When Ayo was a little girl growing up in Germany, music was her solace from a traumatic childhood. At the age of five, her Romanian gypsy mother became addicted to drugs, leaving her Nigerian father struggling to cope with keeping his family of five together. Her father’s strength throughout those turbulent times has been his daughter’s enduring inspiration, which is why Ayo’s new album is dedicated in large part to him.
Despite its optimistic title, Joyful is a profound affair. Ayo’s raw distinctive vocals pierce the soul with emotive precision throughout a twelve-song collection, folk tales of pleading and longing. For those who need categorization, Ayo is India.Arie meets Corinne Bailey Rae via Nigeria, Romania, Germany and France. It’s this transnational physiology that you can hear in her music—through the marked intonation, cross-cultural rhythms and global dialect that infuse every track. In this sense, Joyful is a journey across continents and clearly marks out Ayo’s territory. Although not necessarily unique because of it—there’s Nneka, Joy Denalane and Zap Mama—what makes Ayo different is her honest, stripped-down lyrics and simple, acoustic melodies.
Clutch caught up with the intriguing singer-songwriter on a break from her tour with Babyface and found a refreshing, resilient, down-to-earth sister who’s impossible not to like.
Q: What role did music play in your upbringing? Do you come from a musical family?
My family was very musical but there were no musicians. My father was a DJ in the seventies to finance his studies, so I grew up on his vinyl collection, and he would make me listen to real good music. But when I was a child, with all the trouble in my family, music was a way to escape. I never really had a lot of friends, and I remember when it was Christmas I would ask my dad for an instrument. He knew that I really loved music. At that time I was already singing but I was very shy, and I wouldn’t tell anybody that I actually wanted to be a musician. It was more of a dream, and it was my way to cure my soul. It felt good and made me feel good about myself.
Q: You were raised in Nigeria for a while. What prompted you to go back last year after many years away?
I always wanted to go back but never could because of my mother’s drug addiction. She developed a heroin problem when I was five years old and because of that our family got separated. I had to go into a foster family and was always back and forth and it took quite a few years for us to get back home. My mother went to prison. There was no real time to go to Nigeria. At one point my father thought he would return there with his kids to give us a better life but he couldn’t do it because he didn’t want to leave my mother behind because he was so focused on keeping the family together. So he didn’t even think of Nigeria. He didn’t see his own mother for 10 years.
Q: What’s your relationship with your mother like now?
It’s a deep relationship but it’s with a lot of distance because of everything that happened. I used to be so close to her, and I believed in everything she told me, all the things she promised. I’ve been disappointed many, many times. Now that I’m a mother myself, I feel like I have to protect myself and I’m old enough to make my own decisions. I don’t have to accept it anymore because whenever she’s close to me it hurts because it’s difficult to see your own mother going down, slowly killing herself.
Q: What impact have all these experiences made on your outlook on life and how has that played out in your music?
In my life, everything that I’ve been through has turned out to be good for me. It sounds crazy but I’ve learned a lot through all these things and I know that life is not owed. You have to learn to live with it and not have self-pity because it could’ve always been worse. And in my music, I believe that this is the reason that I play the music that I’m playing today. There was a time when my music was quite different, and I wasn’t ready to talk about the things that I’m talking about now. Music became like my therapy. It’s what opens me up and made me a better person. When I was younger I couldn’t tell anybody what was going on, and it was eating me up. So when I started to write my music I wasn’t scared to talk about it anymore. It made me feel better about myself and it changed me a lot.
Q: How would you describe Joyful, and what kind of listener are you hoping to reach?
I’m hoping to reach everybody that wants to be reached. I’m hoping to touch everybody that wants to be touched because I believe that, even though my songs are very personal, there are a lot that people can actually find themselves in. I have friends that tell me when they hear the song that I wrote for my dad it’s something that they would love to tell their dads because that’s what their father wants for them. So I hope that it can give people something that I was able to give to myself, that this music can maybe cure others just as it cured me because it really did something good for me. So I hope that it’s going to do something good for others too.
Q: You’ve traveled quite a bit and lived in a few places. Is there anywhere that you call home?
Usually, I always felt at home wherever my father was but now, for the first time in my life I just got myself a beautiful apartment in West Village in New York. And it’s the first time in my entire life that I actually care about how my apartment looks. I never did that because we used to move so much in the past that I could never keep certain material things because we were always moving from one day to the next. But now, I’m so happy about the couch I just got because I feel like, ‘Yes! This is mine and this time I’m gonna keep it! And next time when move I’m gonna move with all this stuff.’ This is how I feel. I feel home.
Q: Your partner is also an artist. How does that help the relationship?
It helps but at the same time it can be difficult. It can be good where you have a healthy competition because you can inspire each other but sometimes it can turn in to something where you’re not really comfortable with it anymore and at the same time you’re both busy, which actually, I believe is a good thing. I don’t think it’s good to see each other every day. I believe a certain distance is always good because it makes you appreciate each other more. But I can definitely say that it’s both.
Q: You’re already known in Europe but how’s your music being received in America?
Being the opening act for Babyface I have to say that the audience gives me a really good response and they’re really respectful. They seem to love my music. I’m so touched by his audience. He’s a great guy anyway. He’s an amazing songwriter and an incredible artist, musician and human being, so down-to-earth, so humble that it’s just good being around. I believe that your audience is a reflection of who you are and you are a reflection of the audience. And you can tell it’s his audience. They’re amazing, just the way he is.
Q: Final question—you’re going out on the town with your best girlfriends. What do you carry in your clutch?
My phone, to check on my son; lip gloss and my wallet, to be able to treat my friends.