The thing about a lot of creative and supremely talented people is they may seem a little ‘odd’ on first encounter; like something is not quite right or they appear overly emotional. On a knife edge waiting to explode. Indeed, two songs in to Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s set at the gorgeous Forge in Camden and she was teetering on that knife edge while wailing in-comprehensively about the sorrow inspired by nearly missing a flight to New York.
Then as she continued her story about moving to America to study music, she sat at the Rhodes Keyboard and told a little story about school. About how she sometimes felt out of her depth and had to re-assure herself she was good enough. Ayanna started to play The Over Importance of Testing, a joyful melodic ditty, catchy as it was charming, and from that moment on the random and perplexing first two songs were forgotten and she went on to deliver a sublime and at times spellbinding performance across cello, piano, keyboard and guitar. Sometimes those who are blessed just need warming up!
And blessed she is, her voice is like warm mahogany, and she makes beautiful, impactful singing appear effortless. That is only half of her talents, where she really shines is in her song-writing ability. Some played out like musical poetry worthy of any poet laureate, Sing on Nightingale, and Unconditionally for example. Others told stories and painted musical pictures you could touch, Grandma’s Hands was like a portrait that should be hanging in the National Gallery.
The show was full of highlights; a story about how she entered Amateur Night at The Apollo (which is ended up jointly winning) led to her playing a song, Ain’t I A Woman? (inspired by Soujourner Truth’s speech) which showcased her masterful delivery. She knows when to emphasise words, how to control her voice, and the let music to create a powerful impact… “I had 13 children, seen most of them sold” …pause… leaving the words to linger dramatically in the air. She moved me on multiple occasions.
Her ode to Liberty Island sung with Fiona Bevan was gorgeous and her rendition of Jill Scott’s He Loves Me was inventive and stirring, once again highlighting how talented she is, attacking the cello with three parts grace and four parts swagger. Like all great musicians, she saved the best for last. Truthfully, is a real lover’s song which was delivered oh so elegantly.
Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a dazzling talent, and I hope she will have a very successful career. Catch her now because if she keeps delivering performances like that, she’ll be winning a lot more than Amateur Night at the Apollo (which is no mean feat in itself).