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Friday, February 14, 2020

Never Records Artist Spotlight: ĀJŌ

Photo credit: Ted Riederer

Never Records is an exhibit and installation at The Rudin Family Gallery at BAM Strong that brings together artists and admirers of the arts. Musicians, spoken word artists, and others with something to share via an audio medium have three hours to record with New York-based conceptual artist and musician Ted Riederer, who created the exhibit, and will leave with a freshly cut vinyl record and a digital file of their music. Visitors to the project, which is in its tenth year, can browse vinyl recordings from Liverpool, Derry (Ireland), London, Lisbon, New Orleans, Victoria, Texas, Amman, and now Brooklyn!

ĀJŌ, a Brooklyn-based singer songwriter who has been performing her quirky brand of R&B and hip hop songs around New York City for nearly a decade, and who I first met when we were both undergraduate students at Columbia University, recorded at Never Records on Feb 9. Before her session, I spoke to her about her music and why she’s looking forward to performing at Never Records.

Photo credit: Rachel Ansley

Akornefa Akyea: How long have you been a singer-songwriter?
ĀJŌ: I've been writing since I was young, but I made half-hearted attempts at writing songs. So I guess I should start counting from when I decided I wanted to pursue this as a career. When I came to college was when I really tried to put these things into practice and explore it by performing for other people.

I remember!
You remember?! Oh my gosh! I can't even flash back to what I think you might remember right now. College was when I joined my first band, you know, like an alt-garage band type of thing. That was kind of the litmus test I had for myself and I thought, "ok, I'm making a serious effort and I want to pursue this more." When that band fell apart, I started formulating plans on how to do this more seriously. So really it was graduating school. So, about nine years.

As a Brooklyn-based artist, what makes Brooklyn an artistic hub for you?
I think it’s the resources, the people, and the number of people. There are so many working minds in a relatively condensed space so there's always a lot happening. The positive result of that is you have a lot of people who are supporters of the arts like, arts administrators, who end up developing programs and spaces and events to showcase artists, and I feel like that is one of the foundational things that makes Brooklyn a hub for me. And then you have, of course, my fellow artists. You also need people who just want to go look at an art gallery or who want to go see that dope new play. Yeah, it's like an ecosystem. I'm not in any way saying it doesn't exist in other places but I definitely have big love for the one I found in Brooklyn. We're really spoiled. It's like, where do you go from here?

Does Brooklyn inspire your songwriting?
Oh yeah, it definitely has. One of the themes I see myself returning to is the idea of home, authenticity and stuff like that. One song in particular that I put out in 2018 is called "Gotta Love It" and it's really like an ode to Brooklyn. I took inspiration from what I saw around me. The video was shot in Brooklyn around my neighborhood and was capturing things I felt made up the essence of what I wanted to cement in history—

Like a time capsule?
Yeah like a visual time capsule. I like that phrase. I went to a roti shop, I captured a dad and son playing basketball at the park, and barber shops.

What are some records that have inspired you?
A classic one that I always think about is TLC's CrazySexyCool. Not only because I was just obsessed with TLC as people—the imagery, they were very much aspirational types of women to me—but their sound and vocal stylings, the production, the things they would talk about just resonated with me. I remember being at my grandma's house and my cousin playing that album along with Toni Braxton and some other things that were out at the time. Missy Elliot and Spice Girls are also on that list. It was so colorful! 

Have you ever bought vinyl?
Yeah. I also have some old school turntables, two of them, like I was literally trying to deejay. All I know is, I was on some weird shit. I got some Bette Midler vinyl and then some other dance jams vinyl and I was trying to blend those together...that's as far as I got. But yeah, all my vinyls from that time period are at my mom's house. 

You obviously took a stripped-down approach for your NPR Tiny Desk audition; do you plan to do the same for your recording on Sunday?
No. As a matter of fact, we're going all plugged in on Sunday. Originally it was going to be acoustic but Never Records has a backline—kind of equivalent to what a music venue would have—so yeah, we're gonna play plugged.

Do you know what you're performing? 
Yeah, I'm going to do "Drop The Clouds" which is a metaphor for, like, drop the facade or drop the act. That song is from my 2017 EP called Déjà Boo, which were all songs kind of chronicling different moments and perspectives in a relationship. I think this is a great song to record live, because of the way that song presents live is totally different than the studio version.

Who will you be performing with? 
I'll be playing with John Feliciano, Justin Carter, and Misha Savage, the Silky savage.

Why are you excited to participate in Never Records? 
I think it's going to be challenging recording live. I don't wanna shy away from the challenge. All the recording I've done, I've recorded myself in an environment I chose, and this is taking the control out of my hands for the recording process, which may be a great thing but is a little intimidating. I like the idea of collecting the sounds of different cities. If you zoom out, every city probably has a spirit behind it that you can begin to identify. The vinyls from New Orleans are going to be totally different from the vinyls from New York, and that's whether he's recording somebody who's spitting a poem or telling a story or someone who's playing music or just playing an instrument. I feel like the environment colors the things that people want to record, and I find it exciting to be a part of whatever the fabric of New York’s sound is gonna be. I like the idea of someone else in another city or another country being able to flip through that.

Visit Never Records at The Rudin Family Gallery at BAM through Mar 15. Don’t forget, you’re welcome to witness the live recordings!

Akornefa Akyea is the content marketing coordinator at BAM.
© 2020 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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