Barbados-born, L.A.-based singer, songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist Ayoni believes that music is a force for global connection


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Barbados-born, L.A.-based singer, songwriter, producer, and instrumentalist Ayoni believes that music is a force for global connection

Ayoni credits her childhood moving between the US, Indonesia, and Singapore for giving her a global mindset from an early age. Now, she channels this open mindedness into her musical output, creating genre-defying tracks that reference everything from R&B to soul, jazz, folk, and indie styles. Her subject matters are wide ranging too, as she addresses themes including love, loss, heartbreak, and the experiences of Black women in her tracks. Notably, she released her single ‘Unmoved: a black woman truth’ in June 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

With several singles and EPs already under her belt, Ayoni will release her long awaited debut album, ‘ISOLA’, later this year. To tease the project, she performed ‘Bitter in Love’, a standout track from ‘ISOLA’, on COLORS on 22nd February 2024. In line with the show, we sat down with Ayoni for an intimate interview in which we addressed everything from being brave enough to embrace discomfort to using music as a tool to encourage listeners to understand different perspectives.

What is your first musical memory? 

When I was five or six years old, I heard people sing harmonies for the first time. I was really captivated by that. I also remember seeing someone’s lip trembling when they were singing vibrato. I was like, “wow! How do you even control your voice to achieve something like that?”

As well as loving singing you also learnt various instruments growing up, right?

I started taking piano lessons when my family moved from Miami to Singapore. I learnt the basics—scales and fingering etc.—but I quickly realized that I was more interested in contemporary than classical music.

When I turned 11, I heard Adele for the first time. My uncle was visiting from the UK and said, “there’s this British girl, I think you’re gonna love her.” He brought me her first album, ‘19’, and told me to check it out. Tracks like ‘Hometown Glory’ amazed me. The use of the piano was so beautiful and simple, but emotional. It told a story. I decided that I wanted to learn to write and use the piano in a similar way.

You were born in Barbados, but lived in the US, Singapore, and Indonesia during your childhood. How did living in these different countries influence your musical development? 

From a very young age, I understood myself in the context of the world, and didn’t feel bound by a loyalty only to my region or people. It opened my mind in a way that nothing else could have. Some of my most formative years were spent collaborating with Indonesian musicians at highschool in Jakarta. In my last year, I planned a benefit concert with a charity that supports disabled musicians. There was a language barrier, but we were still able to connect through music. Music is a force for global connection. It can unite people despite all kinds of differences.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to pursue music professionally? 

It was always in my mind. I was fixated on the idea of mastery very early on, but the idea of artistry came later. During my teens I started to dive into the work of artists whose writing was as profound as their delivery—people like Adele, Bon Iver, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone. For me, that was the turning point where I was like, “I don’t want to be known as a singer, I want to go down as an artist and musician.”

You went on to study at USC Thornton School of Music in LA. Were your parents supportive of your career choice?

My parents said that if I was going to do music I needed to get an education. They said, “don’t just go out there and try to figure it out, learn properly from someone. Do something to formalize your understanding of your craft.” Their support meant everything to me. They are very spiritual and they believed that music was my calling in life. They just wanted me to be safe, and to have as many skills in the industry as possible.

“I wanted to write songs about my experiences as a Black woman…

… and use my music to change people’s perspectives.”

During your time at USC you were mentored by the jazz musician Patric Rushen. Can you tell me about your relationship and what you’ve learnt from her?

She challenged me a lot. I think that she saw more for me than I saw for myself. One of the last conversations we had, she was like, “I don’t just see you as a singer, I see you as a mogul. I 100% believe that your mind, brilliance, and innovation is more than just music. It’s the business side of strategy. I see that for you.”

Patrice is one of the pioneers of genrelessness. She blended jazz, R&B, and funk and inspired a class of musicians from Prince to Kirk Franklin in the process. I love her generation of musicians, and the intensity with which they work at their craft. They’re never satisfied. There’s no ending point or sense of, “I’ve arrived. I’m a master.” They always want to try new things and expand.

You channel your personal experiences into your writing, addressing themes including grief, loneliness, romance, coming of age, and experiences with misogyny, and racism. It feels like you’re writing in the tradition of artists like Nina Simone, who you mentioned earlier, who also made socio-political statements with their work.

There came a point when I realized that the scope of my artistry was wider than I’d given myself credit for. After being so focused on love and heartbreak, I wanted to also write songs about my experiences as a Black woman, and use my music to change people’s perspectives.

The first time I did that was with ‘Unmoved: a black woman truth’, a single I released in June 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’d written it the year before for a songwriting project at USC. I was the only Black woman in a class of eight or nine, so I thought it would be interesting to try and convey the experience of being a Black woman to people who would never be able to understand it. When I performed it to the class, you could hear a pin drop. Everyone looked so overwhelmed, but in a great way. I could see people taking the song in and really hearing what I was saying.

What other reactions have you received from listeners to your message-driven tracks?

People have thanked me for helping them to think about things in a new way. I think the audience that listens to my music is incredibly smart, thoughtful, and capable of embracing complex conversations.

“When I have been brave enough to embrace my discomfort, interesting things have begun to happen.”

Tell me about ‘Bitter in Love’, the song you performed for COLORS.

I was in the depths of a breakup that was so brutal. It was life altering for me in terms of my path, my trajectory, and where I thought I was gonna go. One night I woke up and was questioning everything. Did I make the right decision? Am I in the right space in my life? Am I headed in the right direction? Will I ever be happy again? I went to my studio, started playing around on keys, and then ‘Bitter in Love’ was born.

When you disconnect from someone, you feel a sense of grief for the life you thought you were going to live. ‘Bitter in Love’ expresses the depth of that emotion. It has a maturity that I don’t think I’ve captured sonically until now. There’s a woman on the other side of the record. It’s one of my most raw and vulnerable records on the album.

Do you have a favorite lyric from the song?

“If someday you find a garden of memories, cut the vines of regret.” I think that line is so real. It summarizes the whole song for me: we’re standing in this beautiful garden of love and memories, let’s not let bitterness creep in when we look back on what we’ve shared.

How does this track fit into the rest of your upcoming debut album ‘ISOLA’, which is due to come out Fall 2024.

‘ISOLA’ is an exploration of loneliness on the path to personal freedom. It starts off really euphoric—we’re up in the clouds, riding high. Then it comes down into a middle section where it becomes a little funky and soulful. Then, when we turn this corner in the last stretch, it’s become sober and reflective. It’s just me with nowhere to hide. ‘Bitter in Love’ is the first track in that last section. It’s a turning point on the record.

What are your ambitions for the future?

In five years I would love to be like a worldwide name. It’s not necessarily about fame or notoriety, it’s more about impact. I want my art to make other people want to go out and make art too. I also want to push music forward and challenge stereotypes of Black women. Can what we do be considered pop music? Or are we always going to be put under an R&B umbrella?

If you could send one message to the COLORS audience right now, what would it be? 

Go through it and find yourself on the other end. When I have been brave enough to embrace my discomfort, interesting things have begun to happen. Interesting perspectives have begun to form too. So don’t run from your emotions. Honor what you’re going through.

Ayoni is a Barbadian artist whose A COLORS SHOW was released on 22nd February 2024. You can watch the full performance on our YouTube channel.

Text: Emily May
Photography: Kobla Dido and Caleb Griffin


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