Leo Kristoffersson chats to Ayanna, a UK cellist and vocalist with star potential
In our mission to bring you music from a wide variety of genres, So So Gay was proud to work with The Sage Gateshead last month as they hosted the 8th annual Gateshead International Jazz Festival. As reported after the event, one of the acts we felt truly shone at the three-day fiesta was Ayanna – a cellist and vocalist with talent aplenty. We caught up with Ayanna following her outstanding performance as support act for Robert Fonseca on the opening night of the festival.
So So Gay: Hi, Ayanna. Many of our readers will not have heard of you yet. Tell us a little about your background, both musically and personally.
Ayanna: I was born and raised in London. I started playing the piano at four years old and the cello at the age of thirteen. I trained classically on both instruments and studied classical composition at both Trinity College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. Around the time of my studies, I started to sing and developed my songwriting and performing skills, accompanying myself on the cello. As a performer, I have toured the UK with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans Jazz Warriors and was chosen by groundbreaking composer Nitin Sawhney to be one of the first Emerging Artists in Residence at the Southbank Centre, London. I recorded a song for 4Hero for their last album Extensions and again worked with them in producing my debut EP Truthfully, released in 2011. Last year I had the opportunity to record with the incredible Kronos Quartet and perform live with them in January 2012 when they toured the UK. I was recently commissioned to be co-orchestrator for a project called Urban Classic, a live musical performance featuring Ms. Dynamite, Skepta, Fazer from N-Dubz and Devlin alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 3 March at the Barbican in London.
So, music has always been a passion of yours?
Music has always been a part of my life since a young age but did not imagine that it would become my career.
Who are your main musical influences?
There are so many; Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Bach, Bob Marley, Berio, Charles Mingus, Take Six, Sting, Steely Dan, Sounds of Blackness and Bjork are the main ones.
You use your cello in a variety of ways. How did you discover that it’s such a versatile instrument?
The way that I approach my instrument is out of necessity in terms of what I need to hear when I play. That includes both harmony and rhythm, and I try to maximise the presence of both simultaneously. It has been a gradual process that developed once I could get to grips with any one particular skill enough to add another to it. Also, studying contemporary music opened my ears to extended techniques on the instrument.
Have you ever considered auditioning for a show like Britain’s Got Talent?
What was the inspiration behind the Truthfully EP?
It is my first recording and I simply wanted to share a raw and honest account of my journey as a creative musician thus far, featuring songs that had traveled with me and helped me to develop as a musician until then.
How would you describe the songwriting process as it happens for you personally?
Most often, I have the idea for the story I want to express and I prefer to explore all the lyrical content first then set it to music. Many times, a lyrical fragment and a melody come to me at once and I then continue with the lyrics before completing the music.
Are your songs particularly autobiographical?
Yes, very much so.
One of your songs, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’, appears to delve into the tricky subject of the slave trade. What made you choose that as a topic?
I was exploring the life of Sojourner Truth with an after-school group for a project that we were working on and the young people asked me to also perform. I then decided to write that song to share with them after coming across Truth’s speech, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ in my research.
Is there anyone you’d particularly like to collaborate with?
Sting. He really is a complete musician. His influences are so diverse and he uses them to weave beautiful songs that really resonate with me. His voice is incredible and he’s not afraid to experiment with a variety of instrumentation.
Finally, where do you hope to be, career-wise, in five years’ time?
I would like to be working extensively across the world; creating new music, collaborating with other artists, recording material, touring with new and existing bodies of work, mentoring young people, being a cultural ambassador and providing resources for developing artists globally.
Ayanna’s debut EP Truthfully is available to download now.