Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Ayo There's quite a breeze

There’s a buzz around going around the french capital. Commuters scramble for the metro, cafés are filled with quintessential Parisian images of croissants and cigarettes, trendy clothes and shops full of foreigners hoping to grab a bargain. And it all seems to be narrated by a soft soulful voice accompanied with mellow reggae rhythms and the lilt of a gypsy accordion. It just so happens the lady responsible for this easy-on-the-ears soundtrack to my time in Paris is the new darling of French soul onnoisseurs and the young woman I‘m about to interview, Ayo.

Backstage at the world famous venue Olympia I am greeted by the tall, slender doll-like ady with wide, friendly eyes and a warm, infectious smile. Nothing like the mage I had in my head when I read about her tumultuous life. Born to a Nigerian Father and Romanian Gypsy mother, Ayo was born in Germany, whisked off to Nigeria as a toddler when, tragically, her mother became addicted to drugs, and subsequently brought back to Germany followed by stints in both London and New York! So, quite how did she end up with a French record deal?

“It’s a very long story,” sighs the sultry Ms. “When I was 19 I was in Hamburg working with a management company who were trying to get me a deal. But at that time I didn’t play guitar or really have the relationship I’m having with music right now. They tried to push me down so many routes, from R’n’B to Reggae. They were nice guys but they all wanted to pigeonhole me as ‘The new German Reggae artist’. They were using me to fill what they thought was a gap in the market but nobody really understood the direction I wanted to take which is why I had to leave.”
And leave she did, travelling first to London, and then on to Paris, but not without leaving a trail of producers and managers in her wake both hypnotised by her talents and incensed by her free spirit and stubborn integrity.
“The problem was that my management in Hamburg gave me money and paid all my rent, so when I left Germany everybody was a little pissed! I managed to sign my first publishing deal for my music and got an advance, which looking back was nothing - but at the time I thought I was rich! I used it to pay off as many debts as I could, and then travelled to Zanzibar for a while with the rest of it! (laughs). When I moved to London I had little but my guitar, my music and hope! I played around Notting Hill or any little café that would take me. I hooked up with a musician guy who was signed to (Gilles Peterson’s now defunct label…) Talkin’ Loud. He introduced me to some great music and was very talented himself but his drinking became a problem so things didn’t really work out.”
After yet another relationship turned sour with an independent record label, Ayo settled in Paris, where her distinctive brand of music making found favour with the locals who looked upon her as an updated version of the original Queen of French Hearts, Sade. “I stayed with a close designer friend of mine and she asked me if I would sing at her fashion show. From there, there were many people interested on my music and curious as to when any record might be coming out. After that, I started getting more bookings for more live shows and it all gathered quite a momentum.”
It wasn’t long before she caught the eyes and ears of the French music industry via Polydor France. During this period, she experienced another highly significant development - the birth of a son, Nile. Travelling between Germany and France, she crafted and prepared her richly organic debut album “Joyful”, working closely with producer Jay Newland and recording the album in a live environment in just five days.
“All the other producers I’d worked with before were all like ‘I have this new equaliser! We should try it out with the compressor and it will sound really good and it’s all vintage!’ At the end of the day they’d make me sound like ‘Beyonce goes acoustic!’ Some producers go crazy with technology but Jay was not like that at all. He just told me not to worry and to do my own thing and he’d do all he could to produce a finished result that was uniquely me! Find me another producer who is going to do something like that. I didn’t even do a studio soundcheck. Because of Jay and the great musicians I worked with we recorded the album in 5 days. I did no overdubs on this record, everything is live - I played and sang at the same time and most of the stuff is the first take.”

Musically, Ayo’s sound is influenced by everybody from Donny Hathaway to Bob Marley and Afrobeat king Fela Kuti, all merged with her own style that’s been labelled ‘African Gypsy Soul’. The album has a truly accomplished feel, with twelve daringly personal tracks that effortlessly whisk you off to all the places she herself has been throughout her life, evoking images of a traveller girl lost between Africa and Europe.

Thankfully, her personal life is more settled now. “My Father is the coolest man on earth. He’s the reason I’m here. I doing what I’m doing because he believed in me - even more than I believed in myself! He tried hard to hold the family together - he is my one and only hero. He brought up four kids almost on his own. My mother became a drug addict when I was five years old and as a Nigerian guy he was quite naïve to things like heroin. It was really hard for him. I loved my mother but she was weak and our relationship changed because she disappointed me too many times but we have a better relationship again now because I believe in destiny and I can’t judge her for what she’s doing because she’s not the master of herself.” Now that she herself is a mother Ayo is determined to put her son before anything, including music, but has found a way not to let them be mutually exclusive.
“He is my biggest love ever. I take him with me when I tour and he seems to enjoy it. Opinions differ about children going on the road with a parent but I believe that a child naturally wants to be with its mother and I think that this is the most important thing for a child’s development. He’s much more important to me than the music but I almost think it’s like the same thing spiritually; when you write songs it’s almost like each song is a ‘child’ of your creation and there’s a journey and you see the song ‘growing up’.”

As she awaits the UK’s response to her debut album and single next month, which will, no doubt be subject to unfair and unfounded comparisons to another light skinned guitar wielding singer by the name of Corinne Bailey Rae, tonight she has other things on her mind. The sold out Olympia gig. It seems the gypsy girl has finally found her home on the world stage.

The single “Down On My Knees” and the album “Joyful” are both released on Polydor Records France.
Words John Pitts

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