Ayanna Witter-Johnson is an English folk and soul singer, songwriter and cellist. Nominated for a 2012 MOBO Award, she is a performer of extraordinary versatility and her live shows are intimate journeys that chronicle her experience as a woman in the 21st century. This year Ayanna was invited to join Songline’s Artist of the Year, Sitarist Anoushka Shankar on the world tour for her latest album ‘Traces of You’ featuring Norah Jones, and is simultaneously enjoying the success and critical acclaim of her latest EP ‘Black Panther’. Ayanna took 5 minutes out of her busy schedule to chat with Musicvein about her influences, career highlights and future.
MV: Thank you Ayanna for taking the time out to do this interview, let’s begin by telling me who your influences are?
AWJ: “Some of my inspirations both musical and non-musical are Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Eckhart Tolle, Bach, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Sojourner Truth, Berio, Stravinsky, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Ligeti, Jill Scott, Marcus Garvey and Sting.”
MV: Wow so many, and how do you feel they have they influenced your style?
AWJ: “They have encouraged me to celebrate my authenticity, to explore my unique mode of expression and to write from a place of personal truth.”
MV: So tell me, how did it all begin for you musically?
AWJ: “I started playing the piano aged 4 and the cello at 13. I always performed throughout my childhood, singing, dancing, acting and eventually studied classical composition both at Trinity College of Music and at the Manhattan School of Music.”
MV: What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
AWJ: “Becoming the only non-American to win Amateur Night Live at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with my original song. It was extraordinary! Looking back, it was most certainly the best training I could have had in terms of building confidence and understanding how to captivate and entertain a crowd. Knowing that you could be booed off stage at any moment was very scary but so exciting!”
MV: Which song, that you have written, do you hold most dear to your heart and why?
AWJ: “‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ because I wrote that using the text from a speech made in 1851 by former slave Sojourner Truth. It contains so much wisdom and its message is so powerful. I also sang that at the Apollo Theater during my winning performances and so it holds a special place in my heart.”
MV: Tell me, how do you find inspiration for your songs?
AWJ: “I find inspiration in all aspects of life including historical events, conversations, emotions, current affairs, stories and places I’ve travelled to.”
MV: And how do you get in the ‘zone’ for creating your material?
AWJ: “In general, my creative process starts with an idea, a feeling or a story I want to express and I explore those ideas lyrically with an instrument and craft a song from either a melodic, lyric or a rhythmic impulse. Getting into my creative zone is like living in the flow. My state of mind has to be positive and open about life in general or else the inner critic tends to take over and stops me releasing my raw ideas. That means, taking care of my health physically and mentally and getting a good balance between work and play so that work is also a form of play and not pressure.”
MV: If you could sing alongside any artist from the history of music, who would it be and why?
AWJ: “Stevie Wonder, because he is an extraordinary vocalist and songwriter and he feels the music from the inside out.”
MV: You play instruments, the Cello and Piano, do you have a preference to playing either one and why?
AWJ: “Because they all have such different characters, I don’t have a preference.”
MV: Which artist would you like to work with in the future?
AWJ: “I would absolutely love to work with Bjork.”
MV: What are your hopes and dreams for 2014?
AWJ: “I am so excited about 2014! As well as some amazing shows I hope to release another EP in June which will feature some amazing collaborations and to continue working on my debut album for a 2015 release. In general, I want to continue to expand my creative and to be able to share that with a wider audience. I also plan to launch my scholarship fund for young aspiring artists.”