Brandy: ‘Music is my therapy. I don’t know what life would be without it’ | Music
When Brandy Norwood was 14 she went to see her idol Whitney Houston in concert. Stuck in the nosebleed seats, she decided to blag her way backstage at the end of the show. “I was just telling security: ‘I’m going to be a star someday, I’m going to pay all your bills if you just let me back,’” she says via Zoom, her trademark husky voice frayed slightly by final sessions for her new album, B7. Amazingly, the charm offensive worked, but Houston had already gone. “I was crushed,” she sighs. “My mom was like: ‘You’ll meet her when you put music out.’”
That same year, 1993, Brandy signed to Atlantic Records. A year later, she released her Grammy-nominated, self-titled debut. By 1996, she was the star of the teen sitcom Moesha, and, in 1997, she was hand-picked by Houston to play the title role in a TV remake of Cinderella. “So I’m working with her side by side,” she says, eyes wide. “It’s just something that’s still surreal to this day.”
For a period in the late 90s and early 00s it felt as if Brandy, AKA the fan-ordained “vocal Bible”, was being fast-tracked for Houston-level success. Her second album, 1998’s Never Say Never, sold 16m copies worldwide, thanks in part to its lead single The Boy Is Mine. A playfully confrontational duet with fellow R&B upstart Monica, it spent 13 weeks at No 1 in the US, finishing as the year’s best-selling single. Its opulent sound – fluttering harps, cascading backing vocals, elasticated bass – rewired the genre, with its then-unknown co-producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and co-writer LaShawn Daniels going on to craft era-defining hits for the likes of Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez and Houston herself. A year later, now one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Brandy was given her own line of Barbie dolls. “A black Barbie with braids and little baby hairs coming out,” she smiles. “Truly unbelievable.”
While there were other hits – Have You Ever, What About Us?, Talk About Our Love – by 2005 Brandy’s commercial appeal had stalled. In 2006, she was involved in a fatal road accident (a topic very much off the table during our interview) that forced her to quit as a judge on America’s Got Talent. While subsequent albums showed flashes of brilliance, they were often undermined by her rocky relationship with music itself. “Sometimes you get caught up in being popular and relevant, and that makes you lose the reason why you’re connected to music,” she says. “I’m scared of that. I don’t ever want to get to a point where I’m doing music for the wrong reasons.”
The good news is that the soulful B7 – her first album in eight years – sounds like the work of an artist re-energised, with those trademark vocal flexes cocooned in outre production and playful throwback moments such as lead single Baby Mama’s celebration of her 18-year-old daughter, Sy’rai. It also arrives at the perfect time: the 41-year-old is now feted as a massive influence on modern R&B, with 2002’s glitchy, UK garage-influenced Full Moon and 2004’s sumptuous Afrodisiac – lauded by everyone from Rihanna to Red Hot Chili Peppers’s John Frusciante – both hailed as canon.
It is not just turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia. In 2013, shortly after the release of Brandy’s sixth album Two Eleven, which featured input from self-confessed stan Frank Ocean, Solange tweeted at white music critics: “Like you really should know about deep Brandy album cuts before you are giving a ‘grade’ or a ‘score’ to any R&B artist.” It’s those deep cuts that keep drawing other modern R&B practitioners to her back catalogue, from Kehlani to Beyoncé proteges Chloe x Halle. Can she hear her influence in R&B now? “Yes … ” she says coyly. “A lot. And it’s so flattering.”
Brandy Norwood was always destined to be a singer. As a young child she would accompany her dad, a gospel vocalist and choir director, to their local church in Mississippi. “Watching what people’s voices did to audiences, I wanted to see if my voice could do a little of that,” she recalls. When she was four, her family moved to LA. A talent show regular, her demo CD eventually found its way to Atlantic; when the label signed her, Brandy’s mum became her manager.
A year after her debut album made her a teen star, she landed the title role in Moesha, a sitcom based around the upper-middle class Mitchell family. Brandy, playing a headstrong character on TV each week, was quickly defined as the ultimate good girl next door, a perception that meant she had to hide a relationship with the Boyz II Men singer Wanya Morris, five years her senior. She says that following “this perfection map” meant people were constantly waiting for her to slip up, a fear that raised its head again in 2004 when Sy’rai’s father, the producer Robert Smith, revealed the pair faked their 2001 marriage to preserve the singer’s reputation. “When I started to make mistakes I was judged harshly at times,” she says. “That got very difficult for me.”
When The Boy Is Mine came out, Brandy’s leap from teen star to adult artist was cemented. The song, inspired by the domestic arguments on Jerry Springer, came with its own in-built tabloid narrative of warring women. Fiction was assumed to be fact as stories swirled about altercations between Brandy and Monica. She laments that the gossip around their friendship meant they only performed the song together once, at the 1998 VMA awards. “For us to be put against each other like that, I didn’t think that was funny at all,” she says. “We didn’t really get a chance to experience what we could have with The Boy Is Mine. The fanbases and the media really threw a wrench in that experience.”
Outside interference has dampened other career peaks, too. Having crafted Afrodisiac alongside producer Timbaland, her label lined up newcomer Kanye West for extra sessions, eventually insisting, much to Brandy’s protestations, that the lead single be their collaboration, Talk About Our Love. “I like that song now,” she insists, “but back then I was like ‘nope’.” It was such a last-minute decision that Brandy had already started rehearsing for the video shoot for the Timbaland-produced Black Pepper, a song that didn’t make the final tracklisting and has since taken up mythic status. “It definitely exists,” she confirms. “I just, erm, don’t know where it is.”
Two songs that did make it on to Afrodisiac sample her favourite band Coldplay, while Full Moon’s layered vocals were heavily influenced by castle-dwelling, ethereal Irish warbler Enya. When I playfully question her taste she suddenly grows animated. “Enya’s a joke to you?” she says, both eyebrows arched. “Coldplay? A joke? That’s not even possible. I’m a little bit offended.” She changes tack when she realises I’m geographically closer to Enya, her dream collaborator. “Actually, can you make Brandy and Enya happen? Don’t just laugh. If you have connects to the castle let me know.”
For now, Enya can wait. While in many ways B7, released via her own label, is classic Brandy, off-kilter production anchored by a voice still deep enough to swim in, it also feels like a fresh start. No more placating egos, no more chasing commercial expectations. Having previously had her experiences distilled into other people’s words, she is now credited as a co-writer on every song, often alongside her early mentor LaShawn Daniels, who helped turn those burning ambitions into reality. Tragically, Daniels died last September during the making of the album.
“It’s a little scary because I had to finish it without him,” she says, dabbing away tears. “I just wonder: would he be proud of what I was able to put together?” She takes a breath. “Music is my therapy,” she nods, almost to herself. “I don’t know what my life would be without it.”
B7 is out on 31 July