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Preview/ Interview. Ayanna Witter-Johnson at Kings Place Festival

Ayanna Witter-Johnson is back from New York. The 26 year-old singer-cellist-composer, from Hornsey in North London, has had two years studying for a Masters degree at Manhattan School of Music and came back in May. She will be performing a triple bill in the fourth, 100-concert Kings Place Festival, on September 8th.

Half way through her two-year stint in New York, she bagged a big prize, winning the Apollo Theater Harlem’s televised talent show “Amateur Night” (above), and that win has opened quite a few new doors for her.

Amateur? The first thing that comes across when you see Ayanna in performance is that she is anything but. When it comes to communicating with an audience, she knows what she’s doing. Her early Friday night set a couple of weeks ago at Ronnie Scott’s really got through to the audience. Club director Simon Cooke, who takes most things coolly in his stride, remarked how taken aback he had been by the quiet magic of her performance, and by the mesmerized silence, followed by unanimous cheers and applause, from what is normally the club’s trickiest audience of the week, the one which normally doesn’t listen and doesn’t settle.

She is indeed able to get through to and to please a crowd. But, when I Interviewed Ayanna in Camden Town earlier this month, what came across far more was the seriousness of purpose, the integrity, and the open-mindedness with which she identifies and pursues artistic goals.
She was about to record an EP of some of the key songs which have stayed with her as she has developed. First to be mentioned is perhaps the most powerful, Ain’t I a Woman, based on a speech from 1851 by emancipated slave Sojourner Truth. “That song has journeyed with me from an after school project to the Nat Portrait Gallery to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.”

The voice is one you don’t forget, particularly in that now very personal song. It speaks of energy, of commitment, and, as it sweeps higher it seems to develop its own power and freedom. I was reminded of the timbre of Randy Crawford, but the sentiments which Ayanna which expresses are exactly the opposite of “Some Day I’ll Fly Away.” Ayanna asserts the clear imperative, the duty, to stick around, to deal properly with words, narratives and important issues.

That determination runs deep. She is not in a musical bubble, she is not just to there entertain. Furthermore, she pursues honesty and integrity as a performer with similar seriousness to the wider issues she tackles. She describes her current EP project as: “A revelation of me, an introduction.” I ask her if this isn’t dangerous, dealing with personal issues so openly, rather than leaving a mystery, letting people imagine what they want to?

Her answer is telling: “Other people have said that to me, that I’m very honest, exposed. What I think is that if I’m going to spend time in a room with myself, it had better be the truth. Otherwise I’m lying to myself as I’m creating it. I like direct communication with the audience. They can still interpret it how they like but I’ m giving the most honest account that that I can.” So honesty is important? “My key word is authenticity. I’m trying to explore what that is sonically, visually, spiritually, aesthetically. And as I’m singing playing, and overlaying for recording, I’m questioning what it is to be authentic. And I’m changing too, so what’s authentic also changes.”

When I met Ayanna she had just been in Berlin, looking at exhibitions. “It’s a luxury,” she said. “You just feed your mind. You’ve got to do these things. I’m going to places I’ve never been before and seeing what that place has to offer as opposed to what I think I’d like to know. You’re always surprised by new things and what you can get from them.”

She is going through a phase of looking for, and being open to new inspiration to work into her work as performer. There is talk of an album project for next year, which will involve both London and New York musicians.

Performing has been a part of Ayanna’s life for several years. She was a member of the National Youth Theatre. And while at Trinity College of Music, was chosen for the South Bank’s short-lived Emerging Artists scheme, mentored by Nitin Sawnhey.

She didn’t take A-Level Music, her school couldn’t offer it. “It upset me at the time. I was playing classically and winning competitions.” She did English, Theatre Studies, and French. In retrospect it seems a happy accident. Ayanna has read widely – Sartre, Camus, Jane Austen, Shakespeare. That early exposure has perhaps made the need to grapple with stories more explicable, and urgent.

How did the cello make its way into the performances? When she was a student – of classical composition at Trinity College of Music, she came away with First Class Honours – she needed to get some money. “I blagged my way into playing a gig at a Caribbean restaurant. There was no piano so I played cello. It was background, nobody was listening.” That’s when I started playing around with songs from Nina Simone and [the Police’s] Roxanne. That’s why Roxanne is important to me.”

Is Esperanza Spalding – who plays the bass and sings – in any way a role model? The two know each other and have met and emailed. Ayanna gives a thoughtful answer: “Her [Esperanza’s] way of forging ahead and being herself and natural and talented and working hard…yes that’s definitely inspiring.”

She also told me about the triple bill of performances at Kings Place, curated by Serious, and beginnig at 7.30pm.

Boo Hewerdine. ”It’s a new collaboration. I’m looking forward to an intimate gig. Revealing, spacious, driven by story. My story wil be there in some form.”

Gwynet Herbert – “We’re writing new material and we’ll be using both instruments piano for her, piano for me too, and cello. That one will be a theatrical gig.“

And pianist Robert Mitchell, with who she has worked very extensively: “That one will be more improvisatory more open,more seamless, a journey, a landscape.”

But now Ayanna is back, is she staying? Have we in London now got her back for good? The answer is thoughtful, never-say-never. “London will be my base for now, but I can definitely see pockets of time in America.”

She’s going places. Catch her while you can.

Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Myspace/ Kings Place Festival website.

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