Ayanna Witter-Johnson – throwing out the rule book

Ayanna-Witter-Johnson

Ayanna Witter-Johnson – throwing out the rule book

In 2016, Ayanna Witter-Johnson performed her stunning interpretation of Roxanne at the Mobo Awards pre-show. It wasn’t just the song that she was interpreting, she was also interpreting the cello itself, revealing the true scope of how this sumptuous instrument can tell stories that flicker with fragile beauty one minute, blaze with firestarter vibrancy the next.

Ayanna is a singer, songwriter, composer, pianist, and cellist. She doesn’t do rule books. Nor does her handsome cello, Reuben. Dancehall riddim with a signature riff. Jazz with tap, strum and bow. She’s writing songs for this generation, for the next generation and for herself. Reinventing, reinterpreting, imagining and always pushing boundaries. Her collaboration with Akala, Rise Up, is a powerful piece of work that captures the experience of her Jamaican heritage and sends an uplifting message of belief.

It was a delight to catch up with Ayanna during the second leg of her US tour with Andrea Bocelli.

Ayanna

The piano was my first instrument – I started playing around three or four years old. Cello came much later when I was about twelve or thirteen. I wasn’t doing much in first year secondary school music class because they were covering basic piano skills which I already had. So, my music teacher thought it would be better to pick a second instrument whilst the class were learning this. The seed was planted in primary school when a lady came in to play cello in assembly. I was sitting in the front row, so I guess that was my first close-up introduction to it. The list was full of all the orchestral instruments and my mum said, “No woodwind, no brass, no drums”. So then there were strings left and then it was a process of elimination from there like, “Oh, not the double bass, not the violin. What’s a viola? Okay, yeah, I know what a cello is – let’s go with that!”.

Giles

You’ve really broken out of the, let’s say, classical rule books and frameworks of what the cello “should” be and how it “should” sound.

Ayanna

The truth is, I was never really in the mould. When things started to edge in a more professional direction, I was already studying composition as my primary study. So, I was never in line to be a classical cellist, other than by training and what I enjoyed for myself. While I was studying composition, I needed money on the side, so I had a restaurant gig. I would have probably gone there and played piano and sang but they didn’t have a piano! So, I brought my cello along. That’s how I got started, and then it just became its own thing from there. I’ve always just seen it as me making the most of the skills I had.

Giles

And those skills – composition, songwriting, piano, cello and your amazing singing as well. You bring all of those together, which, I guess is unusual as many people tend to specialize.

Ayanna

Yes, and I think the thing that ties everything together – all my interests, from wanting to study French and Spanish, my passion for acting and dancing and all of that – is the umbrella of communication. I just use those tools I have to communicate with other people. I think my career has been an organic unfolding of events. I never wanted to be a singer or artist per se. I am just good at communicating wherever I am. So those things have taken on a life of their own.

Giles

Did you get encouragement to follow your path?

Ayanna

Yes. That’s a good ingredient. I’ve been invested in heavily. My parents have always given me lots of opportunities – be they tennis lessons, horse riding lessons, dance, music, drama – in any direction that I seem to be excelling in, then they continue to support me. So, I think it is an important ingredient to have a supportive framework. And they never saw pursuing the arts as a scary thing to do. I mean, my dad’s an actor, so he wouldn’t do! Both my parents believe in the concept of following your dreams and working hard.

Giles

Having encouraging people around you can be so influential on how your attitude, self-belief and mindset develops into adult life.

Ayanna

Yeah, it is key to think of the seeds that are planted when we’re children because they do expand, and I think I see life like that: planting seeds, planting ideas, watering the soil, how the environment shapes what happens next in our life.

Giles

How do you maintain the right physical environment and surround yourself with the right people to provide you with positivity and the right support? Are those things that you consciously look for?

Ayanna

Yeah, my big loves are self-development, well-being, and health – mentally, physically, and emotionally. I do a lot of yoga and I meditate. Eckhart Tolle is my favourite human. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about how to stay – or attempting to stay! – balanced in all areas. I’m a keen observer of people, dynamics, and relationships, and I’m very sensitive to energy, and when things don’t feel good, I quite quickly remove myself (laughs). You’ve got to protect your boundaries and learn how to establish boundaries. Life’s a playground that can be explored, and whilst you shouldn’t shy away from difficult experiences, you need to just look after yourself at the same time.

Giles

I guess that, with some of the music that you’ve written, you’re tackling subjects that are very personal to you. Portraying those subjects in your work, is that something that’s always been important for you to do?

Ayanna

I’m probably most open when I’m on stage, funnily enough. Offstage, I’m quite a private, reserved person (laughs) – well, reserved for people who don’t know me very, very well. But it’s an interesting thing to observe in myself. I do believe that there’s music for all the occasions but, I’m a truth seeker and I know that my music makes people think and feel and it might make people cry. I think I tap into subjects that mean things to me, be it my Jamaican heritage, my identity, emotional situations that I’ve gone through, people I love and care about.  When I was younger, I was singing about whimsical, playful stuff. I’ve still got quite a strong inner child, and in the beginning, that was more so in the music whereas now, my subjects are heavier – I mean the child’s still there, just not so much at the fore of my lyrical content! (laughs)

Giles

I read an interview with Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Onstage, she wore these really phenomenal outfits, and her stage act was very extroverted, but offstage, she was completely the opposite: shy and introverted. Like, two personas where the stage persona was her means of connecting.

Ayanna

Yeah, it’s a balancing act. I enjoy people’s company and I like people. But especially this tour, and what touring gives you – potentially – is a chance to really have ‘me’ time like on the days off, I can just be at the hotel or go for a walk by myself. You get that balance of 20,000 people versus just me where I can like gather myself and just….be!

Giles

The cello is a hugely emotive instrument, which can generate such diverse emotions, you’ve also got your amazing voice and additionally, you have such compelling and assured visual ingredients for your lives and video which are incorporating dance and movement. It’s a very dynamic combination.

Ayanna

Yeah, it is and I think it’s born out of what I want to communicate. So, in the beginning, when it was just me and cello – well, it still is actually – I wanted to hear certain rhythms or certain elements of groove and I’d dance, so it’s all of my childhood seeds rolled into one – dancing, acting, singing, playing. It’s like trying to express myself fully at all times.

Giles

How do you feel looking back at your earlier work?

Ayanna

I think musically, it’s strong. I think I’ve always had an instinct for beautiful melodies and harmonies. I really appreciate that early work. It’s got a freedom and a playfulness that maybe I’m trying to bring back (laughs)

Giles

What influence did Helmut Lachenmann have on you? Pression is an incredible piece of work….

Ayanna

Yes, that was during the time that I was studying composition at Trinity Laban. The beauty of that course was just listening to all kinds of music that I’ve never come across and hearing different kinds of words. And it just gave me an inkling that there was even more that I could do with the cello. Erik Friedlander had done the same thing at a certain point in time as well, giving the idea that we can expand the sound and it need not be so pretty, it need not be so precious. That you can make mad sounds that still convey a message and create impacts?

Giles

Huge tribute to you that you’ve broken out of the “rulebook” and experiment with the sounds that you can get from the instrument.

Ayanna

Yeah, and it’s not always easy. I realised that because you’re constantly trying to forge your own space, forge your own pathway, then everyone has an opinion, and then you just have to…keep it moving.

Giles

Have you – I think I probably know the answer to this question – felt resistance to your pathway?

Ayanna

Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah, you can feel resistance, you can feel a lack of acknowledgement sometimes. Or you can feel disapproval. But I’m always curious, because if I feel those things, what is going on inside me that resonates with those things? Maybe it’s just being human, you know, maybe I’m being too hard on myself wondering why am I feeling like that or why have I interpreted it like that? And that’s, like, you know, a whole other thing (laughs), but it’s useful to just see some things and acknowledge their presence within you, and then decide what you plan to do with that.

Giles

How resilient are you at handling those obstacles that you must face, and how do you work at building them up again?

Ayanna

Resilience is a good word. I think I’m pretty resilient. I realised that a lot of my self-worth – I mean, this may change as it may not be the healthiest thing – is built around working. I really do thrive on working. I like to do stuff. I mean I like to be still and chill and meditate, but I also like moving forward and progress and achieving and creating. I like that cycle of events. So, I’m inclined to knuckle down and get on as opposed to retreat and feel bad and disappear. I’m more likely to just do more than do less.

But I do feel like I must battle it – daily sometimes. Like, sometimes I struggle with certain projects. You know, I’ve got all the critics in my head already and I can barely get on with it. And then it’s just like, well, you’ve just got to get on with it. I’m also quite a committed person. So, if I’ve said I’m going to do something then I’m very much wanting to fulfil the commitment. I guess I’m always in a state of being out of my comfort zone. So, I’ve said yes to something that is hugely ambitious and I don’t quite know how to do it. I’m always like, out of my depth with something, which is probably what keeps me going forward!

Giles

I wonder if also the fear of stagnation helps to override those obstacles.

Ayanna

Yeah. That’s interesting. Fear of stagnation. Yeah. Maybe that’s it. There’s momentum at the same time. If people are paying you to do work, then that’s also your job as much as you love the ‘job’ you’re doing. Equally applies where you grumble about getting out of bed and going to work!

Giles

The other area that I’m interested in is genres. Putting music into genres is a sort of lazy convenience and is almost irrelevant now – although I do fall into my own self-opinionated trap sometimes! But there are so many influences in your work, so you cannot put it in a box – which I think is a great thing. I think it blows away pre-conceptions of what a cello is about, I think it encourages people to think more about what the music is saying to them instead of saying, oh, that’s classical, that’s R&B, blah, blah, blah.

Ayanna

Yeah, thank you. And that’s what it is. To me, it’s storytelling. I’m always thinking ‘does this enhance the story, yay, or nay?’ It’s much less that I’m trying to write this kind of thing or that kind of thing. I’m trying to paint a picture, tell a story, share some sort of message or an emotion or a feeling and whatever supports that is what it then is.

Giles

Who are the big visionaries or influences in your life?

Ayanna

I really do admire Eckhart Tolle. When I start overthinking, his teachings tell me that this is all in the ego realm. This isn’t the essence of my being. I spent New Year’s Day with Maya Angelou 10 or 11 years ago now. That was really special. I feel like the sort of the things that she said, and the messages she gave to all of us in that space – have the courage to be somebody and really just do you – are still with me now and encourage me to keep going when it’s not easy. The overwhelming feeling that I got from her was that she just made everyone feel like family. And I just thought, oh, yeah, I want to be eighty-something and have an open house and be everyone’s grandma. Just soooo cool! When you get to that space of generosity and had so many twists and turns and things that she’s done, you know, she’s had like five lives. It’s inspiring to think that you still retain that sense of you, regardless of whatever it is you’re doing.

www.ayannamusic.com

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