Dedicated to Talent

Artists - Adult Contemporary

Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown’s debut solo album is a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, gospel music’s first superstar whose soul-soothing spirituals were delivered with sophistication and spell binding style. 

Sarah’s album is also remuneration for the nourishment Mahalia’s music has given her, of the hope and sanctuary through hard times faced over the years. Growing up in a volatile household with an abusive father, Brown found catharsis in Mahalia’s albums as a teen. “When everyone was out I would put her records on the gramophone and sing and scream along and when I was singing and screaming, I was escaping, I was free, I felt no fear,” she says. More recently, she came through a messy divorce. “I was broken again,” she says. “My dreams were shattered but I turned to Mahalia and her songs provided the rainbow and salvation I needed.”

The seed that grew the album was planted back in 2000, when Brown was singing backing on the Roxy Music reunion tour. Waiting for soundcheck, she stood on the stage as Roxys’ pianist Colin Good was warming up on an old blues tune by Ma Rainey. “And as he played I was immediately transported back to when I was eight and in church on a Sunday and these matriarchal figures, these big black mamas dressed like Audrey Hepburn, were bellowing out their Mahalia Jackson hymns, they were crying out from their very souls and as I listened to Colin I was crying too, lost in the music and I vowed I’d pay my own homage to Mahalia one day,” she says. “I needed to say thank you.”

After a false start - “It was just me with Colin on the piano, but it didn’t feel right” - she returned to the idea in 2019 when a chance opportunity arose to record with Prince’s engineer Hans-Martin Buff as a part of an educational engineering programme at Abbey Road. After a series of hurried rehearsals in Bush studios, she and her band - the aforesaid Good and organist Luke Smith at the helm with line up completed by drummer Jerome Brown and Tom Weatley on upright bass - put down 10 songs live over two days as Buff’s students watched animated from the side. “It was amazing to be finally doing it,” she says. “There was such a positive energy in the studio and the musicianship from the band was phenomenal. Jerry gave us the 
count 1 2 3 and we were off.”

For some, when approaching such canonical songs, there might be reticence, but the results speak for themselves. The album pivoting towards blues, jazz and R&B - “how I imagine Mahalia might have sounded if she weren’t bound by the church and had been allowed to embrace the rock’n’roll sound she loved as a teenager” – is delivered with a quiet power and confidence, and the songs, in Brown’s hands, are profoundly personal, her emotionally nuanced vocal artistry - ranging from whisper to scream - mapping her own personal journey from heartbreak to Phoenix-like recovery with Nobody Knows, On My Way and Walk Over God’s Heaven; Didn’t It Rain, meanwhile, literally dances with joy at the promise of new experiences ahead; Joshua is deliciously playful, the weight of oppression lifted; Amazing Grace, a pure expression of what it means to be human itself and then Summer Time, for Brown the album’s centrepiece: “It embraces everything this project is about, it says throw caution to the wind and just sing and play because you can and because you love it and we performed looking each other straight in the eye and it was magical.”

Five decades have past since Mahalia Jackson left this earth and her influence still resonates. On the strength of this spectacular debut from Brown, she’ll be influencing future generations to come too. “Singing is my medicine, it lifts you out of misery, and fills you full of hope,” she says. “I’m never going to stop now.” Amen to that.

From Aylesbury, Sarah Brown was raised on her sisters’ Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin records. She honed her expressive voice and range from a young age in the local Pentacostal church then when her parents split she moved with her mum to Luton and at 17 joined The Inspirational Choir Of The Pentecostal First Born Church Of The Living God. One of their featured singers, Brown sang with the group for 10 years, appearing on their 1985 debut album Sweet Inspiration and on Madness’ 1983 Number 2 hit single Wings Of A Dove. In the 90s she sung with Incognito, as a part of an ensemble with Quincy Jones at the 25th Montreux Jazz Festival and made up one part of jazz duo Lush Life. An in demand sessioneer, she has also sung with Pink Floyd, George Michael, Stevie Wonder and Simply Red and toured with Roxy Music, Simple Minds and Duran Duran.