along live with other fans – I think we’re in safe hands.

How does playing live for kids compare to playing for adults?

I try not to demarcate the two, and I think adults can learn a lot from their children. When people go out, especially to a jazz-style place, they tend to think they should be sophisticated, to sit down and then clap at the end of the song. Actually, I always encourage the audience to do whatever your body naturally wants to do. That’s the whole point of me creating music live. I want to see what you’re reacting to, so don’t hold back. As soon as they hear that, they’re actually more like the kids!


Speaking of jazz, artists like Nubya Garcia, Ezra Collective and GoGo Penguin have had great success embracing jazz and the instruments associated with it. Why do you think the scene has become so popular lately?

It’s the fact that the artists are embracing what jazz has given us, which is the voice of improvisation and saying something in the music, but also bringing in grime, Afrobeat, and different mainstream genres, so we’re seeing a lovely cross-pollination which creates what is the UK jazz scene today. When you go to see Ezra Collective, it can even feel like a rave sometimes, and I think that keeps it alive.

What other jazz artists are you excited by at the moment?

Nubiyan Twist, definitely, Yazz Ahmed, and Jelly Cleaver, who is doing really great things. CHERISE, who is an amazing vocalist who is really expressing that there’s room for keeping true to it as well. And of course, Blue Lab Beats are doing  fantastic work.

If you could only choose one: tape, vinyl, CDs or streaming?

Vinyl. I love how vinyl sounds. On my last album, we mastered for vinyl, and the sound quality was so much better. You just think, ‘Oh my goodness!’ This is a way of listening from the past, but the quality that people were getting was actually better than streaming. And the experience of putting it on the turntable – you can’t beat that.

Between recording and writing books and going on tour and chairing the BPI and working with charity, you’ve got so much going on all the time. What upcoming project are you most excited about right now?

Being the BPI chair has been fantastic, and that includes the Brits and Mercury Prize, so I’m really getting my teeth into what that looks like next year. I’m also still touring the Band Jam and my next album. But, one thing that I haven’t told anyone is that I’m opening a restaurant and music venue. It’ll be in London, in Islington, and it will be called Soul Mama. It’s always lovely having a space that people can come to and enjoy music, and it’s nice to also create that platform physically for musicians to have. It won’t be far off. I haven’t told anyone about it yet – so that’s an exclusive!

Welcome to issue 7 of Audio Media International