"Everything I sing about is from my life," explains 26-yr-old acoustic soul songstress Ayo, "and I am always writing. These stories are timeless because they are my life stories and my story continues each day-it has not stopped." Ayo (pronounced EYE-OH) has enchanted fans worldwide with her honest, mostly autobiographical songs, filled with emotions and events that have shaped her life, making her experiences both universal and personal. Her willingness to sing from the heart has earned her many press accolades already-the London Mail on Sunday called Ayo "a distinctive character...her candidness is an unstoppable force." Ayo frames these songs in soulful, reggae-flavored soul, R&B and folk rhythm. A gifted songwriter, Ayo is also a skilled, self-taught musician who is adept at creating the sounds that frame her words, playing guitar and piano.
The name of Ayo's intoxicating, stirring Interscope Records debut is JOYFUL. The title is apt, since Ayo's delicately determined songs speak to life's joys and some of its disappointments- all presented with honesty and grace. "My name is Yoruba for "joy," a nickname my father gave me when I was young," comments the German-born beauty. "And my friends today always call me joyful. Even though you've gone through the hardest time, it is important to remember how to enjoy life and find laughter. You can't lose track of what motivates you and keeps you going. You have to persevere even if sometimes you cry inside. Joyful is the best way to describe myself." These emotions emanate from Ayo's enchanting vocals throughout JOYFUL, leading L'Express Magazine in France to recently write, "a deep, angelic voice. Sade meets Billie Holiday." Those stunning vocals also inspired the Italian newspaper, Il Venerdi to exclaim, "Ayo. Smooth like Sade. Brilliant."
JOYFUL's first single speaks to the times when you have to cry. Anchored with folk/reggae rhythms (Ayo cites Bob Marley and fellow Wailer Bunny Wailer as inspirations). "Down On My Knees" is lovelorn, languid and an almost naked plea to the one that walked away. This was the first song Ayo wrote upon her departure from her home in Hamburg as she headed to London to forge her new music career, leaving behind an experience that colored the song. As to the song's passion, Ayo says, "I'm fine if people want to listen to the songs and interpret something else that may be hidden between the lines. It's one of those songs that I think strikes a chord."
A bit more up-tempo and down to earth is "Life Is Real." With congas peppered throughout the undulating groove, gospel keyboards and Ayo's jazzy vocals delivering lyrics like "some people say I'm too open, They say it's not good them know everything about me," "Life Is Real" is an anthem to being true to yourself.
On "Help Is Coming," Ayo digs even deeper. With her vocals focused and straight ahead, and riding a raga flavored mid tempo track, the message in "Help Is Coming" is to believe in oneself. "Help Is Coming" is meant for all the people who struggle and are even sometimes blamed for their troubles. This is my way of telling them to believe, in the face of all obstacles, because that's the way to keep going. I know this because I believe in the universe' spiritual force. This song was inspired by my mother and is about how change will only come when you truly believe it can happen and help."
Ayo has a good reason for those beliefs; despite a sometimes tumultuous life she found a way to rise above and carry on. Many of the songs on JOYFUL were written as a form of therapy. Writing these songs was the best way for me to make sense of what happened during my childhood," says Ayo. "Today I hope people can see themselves inside of my music and find it as medicinal as it has been for me."
On Ayo's Caribbean-flavored version of the Abbey Lincoln song "And It's Supposed to Be Love" (the one cover song on the CD), Ayo elaborates further on how the including this song was a good way of summing up the sentiment on her album. "I always liked the way Abbey's song felt-there was an upbeat swing to it but the lyrics were not happy. And that is a good description of my record. If you read the lyrics first, you might feel sadness about some of the experiences, but when you hear the melodies, which are joyful and optimistic, and it is a great way to get to know me better."
To understand Ayo's music better, one must know where she came from. Ayo was born near Cologne, Germany, the daughter of a Nigerian father and a Roma gypsy mother. The mixture of backgrounds impacted Ayo early. "I'm somewhat bohemian by nature, and prefer a nomadic lifestyle. To me, not having a home is freedom."
Turmoil came when Ayo was just a toddler. After traveling to Nigeria to visit her father's family, her grandmother, as is the custom, wanted to keep the little girl there. Ayo's father bucked ancient traditions and brought his daughter back to Germany. The schism between her family hit Ayo hard and was so significant that to this day-owing to her dad's fear of losing her- Ayo's never returned to Nigeria. Even so, she holds the country deep in her heart and senses its influence on her spirituality and music. "Nigeria is in me, even in ways I can't explain."
The tender track, "Without You" is a testament to her father's unwavering love and determination to keep them together. "This song was written for my father," explains Ayo. "When you listen to the song it is exactly what I was trying to say for years. It was the first time I could say that I was aware of everything he had done for me and my family and explains where I am from and the reason for who I am today."
Ayo was hit by another family crisis when she was six. Her mother developed a drug habit, forcing Ayo to live with her father (who was a part time DJ), an older a sister and two older brothers. Despite the troubles, Ayo never severed ties to her mother who Ayo describes as "strong, despite all her shortcomings."
Looking for shelter from the storm, Ayo began soaking up her dad's record collection. The young girl fell under the spell of everything from Pink Floyd, Nigerian legends King Sunny Ade and the late Fela Kuti and Bob Marley. The vintage soul and R&B of the 50's and 60's that she loved so much would later inform her own compositions-she describes her sound now as "soulreggafrofolk," combining her love for that vintage soul, reggae, funk and folk music.
Music became more than something she listened to, and by the time she was a pre teen, Ayo began to play the violin and piano, and eventually taught herself the guitar, an instrument she was drawn to because it was "more direct and aggressive in the best possible way." Ayo's own unique rhythmic guitar skills are the result of a kinship she forged with the instrument. "It is an extension of me, a way for me to communicate with the outside world. I even have my own term for how I play-guitarology," she says with a soft laugh.
After finishing school, Ayo moved to London with some of her dad's family. She was 21 and needed to find and express herself and knew that staying in Germany would impede her journey. Yet once she moved to London wanderlust took over. "Moving around the world has allowed me to develop into who I am. I'll never be happy being sedentary, I'm too spontaneous and I know that I will always be able to start from scratch wherever I end up."
Following London, Ayo spent some time in New York City recording, and in 2004 went to Paris, where the French-creative community embraced her. Accompanying herself on guitar, Ayo gigged often, opening up for UK soul man Omar and American rock/soul singer Cody Chestnutt. She continued to play and record, eventually ending up with an EP that made its way to numerous insiders and eventually was signed to Polydor France and Universal records for the world. Despite signing a record deal, Ayo was dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the music scene in Paris. However, in 2005, Ayo's life changed dramatically and gave her cause to rethink her path. She became pregnant and later gave birth to a baby boy who she named Nile.
During her pregnancy, Ayo sent an impassioned email to the head of Polydor France, Jean-Philippe Allard, one of the legendary music figureheads in Europe, expressing her distress in the music business and how she would rather give up her music and be a mother at that point in her life. Jean-Philippe Allard responded immediately with words of support, giving Ayo the spark she needed to recharge and return to the studio. Coupled with the birth of her son in 2006, Ayo felt invigorated. "Having my son opened me up to so many possibilities. For a long time I saw music as a sort of therapy; a way of speaking to others, but now I also have my son to confide in."
After taking some time to be with her son, Ayo went back into the studio in 2006, and driven by a new surge of creativity, she assembled a live band and completed and recorded JOYFUL in a scant 5 days. "I gave birth to my son, and then, when he was two months old, I went into the studio and gave birth to my album. His Yoruba name is Abiola, which means luck - and he has brought me a lot of luck," explains Ayo. "I wrote "Never Been" for my son (the only song she wrote on piano)-the song is about the force he gave me to accomplish what I needed to and is a strong reason why this record got finished. I had begun this album before he was born, but after his birth, I returned to NYC and my intuition said the timing and vibe were right."
American music fans will soon have a chance to fall under the spell of Ayo, with the Interscope Records releases her debut CD JOYFUL, which Vibe Magazine has already praised as a "a gorgeous collection of billowy ballads" (Nov. 07).