Brooke Combe – Scotland’s Soul Sensation

Brooke Combe has found her voice. Not just in becoming Scotland’s breakout artist of the year, but in opening up about her feelings, calling out inequality in the industry, and growing into her identity.

Words by Seán McGill // Pictures by Niall Fancey.

“Mate, I’m knackered.” And no wonder. Brooke Combe had barely been back in her family home for 12 hours before she’d hauled herself out of her childhood bedroom, packed a Fred Perry bag full of funky jackets and signature sunglasses, and sat herself down in my embarrassingly untidy car.

A week of her first gigs down south has been exhilarating, but exhausting. Her new work base, the great music city of Liverpool, acts as a hub of creativity and activity for the 22-year-old. With just one day at home ahead of a hectic touring schedule, she justifiably could have spent her fleeting free time enjoying the sweet bliss of solitude. Instead, she’s talking to me.

“I’ve always kind of been like that. I’m a people person, you know what I mean?”, she tells me as I marvel at her conversational capacity.

Despite the sleep deprivation, Combe still shines. Having known her for years, I see the same air of humility and self-assurance that I have become accustomed to. Now though, there’s a trait more elusive. Intangible, almost. She’s a star.

Lockdown caused many of our lives to slow down, as normality evaporated and confinement reigned. Now, out the other side, Combe’s life has changed entirely, making her mark in the music scene.

“Before Covid, I just wasn’t a singer. I hadn’t recorded any tunes. It was all about doing covers, and that served a purpose because doing a Joel Corry cover kicked everything off,” she says. 

“I had no confidence. I wasn’t as smart at writing lyrics. I didn’t really analyse or research music that much. Now, I feel like there’s a whole other side of me.”

Originally, the idea of sharing her musical talents on stage made Combe tremble. Imagine then, telling that girl she’d spend the day the country’s restrictions were lifted headlining Glasgow’s iconic King Tut’s, to a sold-out crowd, in her first-ever live performance.

“That whole morning, I had butterflies. ‘Is this going to be good?’ ‘How are my pals going to see me?’ My pals hadn’t really seen me in that professional way before.

“From soundcheck to the gig, I hate that delay. My stomach’s just churning, ready to go. But going on stage, seeing everyone just screaming for me, I felt untouchable.”

The madness truly erupted when Combe’s cover of Scotland’s unofficial Euros anthem Yes Sir, I Can Boogie exploded on social media, racking up almost 1.5 million views on Twitter alone. Interviews with STV, Sky Sports, and This Morning quickly followed, all because of a cover of an 80s disco hit after a game of football. 

Being a viral sensation makes you a hot commodity, and she was swiftly snapped up by Island Records, the company that represents such powerhouses of the industry as Ariana Grande, Drake, and Amy Winehouse – one of Combe’s biggest inspirations.

“Being signed with them, that’s probably one of the biggest things that will ever happen to me. Like, that’s your dream, eh? As a singer, you want a record deal.

“It’s still so surreal. The opportunities that come with being signed with a force like them, and the people I’m working with, they’re just amazing.

 “I was in college dreaming about getting a record deal. For a lot of young singers, especially in Scotland, it feels like something really, really far away. I still don’t think it’s sunk in, that I’m actually where I am.”

With Combe fresh off winning Best Breakthrough Female at the Scottish Music Awards, one may assume that fulfilling your dreams means that angst and anxiety are no longer barriers. Behind Combe’s deep brown eyes, you see a mind that is always turning. Content yet cautious. Present yet pensive. 

“During lockdown, a lot of people had to spend time on their own. Everybody struggled, everybody dealt with that in different ways. I was having a rough time, but it matured me massively… I realised there’s more to life than being sad. But it’s something I’m dealing with because I am only 22.

“I think we’re really quick to shut down the bad feelings we have. That’s something we don’t really delve into enough, and that’s something I’ve really done over the past year. If you feel a certain way, really feel it – and it makes for a boss tune at the end of it.” 

“Boss” tunes run throughout the artist’s fledgling songbook, and it’s one she’s keen to share. As we drive in search of coffee to kickstart our day, my attention is taken by Combe’s enthusiasm and insight into her own artistic headspace as her music plays from my shoddy speakers.

She pours over the lyrics of debut single Are You With Me? She gushes over the technical gems in latest release Impress You. Without being remotely obnoxious, it’s evident that Combe loves the music she makes.

“I feel like, as a young, Scottish, mixed-race artist, there’s a massive gap in the market. I’m hoping I’m bringing people music they’ve not really heard before. It’s hard to categorise, because my tunes are all so different, but I guess the one thing that connects them all is that soulful voice. Soul music brings people together, and that’s what I love about it.”

Although her overarching sound remains ambiguous, Combe finds herself in the male-dominated indie scene, a state of play that frustrates the singer.

“I think it’s quite unbelievable to look at given the number of legendary women there are in music. Modern-day you’ve got Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ariana, but I’m talking Tina Turner, and Aretha, and Whitney, and Amy. These are massive, massive names, and I honestly feel like in the indie genre, there just isn’t that.

“If I’m in a place where I can open up opportunities for other people, I’m going to take it because I would have loved that for myself.

“We’ll get there, and it’s definitely heading in the right direction, but I just don’t know how long it’s going to take for these really big names to come and take you by storm. Brooke Combe might be one of them…might be.”

With coffees collected, we head to Combe’s home for a more comfortable chat. Immaculate inside, we’re greeted by Ronnie and Freddie, two dogs with differing personalities. The former, boundlessly energetic with effortless charisma. The latter, tame and relaxed, taking in the world around him with composed focus. They embody so much of both the on and off-stage persona displayed by their loving owner.

A persona that is ever-changing as the young singer encounters new experiences on a daily basis. Previously, I knew that Combe had struggled to discuss race-related issues with her usual unwavering confidence. I sensed that, as life had altered so enormously, she had discovered greater conviction.

“I think it’s such an important message and my worry is going about it the wrong way sometimes. I feel like I didn’t talk about it that much because, being honest, I wasn’t that in touch with my black side. I grew up in a relatively white world. I went to a school with mostly white people.

“It’s something I really want to work on and make a bit of a statement with. Even for me and my family, it’s something I want to get out there. I want to pay respect to my mum and my gran. I want to pay respect to Africa because it’s a bloody cool place.”

This desire to speak up and grapple with social injustice is indicative of Combe’s personal evolution. Growing as an artist, as a performer, as a woman, has led her to maturity beyond her years and a purpose beyond her occupation. A powerful voice is a route to success, but a powerful mind is a route to change.

As I get set to leave and give her some well-earned rest, it’s Combe herself who drifts onto the topic of the future. A future full of so much possibility it could be overwhelming. For Combe, grounded and limitless, the unknown soothes her.

“It almost feels like I’ve shed this skin. I look back at pre-Covid me, and I just had no idea what was coming. Even now, I can’t anticipate what’s going to happen next. I just have a good feeling. I’m discovering a new side of myself and I’m loving every minute of it.”

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