Magnificently mixing together classical music with modern R ‘n’ B, singer-songwriter Ayanna Witter-Johnson is shaking up the music industry like never before. Taking inspiration from both her UK and Jamaican roots, she has truly made soul music her own. It’s no surprise that she has already been nominated for a MOBO award. We spoke to her about the power of music and the ideas that have changed her life.
So, tell us about yourself?
I’m a singer-songwriter, cellist, pianist & composer. I love to dance, act, practice yoga, read and speak French.
What is your current state of mind?
How did you get from being a cellist to releasing your own soul album?
My first instrument was the piano at four years old, followed by the cello in secondary school. I started writing songs around GCSE time and during my composition studies at Trinity Laban & Manhattan School of Music I kept developing my craft as a performer, cellist and singer-songwriter and had the chance to work with Nitin Sawhney, Courtney Pine and triumph as the only non-American to win Amateur Night Live at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Following my studies, I recorded two EPs, collaborated with Akala, 4Hero, composed for the London Symphony Orchestra and toured with sitarist Anoushka Shankar. Inspired by all those experiences and feeling confident about my own material that I was sharing with audiences, I wanted to release an album so that I could take people on a journey with me.
Your cello is still clearly a huge part of what you do, and you have also paid tribute to your Jamaican roots and you have created a sound that is both unique and alive. Why did you decide to mix the genres in this way?
It was less a conscious decision and more a reflection of who I am. I have Jamaican heritage and grew up around a wide range of music from the African Diaspora. I’m also a Londoner, born and raised, who studied Classical Music and grew up on Pop and RnB, so my sound is an extension of who I am and everything I enjoy listening to.
Where else have you taken your inspiration from musically?
Roots Reggae, Dancehall, Jazz, Gospel and Latin.
Tell us about your new single ‘Nothing Less’?
It’s a groove, a declaration and an invitation to celebrate your unique-ness - “Come as you are, nothing less!” I wrote it when I came back from a festival in Dorset. It was the first festival I had ever attended on my own and I felt so empowered and had the most amazing weekend.
How did you think of the music video where you are dancing in a catsuit with your cello?
I just wanted to capture a heightened version of what I do onstage which is sing, dance & play my cello in a catsuit! I wanted to amplify that and create something never seen before so I thought it’d be fun to add two Black women with cellos. Why not?
What is your favourite track on your new album ‘Road Runner’?
Is there a message you are trying to get across in your music?
I want my music to encourage people to embrace the adventure of discovering who they are. To accept with love all parts of themselves, both the light and dark sides and to enjoy sharing the best of themselves with others.
You have spoken about how part of your music is to help people live the life they want to live. How can music in general empower individuals?
Music has the power to change the way you feel, your emotions, your focus, your mindset, your attitude and the way you view the world. It can be a doorway to different perspectives and has the power to inspire you to make different choices.
How important is music in society in spreading a message?
Music can be incredibly effective in spreading a message but ‘how important’ depends on what the message is.
You have been nominated for a MOBO, obviously that must have felt amazing, but how did it spur you on in the rest of life?
It did! It was a huge confidence boost and a particularly special moment in time as I met the great singer Dionne Warwick that night and she told me I was wonderful and that I should keep going! Those words will stay with me forever.
What ideas have changed your life?
Forgiveness. Acceptance. Gratitude.
Where is your favourite place to gig?
What does the rest of the year hold for you?
Of course, the release of ‘Road Runner’, gigs in Holland, Russia, Monaco, Georgia, Belgium and the UK. More videos for you and a much needed holiday in Greece!
Catch up with the rest of Ayanna Witter-Johnson and what she is up to through her Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. You can catch her live at London's Omnibus Theatre on 28th April.