Astrid Brook is a local singer and songwriter, a generally lovely person, and probably as nice an urban hippie as you could ever hope to meet. I met up with her in The Lion to talk about her new album, her charity work in Sri Lanka and all things Stoke Newington.
How long have you been living in Stokey?
I’ve been living in London for 14 years, a long, long time, and I’ve been living in Stokey for 4 years now. I love it; it’s my favourite number one, tip-top place in London. There’s a great community here, and everybody always seems to know people who live in this area, especially creative people.
And what made you move here?
I lived in a warehouse in Manor House for quite a few years and then decided to move to a normal house in Stokey with some friends.
You were exposed to music at an early age, right? How did you get into playing music?
I’ve been doing music on and off since I was 8 years old but I had a period of time between 8 and 16 when I did a lot of music. My mum was a DJ when me and my two brothers were really tiny, and she had lots of records in her collection. All sorts of 70s pop music. Really what I remember from when I was a child is my mum watching Top of the Pops and recording it on our Betamax video player and then just playing the tape every day.
So I listened to Top of the Pops every day and I was always playing records. Then I started reading the lyrics on the album covers. I remember sitting by the stereo with a record and my headphones on, reading lyrics when I was about 8. Then my mum bought me a Casio keyboard, and I remember writing my first song. It sounded suspiciously like Lionel Richie. It had a little Bossanova beat and really cheesy lyrics. Not that Lionel Richie is cheesy, he’s great. That’s how I started playing music. I learned to play the piano and I started a band when I was 14, did some music recording with a friend in his studio when I was 15. And then I kind of gave it up for 10 years and did some business things and went travelling.
Then I decided to get back into music when I was 27. I started doing open mic nights and then carried on from there really. I’ve been performing for the last ten years now.
How would you describe your music?
Well, I call it folk music. I used to call it folk pop but it’s not really very pop. It’s very mellow, gentle and my voice is quite warm, so I decided to call it folk just because that’s the basic genre. It’s not traditional folk music but it still fits in the genre.
When I was growing up I listened to alot of pop music. I listened to a lot of Prince and all the 80s pop bands, and then when I started doing open mic nights in 1999 my musician friends introduced me to folk music and acoustic artists like Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, John Martyn. My writing kind of developed through listening to them. And Tracy Chapman is one of my favourite artists, and she calls herself a folk singer, so I’m happy with that.
You play solo most of the time. Do you play with other musicians at all?
I did play in a band just for a couple of months when I lived in the warehouse but apart from that I’ve always played solo. It suits my style and it also makes it easier to play gigs all over the country. It’s more of a challenge to entertain an audience for anything up to two hours this way. You really have to hone your performance skills and I really enjoy doing that.
You’ve played a few of the venues around here. Which one is your favourite?
You know what, my favourite one isn’t here anymore: The Front Room, where the Vortex used to be. It was run by a lovely lady called Gloria.
You know, she now runs the Gold Bar. It’s got a very similar vibe.
Nooooo waaay! Really? That’s great, I didn’t know that. How fantastic! Yeah, well, the Front Room was my favourite venue to play at, and I played there quite a few times. It was just really comfortable and a nice place to hang out.
I read that for the last three years or so you’ve played a charity gig in Sri Lanka. Tell us a bit about that.
Well, I am really fortunate to be able to help raise money by being a musician, and I’ve managed to go to Sri Lanka for an annual charity gig out there. I’m actually going for the third time next week so I’ve been preparing some new songs for that. It’s on 29 March, so only a few days away. It’s run by the Country Music Foundation of Sri Lanka. The guy who runs it is a journalist, and he’s been putting on these concerts for the last 17 years. He works closely with Save the Children, and he has sponsors who supply the venues, flights and marketing. And all the musicians provide their services for free as well. All the money made by these concerts goes directly into specific projects coordinated by Save the Children. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with lovely people. I’m really proud to be involved.
So how did you get involved? Did they find you?
Yeah, one of my friends heard that they were looking for a folk artist. She recommended me, and I jumped at the opportunity. I only had two weeks to prepare for the first concert, and then I flew out and I’ve since developed a great relationship with the foundation, and hopefully it carries on.
I’ve also recently released my first album “Wild River”, and £1 of all the physical CD sales goes to the foundation, as does all the money from CDs I sell while I’m over in Sri Lanka.
Have you done any charity work over here?
You know what, I haven’t done anything charity-wise in Britain yet but it’s something I’m really interested in, and I’m sure the opportunity will come. I’ve done some work with another UK charity called Music for Children, helping build an orphanage in Nepal but it would very interesting to get more opportunities like this.
Any gigs coming up in Stoke Newington or elsewhere in London?
A few weeks ago I did three local gigs in a row but, you know, I don’t really play in London very often anymore. I tend to go out of London. I do love to play but I don’t like the politics involved, so I go outside the city.
However, saying that I do play at a club called the Virtually Acoustic Club where I first started doing open mic nights 10 years ago. They still put on really good music nights out in Marylebone. That’s the place I’d recommend.
You mentioned your album “Wild River” already. When did that come out?
In December. I recorded it in November in a studio in Dorset. The producer is a guy called Rick Parkhouse. He was recommended to me, and he’s just the loveliest guy. He was so enthusiastic about it. He usually records really heavy, full bands. I was looking for someone who wouldn’t mind to just record vocals and guitar because that’s what I wanted, and he did exactly that. So I just recorded it live in the studio, and I’m really happy with it. I just distribute it independently through my MySpace page, Amazon and iTunes. It’s a very small operation.
Have you tried approaching labels with it?
Not at all, I really like what I do at the moment. It’s very independent; I just gig whenever I want. I like selling my music at my gigs. The reason why I recorded just vocals and guitar is that that’s what I do on stage and it’s always nice meeting people who enjoy my music, so I haven’t got any plans to send it out to any labels or anything but I really like promoting it myself as I’m doing right now.
Thank you again for doing this interview, Astrid, enjoy Sri Lanka, and here’s wishing you the best of luck for the future!