We Best Not Wait is the first full-length studio album by Ayo Awosika.
As the title suggests, the songs reflect Ayo’s gentle but restless spirit to reveal an earthy, majestic voice and rich, supple grooves that support her meditations on faith in the unseen, the unknown and perhaps the unknowable.
Produced by Scott Jacoby, the album unspools like a film, one frame at a time.
“Every Day,” “Some Other Time,” “Another Kind of Mission,” “City By The Sea,” “Welcome Home” and an utterly original treatment of Nina Simone’s iconic “Do I Move You” reflect a young artist in flight.
“I’ve asked myself, ‘What do I want to stand for?,” Ayo says.
We Best Not Wait comes from the bottomless heart that belongs to Ayo Awosika. It’s an irresistible affirmation of the transformative power of love.
As she sings in “Caged Bird”:
This is what it looks like
This is what it sounds like
To be free.
* * *
“The writing process for this record was therapeutic and healing,” she reflects.
“I noticed a thread in these songs -- loss of family members, loss of a long relationship, coming into my own as an artist, as a woman. Just trying to figure out my place in the world. So a lot of these songs are about self-discovery, that inner listening, paying attention to your intuition. I call it ‘The Knowing.’
“With music, I can sometimes say more through a song than I can say with my everyday words,” Ayo says. “I’ll tend to experience something and sit down with my keyboard or my guitar. Songs have a way of becoming a personal truth. The greatest satisfaction comes when the music encourages or touches someone on their own journey. That’s when I can say, with confidence, that I am a songwriter.”
Striking and statuesque, she is often mistaken for a model; her regal presence exudes a natural sense of style. But Ayo isn't selling clothes for a designer. Nor is she selling a songbook. Ayo is the designer and the face of We Best Not Wait -- an advocate for self-reliance, assertiveness and strong emotional boundaries.
A graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in 2007, Ayo is a trained in opera and jazz. But We Best Not Wait is a decidedly pop-soul affair. By putting her trust in the power of the universe, she says she found the courage to explore another aspect of her artistry.
Her earliest memories are filled with music. Born to a Nigerian father and an American mother, she says: “My parents were always playing some kind of music. It could be Fela Kuti or Michael Jackson. There was also Madonna and Donny Hathaway, and Pavarotti, too.” The breadth and scope of these artists would make an indelible impression on Ayo’s musical taste and evolution. Growing up in Fairfax County in northern Virginia, music pursued her at an early age.
“I started playing piano when I was six, and I saw Michael Jackson perform when I was around seven,” she recalls. “It was my first concert.” She always sang in choirs but she never had a formal voice lesson until she prepared for college. She studied opera and voice for two years at the University of Indianapolis, then transferred to Berklee where she studied the art of jazz singing. “I learned how to use my voice as an instrument, in any capacity,” she says. “But I realize now that I also learned a lot about myself.”
After graduating from Berklee, Ayo moved to Colorado where she lived in the foothills of the grand mountains surrounding Denver and Boulder. “I started teaching piano, voice, performance and songwriting to students from ages three to 60,” she says. “I grew up as a water baby on the East Coast, so the mountains became a big part of my spiritual life. It’s where I experienced so much of what I recorded on this album.”
* * *
Scott Jacoby remembers the first time he heard Ayo. “She was presented to me as a new songwriter and her talent was obvious. She has a tremendous instrument and I could tell that she was a raw diamond.” Scott says he heard “a singer with a lot of technical expertise who could scat and riff like Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gretchen Parlato. Nina Simone’s influence was also apparent. I imagined those qualities mixed with classic soul. Not like a belter, per se, like Aretha, but more subtle and refined, in the style of India.Arie.”
In preparation, Scott turned to his own touchstones from the pantheon of pop and soul albums: Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life and Donny Hathaway’s Extensions of A Man. “They’re the two best examples of records that draw on all the influences that I love,” he says.
“The idea was to make a record that would hold up well. It may not be cutting edge but that was never the point. It’s a classic-sounding record, it’s an authentic-sounding record. We used real voices and real instruments performing. There’s not a synthesizer on the record, not one note of Midi programming. The goal was to make something timeless. Timeless records are the best kind…because they last forever.”
“The whole process was very different than what I had planned,” Ayo reflects. “But that’s the beauty of the journey. How we plan for certain things that the universe suddenly decides to change! So we adjust. They’re like relationships. You don’t rush them.
“Making sure we had the right songs, and then asking the right questions, was paramount to me. How should we record? Should we use live instruments? You wait for the right timing and you trust in the process.
“Scott said, ‘I know that you want this project out tomorrow. But whenever it comes out, it will feel fresh and current, and it will resonate with people. I’ve held on to that promise, faithfully.”
In its own space and time, We Best Not Wait became an homage to vintage soul artists like Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers. Mixed at Scott’s Eusonia Studios, the album coalesced into a collection of inspiration, uplifting songs built grounded in real grooves and then uplifted by
Ayo’s most spiritual practices and principles.
“Ayo always puts a premium on emotion,” Scott says admiringly. “In producing her vocals, I tried to emphasize the singer-in-the- songwriter. At the same time, whether she’s black, white, yellow or green, her songs come first. Like a good poem or watching a good film, you need to experience them more than once. I think that she hits at important subjects.”
And so Ayo, Scott and a core band composed of guitarist Grant Gordy, bassist Reuben Cainer and drummer Zach Mangan took their time to craft these sincere sentiments that resonate as only timeless records do. The musicians hunkered down at Mission Sound Studios in Brooklyn where Ayo also played guitar and, notably, the core keyboard voicings. “She has great timing, great feel,” Scott says.
There were contributions from such guests as Adam Tessler (guitar on “Some Other Time” and “Still Alive”) and Julian Smith (bass on “Caged Bird”). And to unify the sonics under one umbrella, Scott called on the invincible keyboardist Cory Henry from Snarky Puppy. “Cory is my secret weapon,” Scott says, “and of course I’m not alone. He is truly one of the most talented cats in music.”
* * *
We Best Not Wait unfolds as languorously as a summer’s day.
“I Won’t,” the first song, leaps out as Ayo puts a rhythmic edge on the words, chanting the lyrics:
and I won’t
Haven’t we all felt the power of being captivated and the spirit of a hypnotic force? Ayo clearly communicates her confusion: she’s been seduced and yet she’s rattled, shaken.
“Beyonce was a musical muse,” Ayo says. “I wanted to create something danceable. Upbeat.”
A facile pianist, she experimented with sounds on the clavinet and Wurlitzer and brought the arrangement to Scott. Soon the track was taut as piano wire. “I Won’t” smolders like the Watts 103rd Street Band cut it for Bill Withers back in the day when he recorded Still Bill. “The track is a loving nod to Bill, definitely,” a satisfied Scott says.
Love is always a refuge in her songs. Consider the freedom that she finds in “Every Day,” a lush, folky slice of pop-soul that’s more than an escapist fantasy: it’s Ayo ather most hopeful.
Heads are covered in silver
Time has delivered
More than a lifetime of memories
We’ll hold on to the ones we love the most
We have this love we made.
With the sassy confidence of Sade or Norah Jones, Ayo demonstrates that she’s equally at home in the pop world on “Every Day.”
“I like this side of me,” she says. “I’d been listening to Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson and I wanted a fun love song that reflected the joy of new love. When it came to the treatment, that was tricky. But I like the quirky drumbeat we came up with, and the soulful backgrounds.”
“Some Other Time” is a song that might thrill Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.
The tune starts with the familiar shuffle of George McCrae’s “Rock The Boat,” and Cory ’s Rhodes part evokes the feeling of a gentle rain.
Maybe we knew each other before today
In some other time and place
Not a word has been said
And I’m hearing the songs
That we used to play.
“The image of a line that can be straight, or bent into a particular shape, or formed into a circle -- that intrigues me,” Ayo says. “We are all on a path, a line, and we don’t know what way we will be bent or turned, whether we’ll return to a place that we’ve been before.
“’Some Other Time’ is about possibilities. We’ve all met the person that we think might be the person that we’ve been searching for. The stars might not align and circumstances might not be right. But if it’s meant to be, it will come back again.”
The sentiments on We Best Not Wait are street-wise, too. “Is That Too Much To Ask” is about the crossroads of a relationship. Reminiscent of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” it’s driven by Cory’s call-and-response organ, Ayo goes to church and delivers fervent testimony. Her love is strong, she says but her patience has worn thin.
I’m not calling you a liar
It’s just that I’m feeling tired
Why don’t you follow through
Tell me the truth
Is that too much to ask of you.
“I was reflecting on a relationship, the need to stand up for myself. What am I willing to take? What are my boundaries? Reflection is a big part of my process. I never want to be stagnant. I always want to challenge myself. It’s essential to my growth.”
She sang ‘Is That Too Much To Ask’ in literally one take. As Scott recalls: “It was nighttime, we’d be working all day, the lights were low and Ayo just went to that place. She channeled whatever she needed to. The meaning of the whole record was encapsulated in that one magical moment for me because it doesn’t happen everyday.” His voice trails off. “It just doesn’t.”
She answers any self-doubt in the delicate “Caged Bird.”
This is what it sounds like to be free
They can’t take my song from me.
Inspired by the imagery of Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” Ayo says: “I’ve been told that I need to look, sound, act a certain way. But I’m not interested in doing that. I have to be true to myself. There have been many times that I’ve felt like that caged bird. But even when you’re feeling discouraged, there’s always a greater good somewhere. That’s the freedom and release in the last verse of the song: it’s the free bird in transition.”
“I love that she doesn’t back away from being vulnerable,” Scott says about her performance.
Trying to find the perfect sound is a fool’s game when she realizes she has all that she needs in “Another Kind of Mission.”
All I have to do is listen
And this gift I’m given
Will set me on another kind of mission.
“I thought about what it means to really love myself, and take care of myself, to listen to my inner voice, and respect those conclusions,” Ayo says. “The answers are already inside of us. We just have to access them.”
One of the most ambitious songs, worthy of an artwork by Sting, is the ambient “City By The Sea.”
“It’s an offbeat song,” Ayo says. “The challenge was to capture the musical depths of a water-based story. We did that by experimenting with different sounds -- distortion, feedback, dissonance -- with textures and layers.”
Her treatment of “Do I Move You,” a signature song from Nina Simone’s iconic Nina Simone Sings The Blues, assumes a new kind of sound and purpose: Ayo brings a gritty aesthetic to an arrangement that evokes D’Angelo’s style and sensibility.
“We gave it a sexier vibe than a traditional jazz treatment,” she says.
The title track thunders with a rock intensity that shakes up the mood. The title song -- with his subtle reference to “Benny And The Jets” – is the crashing realization that Ayo’s time – and ours – is right here, right now.
We best not wait for a perfect moment
It ain’t gonna come
Don’t you see
This is it.
The slow-burning ballad “Welcome Home” is a standout, too, with beautiful accompaniment by Cory on organ. Written for a close friend who passed away,
Ayo says the song keeps them close in spirit. Similarly, “Still Alive” is the kind of ballad which James Taylor might have written for his album Sweet Baby James. Its simplicity is hypnotizing.
I feel my roots
They’re stretching like the marrow in the bone
And every breath tells every fiber
This is the end of all I’ve known.
“I wrote this song a long time ago,” she says, “and it’s lovely that it reminds you of James Taylor’s music because I’ve sat with his songs for a long time. His honesty, his self-reflection has always moved me, and I wrote ‘Still Alive’ to remind myself that I’m still here. That I will honor those I’ve lost. That it’s my responsibility. How can I make them proud?”
“I love the solitude of the song and the stillness she communicates,” says Scott.
The dramatic “Wolf Woman” is the fitting finale as Ayo’s quest for wisdom – for insight – and the courage to receive it – takes on a dramatic, mesmerizing, almost otherworldly voice.
Inspired by the rich storytelling of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run With The Wolves, the song is an anthem for the remarkable power of women. Ayo sings of their vitality, their secrets, their psyche, their passion, their daring, their resourcefulness, their ageless wisdom, their endless capacity for love.
“Scott asked me, “What is this?’” Ayo smiles at the memory. “Is it a song? Is it a calling? I just knew that it had to be on the album. It’s a musical and audible representation of some of the spiritual work that I do. It’s a tribute to all the women who’ve challenged and support me. I feel like they’re running with me now, beside me. These voices, they all came out at once when I wrote this. It feels divinely inspired.”
* * *
What are the qualities of a good singer? “It’s really not about the style of music,” Ayo says. “It’s the expression of the heart. The sound can be raw. It can be sultry. Just as long as it’s real. This album is just one side of me, the soul side. But I have a jazz side, too, and a pop side. I hope I can find acceptance in everything I do.”
Her favorite pianists? “I could listen to Chick Corea all day. He sings on the piano! The colors and textures he creates take my breath away. And he’s so facile: He can play with Bela Fleck or Herbie Hancock or Stevie Wonder. I’m also a big fan of Robert Glasper.” Ayo also has high praise for pianist and mentor Art Lande. “He’s a gifted improviser, composer and educator,” she says,” “and he’s also played a significant role in my evolution as a musician and a person.”
Her frequent travels to Nigeria have played a major role in her growth; as her ancestral homeland it’s a place she returns -- to visit family, to perform, to share the gift that she has been freely given and is now sharing, so gracefully and graciously, with us.
“By walking through my fears, I’m becoming a braver songwriter. That’s how the magic and mystery of this life unfolds. It’s why we cannot wait because nothing is promised to us. So in that way, the album speaks to my connection to my faith and trust in God.“
Ayo, who recently made new fans at the Telluride Jazz Festival performing with the adventurous Afro-funk band Eufórquestra, says that her goals today are tangible, and timeless: “I’m trying to become a better writer. I’m focusing on my live show and getting the band to a place where a listener can feel the power of change and possibility through music. Mostly, I’m learning about the power of patience because there’s so much that I want to say and do.”
“This album reflects so many of my emotions and experiences, from fear to sadness to the magic of self-discovery, “ Ayo concludes. “But when someone says that they as also hear‘joy’ in my voice – well, that really resonates with me. That really makes me happy, that you can feel and hear my joy. I’m privileged to be able to share this music with you.”
by Leo Sacks
New York City