Making Waves with Ö AYAH - Jun 13, 2011
ďExposing your music to as many people as possible is the goal you should pursue first of all - before money. If you pursue that then the rest will inevitably happen.Ē
For the latest instalment of Making Waves, our series focusing on how up-and-coming artists are making things happen for themselves, we speak to independent soul/R&B sensation Ayah. With her immense vocal talents, authentic style, and sharp social networking skills, the Toronto-based artist has attracted an impressive array of producer collaborators, including DJ Jazzy Jeff (Will Smith) Ė who said Ayah gave him a new found faith that soul music is very much alive and well - James Poyser (Erykah Badu, Mariah Carey, Keyshia Cole), Nick Brongers (Eminem, Drake) and Slakah the Beatchild (Drake).
On the verge of releasing her latest mixtape, the 25-year-old multi-talent talks about using social networking to attract big name collaborators and build up a fanbase, how the influence of experienced hands Jazzy Jeff and James Poyser has improved her writing, and about the value of live performance in enriching both your coffers and your soul.
How did you first get started recording your own music?
I started recording when I was like 10 or 11. We had a stereo where you could put in the CD, dub out the voice and then record yourself onto tape, karaoke-style. I went into the studio for the first time at high school when I laid down a hook for some MCs at my school. I also downloaded Cool Edit around the same time and started figuring out how to use it. But it was that first step in the studio, knowing that I could put stuff down, that was the real start.
From there I started to go online to try to figure out who was who and what was what, and how I could get some production. One of the first people I met within the industry was Slakah the Beatchild. Iíd harassed him for a couple of years until he got sick of me and told me to just come in and start recording at his studio.
How did DJ Jazzy Jeff enter the picture?
Remember when Myspace was popular? Iíd just released a mix-tape called ĎProblem Womaní and was busy spamming people. When I came to DJ Jazzy Jeffís page, I sent him a message saying, ďHey, I really dig your stuff. How do we do something together?Ē No lie, within five minutes I got a message from him in my in-box saying, ĒI like your stuff too. Shoot me your email.Ē
He was on the plane coming back from Asia and sent me a beat saying, ďTry this.Ē I wrote and recorded ĎHe Donít Want Ití and sent it back. He then mixed it in his studio and sent it back to me.
After that, because he had expressed an interest in working together on a EP, I checked in with him every month or two just to say, ĎIím still here, I want to work with you. Let me know when youíre readyí. A year and a half later, he flew me out to Philly and we started working.
How has working with DJ Jazzy Jeff and other experienced names affected your writing?
Something me and Jeff have talked about is slowing down my writing process and paying more attention to detail. Because Iím fast - Iím an impatient perfectionist, and as soon as Iíve written the verse and hook, itís like, this songís done and Iím already on the next one. And heíd be like, ĎNo, just calm down. Letís sit down and focus on this.í
I have to remember how important every word I say is. And not to rush the second verse - by the time you get to the second verse itís like ĎDammit Iíve already said everything I want to say!í
Itís also about focusing on the story more, making it as intricate as I can to make my point. Jeff has always asked me, ĎAre you actually done telling the story?í and I have to be like, ĎNo, Iím not. Iíll just go back ÖĒ
Being around Jeff and people like James Poyser, Iíve also gotten better at song arrangements. We do mess with samples and loops, but we also have a lot of arrangement and structure to the music now, which I wasnít used to in the past. Itís cool to be able to say, ĎNow I want to take this bridge this wayí and be able to.
Have you found any added pressure in working with named producers?
Before I came here, I was scared. ďWhat if sit in the studio, and all of a sudden I have writerís block?Ē And Iím still going to have that anxiety when I work with more people I donít know. But the really cool thing about working with Jeff, James and Demien [Desandies] was that I didnít feel any of that. There was no judgement. Everything was really constructive. Everybody just let me do what I wanted to do before they ever interjected.
What has been fortunate is that Iíve been able to work with people who I look up to, whom Iíve wanted to impress and, at the same time, for them having no real expectations.
You have to remember that if the music you make got you to a place then thereís no need to change it. So if me making music in my bedroom got that person to want to fly me out and spend their time and money on me then why all of a sudden do something I donít normally do to gain approval Iíve already got? Youíre still going to have those fears and anxieties regardless, but youíve gotta keep reminding yourself of that.
Independent, major, whatís it all about for you today?
Iím 100% independent, and I love it. There are pros and cons on both sides of the fence. The thing with independence is you donít have the machine behind you. Itís harder because you donít have the Ďunlimited budgetí - although we all know you that if youíre on a major you end up owing that money at the end of the day anyway. You also have to assemble your own team, which is both good and bad.
For me right now, itís good to be able to decide what kind of music I want to make, what singles I want to put out, what videos I want to shoot, and put together a team that works for me.
Though not in the millions, the supporters I do have appreciate my stuff, and I appreciate them liking me naturally without having a machine behind me brainwashing them into it.
I noticed you have a lot of people following you on Twitter and different social media sites. Is there anything youíve actively done to achieve this, or have people just naturally gravitated towards you?
When I first got on to Twitter, I didnít enjoy it because youíd write something and nothing would come back, and youíd feel like you were talking to yourself. But although you donít ever get a 100% of what you give out, if youíre on there persistently, just being who you really are, people gravitate towards you. If people like what you say, you get re-tweets and conversations start to happen.
Thereís no reason not to hit people back that hit you and itís important to keep connected with those people. Itís just a matter of being yourself, being interesting and not just writing stuff for the sake of reaction. If you do that it will grow and the music is a great tool. A hundred people in the beginning can become two hundred, three hundred and keep growing.
Of course, if and when people like Jeff, or people who have a bigger following, talk about me or type my name in then of course a lot of people will check it out and follow me that way.
I do think social media is very important. My personality, outside of the music, has been built a lot through social media.
Iíve noticed youíve been on the front pages of Myspace Music in Canada and internationally. What led up to that?
Itís just about having honest music that you hold to a high standard. The product always is number one for me Ė it has to be great. I also had pretty high traffic to my Myspace page, so stuff like that helps too.
Outside of that, itís about networking and trying to figure out who the influence is that can make certain things happen and how to expose yourself to them. Cold calling is not a bad idea. If a person says no, they say no. Thereís a lot of things that Iíve enquired about that people say no to, and thatís fine.
In todayís music industry, where do you feel the moneyís at for artists?
Itís a free music world right now. It hardly makes much sense to even sell your music - not to say I donít. With in store distribution dying, you need to have your physical copies at your shows because thatís where the majority of CDs are being sold. Other than reality TV, which weíre not doing, itís shows that are the most important thing now in terms of money, and thatís definitely something that Iím looking towards pursuing a little heavier.
Itís not just for the money, but for your soul - itís depressing not to be on stage because thatís really where I get to connect with people. Thatís where I get to make eye contact and speak to you through the music and let you know just how much I feel this. And itís where I get feedback - thatís where you see what people respond to most, and how you make them feel, and itís really rewarding.
Licensing is also really important for independent artists. Theyíre looking more for independent music that they can source out because itís less expensive.
How are you approaching breaking into new markets?
Really just by networking and travelling. As an upcoming artist the first couple of times you travel to places you might not get a whole bunch accomplished but visibility is extremely important - just showing your face, being present.
Itís just about finding the energy and drive and remembering your love of the music to stay consistent, visible and authentic. Thatís what breaks you. If I had stopped at any point the consistency would fade and Iíd slip to the background. Then and someone else would pick it up and run with it.
You debut album is called 4:15 Ė how was that recorded and what is the significance of the title?
I wrote and recorded all those songs at home. I had a setup in the basement. Iíd work late and it was usually around six or seven in the morning by the time I was done. It was early morning and our colleague from B.C., sent me a little sample loop, and I put in the thing and started free-styling, ď4:15 in the morning ÖĒ
4:15 is when Iím at my realest. My contacts are out, my glasses are on, Iím wearing my track pants, and I look crazy, feel a mess, Iím tired Ö Itís when youíre back home and youíre alone, youíre in your room, in the dark ÖThatís why I called it 4:15.
Looking back on your career up to this point what are some of the biggest learning experiences?
People talk about horror stories, or being ripped off. I donít know if I necessarily had that happen, or maybe Iíve not seen it like that because I see everything as a learning experience.
At the beginning of your career you sometimes spend a lot of unnecessary money. Like 10 years ago I took out a loan to press my first single on vinyl and Iím still paying that back. Thatís a learning experience and not anything where I feel like I was let down by anybody else.
I did a lot of work with a youth organisation in Toronto and tried to mentor some of the up and coming artists. One of the artists seemed so disappointed with the industry and where she was at, and sheíd never even put anything out! To be let down from now is crazy - you need to have so much energy when you first start out so that as your energy lowers, you still have lots left at the end of the day.
What is a realistic goal in the industry today for someone to be pursuing?
The goal that Jeff and I have set out to achieve is realistic. From the beginning we didnít talk about what kind of music we were going to make. He just did what he did from where heís at right now, and I did what I did from where Iím at right now, and the timing and chemistry just fit. When you pursue trying to make a record like this or like that, or brand yourself like this person or like that person, then thatís not authentic.
What weíre pursuing is exposure Ė I want to make music that I love and then have everybody possible that has ears and feelings to be exposed to this music. Exposing your music to as many people as possible is the goal you should pursue first of all, before money. If you pursue that then the rest will inevitably happen.
What is success for you?
Success for me is making sure I stay true to what I set out to do from the beginning - just being myself. I spent a lot of time in my youth trying to find me while being everybody else.
In terms of monetary success, I want to be able to always do music, always be able to sing and if and, when Iím ready to have a family later on, I want to be able to take care of them.
In terms of personal success, itís about remaining true and real to what life is really about - itís not about the music industry and, although youíd like to have those things, itís not about Grammys. Life is so much bigger than any of this.
You mentioned before that one of the advantages of being independent is in being able to build you own team. Whatís important in choosing your own team?
First and foremost, your supporters, the people that love your music, are the most important part of your team.
Thereís a certain point when you need a manager, a booking agent and a lawyer. Iím currently self-managed, book myself and if I need a lawyer, I just contract one out, but right now Iím strategising and talking to people, and starting to put together a team. You need partners - you need people who love what you love the same way you do - the rest you can learn together.
I think the most important thing is a publicist. You need to connect your music to the digital and print world. You also need social media on your team. You need your Twitter and your Facebook. If itís not yourself then you need somebody to make sure that you execute what you set out to do.
As a solo artist how do you go about putting a band together?
At this point in time, Iím not necessarily with a band, Iím just friends with a lot of musicians in my city. Iím sure a lot of cities in the whole world have wonderful musicians but, speaking of what I know, Torontoís amazing. Its musicians are really talented and are always willing to grow with you.
When I put my band together a while ago I just looked for people who were excited about the music and wanted to have fun. Because, who am I kidding, who was making a lot of money?
We had a lot of fun at our rehearsals - they were like gatherings. And itís the same type of feeling doing a show. When youíre doing Madison Square Garden and bigger venues, youíre obviously going to need something more technical, but at the same time, you may as well have fun with it because otherwise, whatís the point?
What are you up to for the rest of 2011?
Realistically I see it as us finishing this mixtape project (ĎBack For Moreí) and the promotional elements that go along with it, and set ourselves up for the album. Iím not sure whatís going to happen with live events and things, but Iím hoping to try and line something up so I can go out and meet a lot of people I havenít met yet that listen to my music and have reached out and shown interest so as to reach more people with the album thatís coming next, because thatís also finished.
interviewed by Aaron Bethune
Next week: Universal publisher Jessica Rivera on matching rising producer Alex Da Kid with Eminem and Dr. Dre
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