1:01 AM 28th October 2023
In Conversation With Ayanna Witter-Johnson
Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, pianist, and cellist. She has a phenomenal mastery for seamlessly crossing the boundaries of classical, jazz, reggae, soul, and R&B to imprint her unique musical signature with her virtuosic tap, strum, and bow with her cello into her sound and vibe.
Having collaborated with a prestigious rollcall of artists, including the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney, and Akala, and having spent much of 2023 touring as part of Peter Gabriel’s band, Witter-Johnson is a restless, adventurous artist lauded for her innovative and experimental approach.
once again finds the London-based multi-instrumentalist in constant motion, pushing the parameters of the cello and embracing an array of genres and styles.
We caught up with her to learn a little more...
Hi Ayanna, First and foremost, how are you?
I’m feeling really good. Thanks for asking.
You are nearly a decade into your recording career; what have you learned over the years?
Relationships with others are the most important thing in life. Nurturing creative partnerships, building friendships, and opening doors for others have been the building blocks of my career to date. Music is a team sport.
Moving from one release to the next, how do you seek your new inspiration?
One of the best parts of being a performing artist has been all the travel I’ve experienced. Meeting people from all over the world and learning about and appreciating a wide range of cultures and personalities have all fed into my creative process. I also love to go to the theatre, read, go to art exhibitions, and synthesise my kaleidoscope of emotions into my work.
You are on the edge of releasing a new album in collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble. Tell us a little more about it...
The album is a live recording of a special concert we gave last year at LSO St. Luke's as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. It’s called Ocean Floor,
and it explores my ancestral heritage, culture, and identity and draws on the symbolism of the ocean, sparked by a tragic experience I witnessed in Jamaica a few years ago when a young man lost his life while I was at the beach with my friends. It made me deeply contemplate the preciousness of life and how important it is to appreciate what you have and the people you love and who love you. The album is a book ended by two tributes to my mum who has been instrumental in my musical and personal journey in life.
The collaboration was born out of a friendship with Neil Percy, Head of Percussion at the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), which grew out of my participation in numerous composer development programmes at the LSO. After hearing an online concert I gave during lockdown, he fell in love with my song Unconditionally, which opens the album, and then over the past few years, he commissioned three pieces from me: Forever, Tidal Warning
, and Ocean Floor Suite,
which all feature on the album. He loved the percussive elements in the music, the way I tap and strum the cello whilst singing, as well as exploring percussion in my right foot. He wanted to expand that soundworld and be a part of it!
Your sound fuses lots of genres together; how would you define yourself as an artist?
I would generally describe myself as genre-fluid, with a firm rooting in a soulful soundworld in which classical, jazz, reggae, R&B, and folk elements weave in and out.
Which song are you most excited for people to hear?
It’s so joyful!
And which one are you most excited to perform live?
Ocean Floor Suite: II. Pioneers
It is so much fun to play cello and sing at the same time on this one. I also have my jam block going in my right foot too.
Lastly, if you could achieve one thing with the record, what would it be?
I would love for the album to be a place where the listener can return to it again and again to feel inspired. A space to appreciate the complexities of their journey and the hope that they can carry forward in everything that they choose to do.