Doing what you want usually conflicts with doing what’s expected of you. Such was especially true for Ayah, the Palestinian singer/songwriter by the way of Toronto. Armed with a sultry voice, she forwent school so she could pursue her true passion: music. It was a risky move as so many walk down the same unbeaten path only to reach a dead end. But with a mixtape, a debut album released and a collaboration LP in the works with the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff, let’s just say she’s turned some heads. As Radric Davis would say, “bein’ indie ain’t easy,” but Ayah sure doesn’t give off that impression. The songstress sat down with the Crew’s S. Cadet to discuss her projects, upbringing and the pros and cons of being independent.
TSS: How did you first get into music? Moreover, what were your musical influences?
Ayah: I think that everybody starts as a fan of music and that’s definitely where I started. Just culturally, I’m Middle Eastern. Living between the Middle East, Toronto and Seattle I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. I’m into everything from Arabic music to Rock music to Soul, Hip-Hop and even Country. My dad grew up in England in the 70’s and 80’s so he brought home everything from Bob Marley to Fleetwood Mac and James Taylor. My mom would bring home all the Pop CDs; you know the Madonna’s, the Whitney Houston’s, the Mariah Carey’s and stuff like that.
So that’s really where it started and I’d just be home, reading the lyrics on the inside and singing along. My dad got this CD player and you could actually dub vocals. So I would mute out the vocals and I would have a mic. Me and my friends would get together and I was Scary Spice and all that stuff (Laughs). I took piano lessons and from there the whole thing kind of evolved into what it is now.
TSS: From what I remember reading, you made the decision to push forth with your music and take a leave of absence from school. How did that affect your life at that point?
Ayah: My whole life I’ve been raised that “you finish high school then you go to college. Then, you finish college and get married and have kids” and that’s basically it, right? But since I was 14 or 15, I had been looking at different university brochures and trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. By high school I knew that I could sing, I wanted to sing and people enjoyed hearing me sing. But I still went to school because I do have aspirations outside of music.
Not everybody has to make a choice between school and music. But for me, I was at school and I really wanted to focus on music. I’m really ADD and if I don’t have a task at hand then I want to do everything. Then, I was like “I’m either gonna give both of these half of myself or give one all of myself.” And at the time I was like “You know what? I don’t have any real responsibilities at the moment. I don’t plan to get any right now so let me take this time out and do this music thing and really buckle down and try and work just as hard as I would in school. And if and when whatever happens, I can go back to school.
TSS: Was that a tough decision to make?
Ayah: It was a really, really hard decision but it was made for me personally, not everybody.
TSS: First off, congratulations on 4:15. Could you tell me about the creative process behind it, what it’s about and who you worked with on it?
Ayah: It was the first real album I ever put out. I don’t know if I promoted it too hard. It’s hard as an artist to put out your first album because you never feel like it’s where you want to be. You feel like you definitely want to grow, you have all this potential and you have this vision or image of what you want this first album to sound like. Or to have your greatest album be your first album. I’m at a point at my life where if this music thing doesn’t really blow for me, I have to put this album out for myself, you know what I mean? Just to say “I packaged the album, it looks like a real album, it looks like a real CD and I put it out,” so I accomplished something for myself.
So that was my number one goal with that record: to be like “this is where I was at.” I put this together and put thought into it. I did everything myself from buying my barcode to getting my photographer to dealing with the graphics to getting the distribution deal and just everything. I was like “this is what I really wanted to do” and it was kind of an introduction to a lot of people. A lot of people heard me from Problem Woman but hadn’t heard my original stuff or where I was going. So the creative process was cool. I think it’s like I’ve been trying to do (the album) all my life because it’s like before you do your first album, every song you do before that is like a potential song for the album.
Basically the creative process was really cool. I hooked up with different artists, local artists from Toronto who are dope and from elsewhere like Jazzy Jeff. The first record we ever did was on 4:15 so that’s really cool. I shot some videos, did some promotion, and put it out.
TSS: For the videos, were you involved in conceptualizing the shots and creating them or did you just let the directors you worked with do their thing?
Ayah: A little bit of both. I don’t know if you guys know Mr. Dexter, but that’s my business partner. Me and him are really cool and we talk a lot about what we’re about to do, come up with some ideas, go back and forth and just conceptualize. And once I have an idea of what I want to do then I’ll approach a director or a director will have already approached me and say “let’s do something.” Then we’ll shoot ideas back and forth for a game plan. When we get into it, things will happen like accidental shots will look really cool and we’ll use those. The plan is always subject to change but we always go in with one. In all aspects of my business I always have a plan but the plan usually gets tweaked a lot because you never really know.
TSS: How did the production for 4:15 come about?
Ayah: For 4:15, I kind of orchestrated the whole thing. I’d reach out to different producers. I met Jeff (Jazzy Jeff) through MySpace a couple of years ago and he sent me a beat, which was the “He Don’t Want It” beat that we did for 4:15. I wrote to it a month later and sent it back. He was like “Yo, this is dope.” I said “Cool, I’m using it for my record,” and he said “Cool.” Then he said “ Hold on Ayah, keep doing what you’re doing but we’re gonna work on something soon.” So two years later we’re going to do this record. But back then it was really me soliciting beats and all the funding was from myself. There’s a team I work with that is really cool and I’m really close with a lot of people. So obviously, as an independent artist you have to bargain and try to figure out ways around getting things done because you don’t have a big ass budget. But you make it work.
TSS: Going back to the Jazzy Jeff album, what’s the status on that right now? When is it coming out, how many songs have you guys done, are there any features and basically what’s going on behind the scenes for that project?
Ayah: Well that project is awesome and I’m really excited about it. We’re almost done. I’d say we’ve been working on it since last January. That’s the first trip I took down to Philadelphia to the studio. That’s where it all began until the end of the year now and it’s pretty much almost done. It’s wrapping up so it’s just a matter of editing what we have to edit and doing a couple more songs and making sure it’s right and taking our time to put it together properly and make the plan. So that’s really the status on that now.
TSS: Do you know when we’re gonna see some songs from it pop up on TSS?
Ayah: We’ve been compiling some stuff. We’ve been filming in the studio and things like that. We’re getting ready. I can’t really say cause…I can’t really say. I don’t want to say something and then it’d be a month late. But we are doing it independently. We’re doing it ourselves and we’re going to make sure we have full control over it. So when we’ll say we’re going to drop it, we will drop it and there will be no push backs. There will be no games around the project and it is what it is. It’ll be sometime this year. I’ll say that because we’re wrapping up.
TSS: As an independent artist it seems like you’re able to link up with whoever and make it happen. But do you ever wish you had a major label push behind you to make things happen for you, at least for financial purposes?
Ayah: For financial purposes it would be great to have the bank at your disposal. But the truth of the matter is that even with a label it’s not really at your disposal. You just think it’s at your disposal. But obviously it would be really nice to have this big promotion machine behind me and everything just be a given. Like “All you have to do is get your single and everything will be great.”
But I like where I’m at because I never approached a label. I’ve never really tried shopping. I have friends on a label that we’d have meetings with but they’ve never been meetings to get me signed. I’ve never reached for that. I’m not going to rule it out and say I’m never going to get a deal. But I’d like to have a deal that’s on my terms. I’d like to not have to sacrifice everything I’ve worked for. Every decision that I’ve made thus far has worked out for me. For whatever reason, maybe I just over thought the situation a thousand-billion-trillion times. I’m really careful and I just feel like every step that I’ve taken has worked out in my benefit, so I like where I’m at.
TSS: At the end of the “In My Lifetime” video, the viewer can see a plug for the Remix Project. What’s that organization all about?
Ayah: I know all around the world there are youth initiatives where people in the community or youths in the community, even the elder youths (twenty-somethings) that reach out and put together art programs, community centers and things like that. The Remix Project started that way and has evolved into something that is so amazing. Basically it’s a group of people who are in their twenties, been through their own life struggles and have put together a lot of government support, sponsorships and corporate stuff so they can have a huge facility that can take 30 kids every semester: 10 in the music sector, 10 in business and 10 in the creative arts sector. And, basically, they give them all the resources they can ever have or need to accomplish whatever goal they can dream of. So if I want to start a cleaning company, I can do it. If I want to be a singer the studio is there.
Everybody that works there is heavily in the industry and really successful at what they do. I was a youth worker there at one point and in the music sector. It’s amazing because they give them mentors and they have all the resources. They have a business center (and) everything you could ever want. If you walk in there with a dream they’ll help you plan it and show you how to get there along the way. So it’s a really dope place in Toronto.
TSS: Are there any downsides to being a professional singer? If so, what are they?
Ayah: Of course there are. You sacrifice a lot of shit. Your life is basically on hold until you “make it” or make some money. Not even make money but until you’re in a position to do it until you’re comfortable in your life. I’m not even gonna lie. It’s a great thing to do but it’s really hard especially if you’re serious about it and that’s really what you want to do. Your life is on hold (Laughs). I feel like I’m in pending. Like you send a message and I feel like I haven’t been read yet.
It’s cool, you make things happen but money gets in the way when you don’t have enough money or networking, where you don’t that person to get this to happen or to expose you. A lot of people out there are looking for cosigns cause that’s all they need. It’s really hard and you want to quit a lot but you have to keep on going because you can’t help it. And then it’ll happen (Laughs).
TSS: Do you have any other projects lined up other than the Jazzy Jeff collaboration?
Ayah: I got a side group secret project that’s not really a secret but the music is a secret. I’m doing something with Slakah the Beatchild that’s really, really dope. It’s like this sick ass fusion something…I don’t know how to really explain it but it’s not what I normally do and it’s not what he normally does. I don’t think it’s what anybody normally does. But it’s really cool and we’re ready to put that out. We’ve been working on that for awhile. It’s called “Sandy Black”– that’s the group. And I’m just working on some other separate music so I got a few more albums after the Jeff one.
TSS: So with that, are you getting into other genres outside of R&B and Soul or are you still going to stick to them?
Ayah: I’m always gonna be soulful and meaningful in the way that I sing and the lyrics that I write. But shit, sometimes I want to write a Rock song and sometimes on like 4:15 a little bonus skit or a Country thing. The music is music for me. Whatever music I might hear may inspire me to write something and if that’s in a different genre then cool.
TSS: Anything else you want to say before I wrap this up?
Ayah: Check out DJ Hero, Jazzy Jeff on the Michael Jackson tape (He’s the King I’m the DJ), Tona’s Direct Deposit, Richie Hennessy’s Bubbles In the Tub & check out 4:15 at ayahmusic.com. There ya go, that’s the family.