The girl who didn't belong
Derby Browne grew up without an identity, but she made her own by channelling Edith Piaf and singing songs from other eras in other languages. As Ciara Dwyer finds out, the Dublin-born singer hates to be ordinary
'I've always been a dreamer," says Derby Browne. By the time the singer has finished the sentence I feel she has already floated away a little. The ordinary doesn't interest her. It's too dull and boring. Besides, it's not pretty. This is a woman who likes style and beauty, drama and intrigue. Why do real life in dreary Dublin when you can transform these scenes into tales from foreign lands and bygone eras?
This is exactly what Derby Browne spends her time doing, mostly in her musical career. She is drawn to other countries -- France and Italy in particular -- and to another era, the 1940s, where ladies wore elegant clothes and gentleman were chivalrous. For her solo career, Derby sings mostly in French and Italian, with the odd song in English. Her latest show is The Life and Music of Edith Piaf in the National Concert Hall on July 18.
"I don't do an impression of Edith Piaf," she says. "I sing some of her songs, tell her life story and then I tell parallel stories about my own life. I made a trip to Paris with my accordionist, to follow in the footsteps of Piaf. People tend to like those little stories in the show. A lot of them are real but I make up some."
She felt a connection with the Little Sparrow when she saw a film about her when she was in boarding school in Mount Sackville.
"I remember it was a grey Sunday afternoon and this documentary came on the television."
She sits bolts upright as she tells this, as if re-enacting the moment her teenage self discovered something of immense importance.
"There was something about her," she says of Piaf. "She was abandoned by her parents and she had to sing to survive. She sang on the streets and she was strong but she had a big heart."
And so, the seed was sown. Derby fell in love with the music of Edith Piaf and took it upon herself to learn her songs. This wasn't the norm at Mount Sackville.
"I think the nuns saw me as a little unusual. I didn't fit into their category of music in the school. Instead I created my own musical style," she says.
When she talks about the nuns seeing her as a little unusual, there is pride in her voice. Although Derby grew up in Clontarf and went to two convent schools, there is something unusual about her. It's as if she is not of this country or this era. Maybe it's her perfect diction, which is an elocution teacher's dream. (Her accent would sound more at home on BBC Radio 4.) She is an elegant creature -- from the way she holds herself, to the way she sips her Earl Grey tea. She concedes that she doesn't like to do ordinary, predictable things. She comes to the world from an oblique angle and that's how she likes it.
In Derby's Donnycarney home, all the clocks in her house are set at different times.
"I don't like to be restricted to normal hours or be boxed in by time," she explains.
When her late father Vincent Browne (no relation to the journalist) turned 70, she wrote a song for him in French. He wasn't from France and nor is she, so why did she feel the need to write it in that language?
"I just thought it sounded prettier in French but also I think I was hiding a bit. If I did it in another language, not everyone would understand me.
"I was too shy to sing the song for my father and I think he was too shy to listen to me sing it. I gave him a CD of it, but he never said anything about it."Her father, who was a dentist, became her biggest fan. Often he would urge her to include some English songs into her shows, as not everyone would understand the French.
If you look up Derby Browne's website, in the section where an artist normally has some information about their life entitled 'bio', she has labelled it 'Ma Vie'. When I clicked on it, there was a note saying 'under construction'.
It's a bit like herself. When I phoned her to arrange this interview, we kept missing each other. Eventually she phoned me back and left a message: "You can call me on my landline. My landline number is ... actually I don't know what it is but it should come up on your phone." Welcome to the world of Derby Browne, the woman who has chandeliers dangling from the trees in her garden.
She tells me she would love to light them if only it would stop raining. I think she has been saved by the rain, as the trees would end up in flames. But it's all about the idea of candlelight under the trees, the old fashioned romance of it. How would she describe herself?
"I'm like a little flower, a little pink flower that bends with the wind but always stays."
I laugh at her answer and she seems amused by this, but this is how she genuinely sees herself. In many ways, the description is spot on. When she talks, she seems vulnerable, as if she is not sure of her answers, or indeed herself and yet she has been on the scene for years, putting on her shows, creating these nostalgic evenings where she wants to transport people to another country and another era.
Her September show in the National Concert Hall, Sentimental Journey, will feature songs from singers like Doris Day, Vera Lynn and Marlene Dietrich.
But who is Derby Browne and why does she feel compelled to sing songs in other languages and from bygone eras?
"I always felt like I didn't belong," she says.
In many ways, she didn't.
When Derby was growing up, her mother Shirley told her she was adopted.
"It wasn't a big deal," she says. "That was just the way it was. I didn't discuss it with people and at school it was just considered normal. I knew no different. My mother Shirley would sit me down on a step in the kitchen and she told me that my birth mother wasn't able to look after me, but that she loved me very much. It was a sweet story but I always wondered. From a young age, I would look at the phone book, looking up the name and number of the adoption agency."
Shirley's story sufficed for many years until Derby hit her teens and got the itch to find her birth mother. As the years went on, this desire increased. She summoned up the courage to go to the offices of the adoption agency and she did go in several times. On her third try, she was successful.
"I just wanted to know," she says. "I always wanted to know more. My mother didn't have any information about my birth mother. I always remember every year on my birthday, I would think about my birth mother. For most people a birthday was a happy time, but when I was growing up, I always thought this is the day that somebody has given birth to me and they had to part with me. I had a little cardigan which I was told my birth mother had knitted for me and seemingly she gave me up at two weeks old. I wanted to know more. I needed to know more and time was passing."
For many years, Derby dreamed up stories about what her birth mother could be like. Being a big reader with a vivid imagination, these stories were always dramatic.
"I thought she could be like an ice-cold blonde from a Hitchcock film, like Tippi Hedren or maybe she was dead, in a grave with ivy growing all over it," she says. She didn't give much thought to her birth father but sometimes she wondered if he was foreign. Why else did she feel so drawn to other countries and cultures?
She was later to learn that he wasn't Irish. She is reluctant to talk about his nationality but she tells me it wasn't Italian or French, as she had imagined. Being adopted, she felt she had no identity. Perhaps that's why she created her own.
But she did have some luck with the adoption agency. "I was delighted when the agency told me that my mother was alive and that I could write to her."
Although there was an exchange of letters through the intermediary of the agency, there was no grand reunion between the two. In the letter, Derby's birth mother asked her not to make any further contact.
"When I got her letter, I felt like a Dickensian orphan reading about my birth. It was very emotional. It was a lovely letter."
Derby discovered she was born in Holles Street Hospital and that she was given up for adoption when she was two weeks old. Her birth mother went abroad and then came back to Ireland years later.
In the letter, she told Derby she never married, nor did she have any more children.
She has to respect her birth mother's wish of no more contact but she is not complaining about that.
"The letter definitely helped me. I always want more but I was happy to get that. I felt really lucky."
It gave her a closure, of sorts.
"Adoption can instil a fear of being rejected for all of your life, so I try to avoid situations which could lead to that."
These days, Derby Browne is happy with her lot. She likes nothing more than to watch a murder mystery in the afternoons, while eating a bar of chocolate. Right now, she is single but she tells me that she has a penchant for men who wear blazers with a handkerchief peeping out of the breast pocket. Does this sound like any real man roaming around Dublin? Of course it doesn't. The rest of the time she puts all her energy into organising her concerts -- the costumes, the songs and the style. Even for dreamers, the show must go on.
Derby Browne presents 'Pigalle: The Life and Music of Edith Piaf' at the National Concert Hall at 8pm on Wednesday July 18. Tel: (01) 417-0000. Tickets €25 and €20. www.nch.ie,;www.derbybrowne.ie
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