When Wyclef Jean dubs your music "the future," it's kind of a big deal. So, even in a world where the radio waves are constantly inundated with celebrity and designer kids-turned-musicians, we didn't take our conversation with Rachel Brown lightly. The New York born and bred singer-songwriter—and daughter of esteemed bridal designer Amsale Aberra—may have only picked up a guitar 10 years ago, but the 28-year-old's smoky, sultry drawl, which sounds like a mix of Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, and Erykah Badu set against West African instrumentation, makes you realize that the Fugees frontman was onto something really good. We talked with Brown about what it's like jamming with Wyclef, having the bridal hook-up, and her awesome Whitney Houston cover. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:
First off, how did you and Wyclef meet?
We both played the Bermuda Music Festival a few years ago. He performed the night before me—it was the first time I'd ever heard him play live, and I was completely blown away. He said he wouldn't stop playing until everyone went home, and he actually stuck to it and played non-stop for four hours straight.
That's pretty impressive. What's it like working with him?
He's always really supportive of me and all up-and-coming artists. A little while after we met, we were at a charity event for iMentor at Cipriani in N.Y.C., and he asked if I knew "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley. He coerced me to sing with him onstage, and later on, he crashed one of my shows too. It's been a really nice fallback for a duet.
Has he given you any tips for being a successful musician?
He always advised me to perfect the performance and dedicate myself to putting on a good show for everyone that's there and onstage, which is probably why we share a few band members. We both just want to create a moment in time for everybody to feel a certain way, whether that's partying, or being sad, or happy, or angry.
You have a pretty diverse background, with Ethiopian, Bermudian, and southern roots. How has that influenced your sound?
I think it opened me up to certain things. My mom's Ethiopian, so there's that, but it was mostly just living in New York that enabled me to have an ear for different styles.
Did you ever aspire to be designer, like your mother?
I never passionately wanted to be a designer, but I've always gravitated toward creative art forms: drawing, sewing, silk screening, etc. Growing up, it was amazing to be surrounded by creativity all the time. But it was when I started doing music that something actually stuck. I started playing guitar in the gap year between high school and college, and by the time I started [at Harvard], it became an escape from the pressures of school.
Fortunately, when it comes time to get married, you have someone on speed dial.
Unless we get in some crazy fight! My prom dress was one of her wedding gowns in blue, so I've already taken advantage of that privilege. Being surrounded by wedding gowns is a very normal thing for me.
What did you listen to growing up?
Most of my music came from my dad—he would always play Motown, hip-hop, and R&B. Then I came of age in the mid to late '90s, aka the Hanson and Backstreet Boys era, so I can't not tip the hat to them. But Lisa Loeb, Alanis Morissette, and Sheryl Crow were also definitely in the mix.
You did an amazing cover (video below) of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Was Whitney Houston also an influence?
I'm a big fan of hers, and I never would've dreamed of covering any of her songs in a million years, because she's Whitney, but I listened to the lyrics on that one and found them to be actually quite heartbreaking, so I wanted to strip it down and make it into a different type of song than the upbeat one we all know. The first time I sang it was a couple of months after she passed, which made it even more emotional to sing. But I thought the song really worked that way.