Lime interview - Music
EDITOR - Vernia Mengot
Vocalist, cellist and pianist Ayanna Witter-Johnson has developed musically from a diverse background of mixed cultures.
Vocalist, cellist and pianist Ayanna Witter-Johnson has developed musically from a diverse background of mixed cultures. Her compositional versatility includes writing for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles,
big bands, string quartets and choirs, as well as songs, soundscapes and pieces for solo instruments and tape, across a range of styles including jazz, classical, contemporary, R&B, soul, reggae, electro-acoustic and black folk.
Graduating from Trinity College of Music in London, Ayanna made her debut at the London Jazz Festival in 2008, opening for Intercontinental – a project that features jazz drumming legend Jack DeJohnette and the Queen of South African jazz, Sibongile Khumalo. Since then she went on to be an Emerging Artist in Residence (EAR) at London’s Southbank Centre and has received a scholarship, where she completed a Masters of Music in Composition at the Manhattan School of Music.
Her continual development as a performer and composer of extraordinary versatility has led to acclaim great achievements and work with some of the most ground-breaking composers and even led to the management of her first solo project.
Ahead of her performance at the Celebration of Life Concert; Ayanna spoke to Lime about her early beginnings in music, her recent nomination for Best Jazz Act at the MOBO Awards 2012 and seeking out new challenges.
Tell us about your musical background. How did it all begin?
I started playing the piano classically at four years old, later taking up the cello at thirteen. Growing up, I went to various stage schools and got a feel for being a performer in general, including dancing and acting as well as music. The turning point was being invited to perform at a jam session at the Jazz Café when I was nineteen years old. From then on, I began to use my voice and eventually started to develop my craft as a singer/cellist at a gig in a Caribbean restaurant in Greenwich during my undergraduate studies at Trinity College of Music.
What have you been up to recently?
I have been working on a commission for a vocal trio called VOICE, exploring the female voice through music as well as preparing for a range of upcoming performances. In particular, some exciting solo shows happening at King’s Place on the 24th of November and on the 16th of October at the House of St. Barnabas, curated by Gilles Peterson. As a collaborator I have a duo show with the amazing Robert Mitchell at the Wiltshire Music Centre on the 10th of October and a wonderful duo show with Gwyneth Herbert in the Elgar Room, Royal Festival Hall on the 13th of November.
Are you looking forward to being part of the Celebration of Life Concert 2012?
Absolutely! Performing at the Southbank Centre feels like a second home. Whilst I was studying, I was an Emerging Artist in Residence there, so it holds great memories for me. The Lifeforce Band are incredible, so it will be great to perform with such great musicians on the night.
What holds the most influence over your music?
The pursuit of authenticity.
Who do you admire in the music business?
I admire Bjork, for her fearless pursuit of authentic artistry.
Congrats on being nominated for Best Jazz Act at the MOBO Awards 2012, how does it feel?
Being nominated was a complete surprise and it feels amazing to be recognised for work that I am so passionate about. I am so thankful to the unknown champions that have nominated me for this award and my deepest thanks to all of you who have continued to support me on my journey. Thank you!
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Being the only non American to win Amateur Night Live at the Apollo Theater in Harlem 2010 and recording my original winning song with the Kronos Quartet in 2011.
Are you working on anything new?
My first full length album due for release in early 2013 produced by Adem.
You are a member of the National Youth Theatre and Youth Forum of the National Portrait Gallery; what advice would you give to a young person who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
Explore and participate in a wide range of groups, courses and activities relating to whatever your interests are. Seek out ways to challenge your knowledge and have fun in the process! Hold on to your dreams and pursue them with passion. Don't let anyone tell you, you can't do something!
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