Ayanna Witter-Johnson
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Ayanna Witter-Johnson

London, United Kingdom | Established. Jan 01, 2011 | SELF

London, United Kingdom | SELF
Established on Jan, 2011
Solo Alternative Soul


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Ayanna Witter-Johnson @ Kings Place

London, England, United Kingdom

London, England, United Kingdom

Ayanna Witter-Johnson @ Royal Albert Hall

London, England, United Kingdom

London, England, United Kingdom

Ayanna Witter-Johnson @ Ronnie Scott's

Soho, England, United Kingdom

Soho, England, United Kingdom



So here is our pick of the best from TGE2017 who you will no doubt be hearing a lot more from in the coming months.

The Great Escape Festival 2017 has come to a close and what a festival it has been.

If you wern't lucky enough to have got a ticket for Europe's biggest festival for new music - or if you don't really know what its about - we have the lowdown on the best up and coming artists from this year's festival.

The Great Escape is all about discovering the next big band, singer or musician and gives you a chance to see them in intimate venues before they blow up and you have to fork out £30 to watch them play in front of thousands.


If you thought classical music and Jamaican folk were chalk and cheese, Ayanna Witter-Johnson could convince you to wrap a slice of chedder around a Crayola and tuck in.

As well as singing with pitch perfection, the British artist is a piano and cello virtuoso, combining jazz, soul and classical styles with elements of her Jamaican heritage through folk and reggae.

Her musical talent is utterly captivating as she combines drags and rapid bounces of the bow on the strings of her cello - whose name incidentally is Reuben - to create a unique sounding rhythm.

Occasionally she will abandon the bow to create a percussive rhythm with her fingers on the celo's body while plucking at its strings.

Add to this an adapted kick pedal Witter-Johnson uses to tap on a cow bell with her foot and you wonder how on earth her brain con focus on so many things at once. - Surrey Mirror

Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who played at Kings Place as part of their Cello Unwrapped series, perfectly illustrated the beauty and versatility of the instrument in a show that was by turns emotional, funny and always charming. She showcased material from her two EPs and upcoming debut album, supported by an excellent backing band, two supremely capable backing singers and her cello, whom she calls Reuben.

Launching into a touching cover of The Police’s Roxanne, Witter-Johnson told us that this was the first song she and Reuben played together, or, as she has it, their ‘first date’. Her love for her instrument was touchingly clear to see in not just the way she played, but in the tenderness with which she laid him down (be in no doubt, it’s a him) on the stage when she switched instruments (she is also a proficient piano player). It was also evident in the way she danced with him. The sexing up of classical instruments is nothing new, (anyone remember Britain’s Got Talent’s Escala?), but Witter-Johnson’s sensual, rhythmic dancing, with Reuben as her dance partner was captivating. She also incorporated elements of theatre into the show, with the addition of an elaborate candelabra and a rug, she writhed elegantly on the stage with a song that was almost a soliloquy.

The atmosphere at Kings Place was relaxed and intimate. Couples abounded, (looking at you, in Row G, canoodling in front of me), with multiple dedications going out to the loved up among us from Witter-Johnson – the gorgeous Truthfully, for example, was revealed to be the favourite of a recently engaged couple in the crowd. Witter-Johnson made us all feel like we were old friends, laughing with us at her eye-popping corset that she couldn’t bend in, and patiently teaching us old Jamaican songs. This culminated in her penultimate number, Rise Up, a powerful bluesy number which took full advantage of her impressive backing band. She encouraged us to throw off the serious trappings of Kings Place and rise in our seats, to dance, and we did, like snakes to a charmer. Talented and funny, Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Reuben are a partnership for the ages. - The CUSP

A quiet anticipation sits heavy in the air as the intimate theatre at The Old Joint Stock quickly fills. Music Earth Rise — the love child of Brendan Poynton’s music industry meanderings — is staging its first event in Birmingham.

With an emphasis on artist insight into the current state of the music industry, Brendan spoke to NUBI last month and broke down just what he was hoping to achieve with Music Earth Rise & SONGWALL.

Tonight is the first harvest of the fruits of his labour. Opening the set himself, he reminds all present first and foremost of his talent as an acoustic artist. In possession of an impressive vocal spectrum, he effortlessly jumps to falsetto range notes, drawing the audience into the evenings concept.

As much the nights curator as a performer, Brendan is joined on stage by Ella Joy, the winner of the SONGWALL contest for this evenings support slot. Currently recording her first EP entitled Lucid Living, she first reveals her musings on her fledgling tenure in the industry.

“I would consider myself successful if I stayed true to my art” she divulges, “being respected as a musician without having to lose or change my authenticity”. Disenchantment with the industry seems to be a common condition found in young artists, one Ella is acutely aware of. “It’s tricky for us to put our art out there, sometimes the authenticity and depth to music can get lost”.

It takes roughly three sung words of her new single Burn for the audience to quickly learn that her legitimacy is not only intact but vast. Her voice is the rolling, rhythmic licking of flames, devouring attention as its fuel. All are engrossed, a shared and genuine disbelief at the calibre of her voice.

An earlier answer when questioned regarding her genre rings true; “I’ve kind of pinpointed my sound as minimal electronic soul, but even then what is that?”. It proves a most fitting description.

Sauntering into her next song Elizabeth, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as a Bond Theme, her sound on occasion reminiscent of Portishead. The plucked double bass styling of Ocean Blue allowing her to ply her vocal potency, voice bursting with allure.

Closing her set with King, Ella further illustrates enthrallingly evocative vocals, the sparseness of her self-composed backing production a stark contrast to the richness of her voice.

A short break for the audience to regain their sensibility and it is the turn of the fiercely talented Ayanna Witter-Johnson, offering her own introspection on the industry from a point of broad experience. “I genuinely think…everyone is a hustler” she laughs, “ultimately, it’s living life according to my own truths and what I envisage for myself”.

With her cello Reuben ardently cradled and a brightly coloured bag full of song titles passing around the crowd to decide the set order, Ayanna flows into first song Chariot. Dedicated to her father, the sentiment cascades through the room, borne on the soulful crux of cello strings.

Another song pulled from the bag; this time a tale of unrequited love. The SBTV featured A Single Sun from her recent EP Black Panther is unfettered in its beauty. Blurring the line between musician and instrument, her vocal prowess is truly exceptional, the intensity of emotion revealing itself in purest form.

The next song drawn, entitled Come As You Are left the audience dreaming of a Nirvana cover, nevertheless the original composition which Ayanna has performed for the Duchess of Cornwall more than suffices.

Being her first solo performance in Birmingham, it seems only fitting that the next song to be drawn, Gold, is premiered live and as a cello arrangement. A remarkable duality exists between Ayanna and cello, with each allowing the other maximum expression, the bow becoming an extension of her arm.

Nevertheless, not content with simple bow work, Ayanna effortlessly switches to plucking and percussion in her cover of Roxanne by The Police. Every inch of the cello’s physical body being manipulated.

With the crowd enraptured and Ayanna in need of a piano for brand-new composition What I Am, the audience are siphoned into the corridor for an off the cuff rendition. A classically trained musician she makes light work of the piano, the transition from vertical string to horizontal key movement is seamless.

If this was an intimate gig before, it’s now positively cozy, fitting too as Ayanna announces a summer tour of lucky mailing list subscribers in France, Germany and of course the UK.

Having dedicated her first song to her father, the luck of the draw sees the last one, Unconditionally, written for her mother. “My mum said no woodwind, no brass, no drums!” Somewhat unwittingly leading her daughter to the cello with which she has carved such a soulfully, singular sound.

With the festivities drawing to a close, Music Earth Rise’s first foray into the Second City has without question been a resounding success and hopefully the first of many. With soul utterly soothed and some choice words from Ayanna resonating: “Music is a very clear manifestation of vibration, we are all vibration anyway so — music is life.” - NUBI Magazine

Another year, and another huge comedown after the exhilaration of three days of heady music, heavy bodily abuse, and heaving bodies.

Rag n Bone ManIt’s kind of the same as a festival in a field, minus the camping, and the mud. There are more than 450 performances on over 30 stages, played out to an overall audience of 20,000. Like a traditional festival, there is plenty of schlepping from one stage to the next, re-fuelling at various points, staying up too late and getting up too early. Crucially though, almost everyone is here to actually watch and listen to music, and everyone has a real bed to head to, and a solid roof over their heads. It is knackering, but in the best kind of way.

The Great Escape is indeed the biggest and best event of its kind in Europe, and continues to retain its original spirit of being a place to catch new and exciting music from around the globe in relatively intimate venues, and at relatively affordable prices. Star names are very few and far between, and the stars that do turn up are usually announced just days before the event (e.g. The Charlatans) or indeed on the day itself (e.g. John Grant)

John GrantAnother of the many great things about the festival is that acts generally play short sets of 30 minutes, with 45 allowed in rare cases. This means that there is a constant flow of people in and out of venues, criss-crossing the city in search of the Next Thing. 30 minute slots means that bands have to make it work. It focuses their minds and brings out the best in them. Punters are there to see them, and not just hang out, talk their way through a set and/or act like buffoons. There are also huge numbers of industry folk (promoters, publishers, agents, labels, press, etc) in attendance. They may not actually see what they always want (the queueing system applies to them also), but TGE is one big great talking shop: You saw what? How good was that!? It was crazy mental in there! It all feeds back into one giant interconnecting spiral of networking, recommendations, and appraisal.

So, with app in hand (generally most of us dispense with the cumbersome paper programme these days), and in Big Brother style, we headed to the start of the veritable marathon line.

Reviews by Jeff Hemmings, Ben Walker, Paul Hill, Jamie MacMillan, Ben Noble, Jonski Mason and Iain Lauder...........

Reeling from a couple of intense shows, cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s serene and beautiful performance at the Paganini Ballroom was just what the doctor ordered. Exploring the percussive possibilities of her instrument, one moment she was re-imagining the Police, the next Bob Marley. Excellent with her crowd, she encouraged them to sing along to a traditional Jamaican folk-song, tastefully mashed up with an Omar track, and finally led them through a rumba - all wonderful to hear on a cello. - Brightons Finest

When searching for an accompanying instrument, most musicians will reach for a guitar or piano. Not Ayanna Witter-Johnson, a MOBO-nominated singer-songwriter who sings and plays the cello simultaneously. During one performance of ‘A Single Sun’ from her latest EP on SBTV, Witter-Johnson plays the cello with one hand and piano chords with the other, all the while showing off her arresting singing voice.

Witter-Johnson began using the cello to accompany herself as something of a happy accident. ‘I was supposed to play the piano and sing but there wasn’t one, so I brought the cello instead,’ she explains. It was a ‘serendipitous’ moment, as she realised the cello worked surprisingly well as an accompanying instrument. ‘I can drum with it; I can play it like a bass or a guitar; as a melodic instrument or a chordal instrument. It just has that complete range which suits me perfectly.’

My style has really been developing, embracing my Jamaican heritage.

These early performances gave Witter-Johnson the space she needed to hone her craft. ‘It just gave me room to enjoy playing around, since no one had paid to listen to me,’ she remembers. ‘I almost wished they weren’t listening so I could try some things out.’ It wasn’t until years later, after winning a season of Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem while studying for a Masters, that Witter-Johnson decided to build a career as a solo artist. Now she has two EPs under her belt and her debut album is due this summer.

I ask if singing and playing cello felt like heading into the unknown; most musicians have obvious precursors, whereas Witter-Johnson’s particular style of cello and vocal music is unique. She explains that it wasn’t something that bothered her: ‘I wasn’t trying to be anybody – I just needed to make some money, and I could sing and play instruments.’ Now she describes her musical style as a meeting of contemporary classical in her string arrangements and cello technique and ‘a bit of soul, hip-hop and reggae’ in her song-writing style, drawing inspiration from ‘Stevie Wonder, Erika Verdu and sounds of blackness.’

Photo: Nick White

The cello has a name – Reuben – and, according to Witter-Johnson, a personality. ‘Reuben’s kind of cheeky,’ she tells me. ‘He likes to travel and he’s been showing me that he likes to dance, so now we’ve been dancing.’ Cello dancing is set to be a regular feature of her live performances, including her set on Cello Unwrapped, a series of concerts showcasing a diverse range of cello music. Those lucky enough to have tickets (the concert has long been sold out) can expect new material, surprise covers and ‘really feel-good, thought-provoking songs.’

Following the concert, Witter-Johnson’s focus will turn to the final stages of recording her album, which, judging by the latest single ‘Black Panther’, is a cause for excitement. ‘I actually wrote ‘Black Panther’ from the imagined perspective of one of my great-great-great-great grandmothers and her experience as a woman in love and possibly going through slavery – the journey she’s made and how she reconciles that with herself,’ Witter-Johnson reveals. The album as a whole is about ‘recognising situations that were somewhat painful but helped me see a new part of myself, and songs that helped me heal through that process.’

Witter-Johnson is unsure where her musical career will take her – she may experiment with pedals to broaden Reuben’s range of sounds or perhaps look beyond the cello. ‘I think Reuben will always be there. I might have two cellos,’ she tells me. ‘Reuben may be getting a friend! I think strings will always be a part of my journey, I don’t know how big a feature they’ll be but they’re a part of my language for sure. In the making of this album the style has really been developing, embracing my Jamaican heritage in a cool way, be that dancehall influences or reggae. I think it has to go more in that direction, especially on the second album.’

Witter-Johnson is proof that pop music need not centre on guitars and piano, and may inspire a new generation of singer-songwriters to experiment with unusual accompanying instruments. For Witter-Johnson herself, to have achieved so much before even releasing an album is daunting, and perhaps only a glimpse of what we can expect from her in the future. favicon-32-21x21

Ayanna Witter-Johnson performs at Kings Place tonight and on March 12 as part of Cello Unwrapped. Follow Ayanna on Twitter @AyannaWJ - The CUSP


Knowledge Is Power (Feature with Akala)
Illa State  Records

Black Panther (EP)
Hill & Gully Records

Truthfully (EP)
Hill & Gully Records

4Hero Extentions (Feature)
Raw Canvas Records



Singer, songwriter, cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a rare exception to the rule that classical and alternative r&b music cannot successfully coexist.

Graduating with a first from both Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music, Ayanna was a participant in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme and become an Emerging Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre. She was a featured artist with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans: Jazz Warriors and became the only non-American to win Amateur Night Live at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC.

As a composer she has scored original music for various productions and as an arranger and orchestrator Ayanna has worked with the London Symphony Orchestra (Hugh Masekela), and the BBC
Symphony Orchestra (Urban Classic).

Since releasing her EPs Truthfully and Black Panther Ayanna has extensively toured the UK and
several countries in Europe, whilst gaining a MOBO award nomination and getting airplay  on BBC Radio 1 & BBC 1Xtra.  A performer of extraordinary versatility her live shows are intimate journeys that
chronicle her experience as a female artist in the 21st century.

Because of her musical prowess, mesmerising vocals, non-compromising lyrics and ability to deftly reinterpret songs on the cello Ayanna is able to straddle both the classical and urban worlds effortlessly.

She is the definition of eclectic soul.

Debut album due Spring 2018.

For further information contact Harman
T: +44 (0)7817 552801
E: info@fearlesslive.co.uk