As a young girl, Rachel Brown kept a secret she wished she could share. If she said it out loud, it might not come true. Somebody might tell her she couldn’t do it, and that could have been the end of the dream for the shy 10-year-old growing up in New York City. Instead, she wrote it down in her journal: “I want to be a singer.”
A little more than a decade later, Rachel Brown is living her dream and then some as she prepares to release her second EP, The Band. A recipient of the prestigious ASCAP Foundation Robert Allen Award for Songwriting as well as the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame Abe Olman Award for Excellence in Songwriting, Brown has blossomed into a one-of-a-kind artist, developing a distinctive sound that blends elements of her roots (Ethiopian, Bermudian, and Southern) with a childhood spent listening to soul greats like Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson, as well as other Motown, R&B, and 90’s pop and hip hop. It’s a blend that’s earned her praise and attention from Perez Hilton to the New York Post and a legion of devoted fans.
“I took a gap year before I started college,” explains Brown. “I bought a guitar and Guitar For Dummies and started teaching myself, and that’s really when I started writing my own songs and fell in love with it.”
She studied filmmaking at Harvard College, but continued to develop her passion for music in her spare time, performing at open mic nights and building up her confidence to perform at larger events and eventually headline her own shows.
“School was hard and a lot of the workload was stuff you didn’t want to be doing,” Brown remembers with a laugh. “Music was a really great way to release frustration. It was therapeutic, the perfect place for me to pour out whatever anxiety I was facing.”
One of Brown’s early songs, an infectious charmer called “Bumblebee,” helped launch her career when she released it on her 2012 debut EP. The track was soon licensed for a diamond ring commercial, which Jay Leno featured in a monologue on The Tonight Show. Jaden Smith tweeted that it was his new favorite song, and it prompted Glamour to hail her “sensually soulful vocals” and led DailyCandy to declare that “the hype is justified.”
Brown was handpicked for a 13-month residency at New York’s famed Darby supper club, where her audiences regularly included celebrities from Jay Z and Beyoncé to Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese to Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. She performed at Lincoln Center for the triumphant Alvin Ailey opening night gala and took the stage at Leonardo DiCaprio’s birthday party. Meanwhile, her career had already taken off in Bermuda, where she opened a stadium performance for Mary J. Blige and Robin Thicke and performed at the Bermuda Music Festival, which ultimately led her on a path to befriending Wyclef Jean.
“I went to a charity event about a week after I graduated from college that he was being honored at,” remembers Brown. “He’d seen my performance video from the festival, and an hour before his performance he asked if I would go onstage and sing with him. We went up on the fly and did a duet of ‘Redemption Song.’ To have just graduated a week earlier and be excited and terrified about jumping into music, and then have somebody like that, whose music I admire and respect so much, take a gamble on me, it made me believe that I could do this. Since then he’s been really supportive and sometimes he’ll crash my shows or invite me on stage at his.”
Though it’s only been a few short years since then, The Band showcases Brown’s incredible growth as both a writer and a performer, most obviously embodied by—as the title would suggest—the expansion of her band to eight ecstatic pieces. Fronted by Brown singing and playing guitar/ukulele, the group also features electric guitar, bass, drums, percussion, sax, trumpet, and kora, a 21-stringed West African instrument that dates back centuries.
“Since I released that first EP, my band doubled in size, The Darby happened, the whole energy changed,” says Brown. “For the new EP, I wanted to capture the band playing live together all in one room in an old-school kind of way.”
The approach is evident from the opening moments of the EP, which kicks off with “You Got Me,” a rhythmic, lilting ear-worm that finds Brown’s alternately soaring and intimate vocals coasting on top of a charismatic groove.
“I really think about how the band is going to perform it live when I write now,” says Brown. “I wanted it to be something fun and playful with the horns.”
“Not Over You” is another example of Brown’s newfound vision as a writer and frontwoman for such a large band, with its soulful, classic R&B feel.
“I wrote the song on tour and I knew exactly how I wanted every instrument to sound in the studio,” says Brown. “I love collaborating with the band on arrangements, but it was nice to come in with something fully formed. Everybody pours themselves all in on that song.”
“Speechless” is an enchanting, coy tune with back-up vocals inspired by the Wailers, while “Last Call” features the kora prominently in its wistful arrangement, and “Parallel Universe” finds solace in imagining that relationships that don’t work out in this world find happier endings in an alternate reality. The EP’s most unexpected moment, though, comes in the form of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a new take on the Whitney Houston classic.
“Whenever I listen to the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ it’s actually a really sad and heartbreaking song, so I wanted to play it that way,” says Brown. “It’s one of the few songs where the feeling can be totally switched and the lyrics still work perfectly.”
The result is a touching, poignant moment on the EP that traverses the full emotional spectrum of love and loss with extraordinary grace and agility. With the release of The Band, Brown is set to bring her remarkable live show to larger audiences than ever before. A secret this good is meant to be shared with the world.