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Interview: Aysha Lorén

Interview: Aysha Lorén

Interview: Aysha Lorén

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"I just try to bring soulful elements into the reggae"

Sampler

It’s somehow appropriate that United Reggae is meeting London singer Aysha Lorén in Westfield shopping centre. Given that Aysha represents the next wave of home-grown romantic reggae subgenre Lovers Rock, the setting is both suitably chic and iconic of the English capital.

Aysha, however, is no diva (at least not in the pejorative modern sense). While she’s certainly got a big voice, plush and sparkly, she is shy and unassuming in person. She’s come from a costume fitting nearby in Shepherd’s Bush. Later she’s doing no less than three interviews with the BBC. It’s all to promote her debut album My Wishing Well, featuring contributions from some of London’s leading musicians and producers, and executive-produced by her partner, Adrian “Kenz” McKenzie. Adrian is just parking his car, she says, and will join us a few minutes into the interview.

Aysha Lorén

The location is reasonably local: Aysha was born further west in Hounslow. Her mother is a bank worker from Grenada. Her Bajan father, the owner of pioneering 70s pirate radio station Time FM, and, like Adrian, a drummer. This non-Jamaican heritage makes her less of an anomaly on the UK reggae scene than one might think: architect of Lovers Rock, Dennis Bovell, is Bajan; so is fellow top bassist Don Chandler, who plays on Lorén’s project. As Aysha explains, “We grew up with that music in the house. I also love soca music - so that’s what I do in my part time”.

Aysha was raised in Ealing and went to school in Greenford. She describes her early life as “quite easy. The area I grew up in was nice and I enjoyed school.” The main obstacle to achievement was her shyness: “When you go to school you get bullies and you become self-conscious as you get older, so that’s probably what’s held me back”.

I was very, very shy when I was younger

Hoping to become more outgoing, she started drama classes at Barbara Speake Stage School in Acton and was singing in school concerts and plays from age 11. “I was very, very shy when I was younger so I tried to do things to see if I could bring myself out there”. The acting felt false and uncomfortable but the singing stuck. “I wasn’t sure if I could sing but there was a group of us in school that all used to sing together. I wasn’t really aware of my voice at that time”.

Though she might not have relished theatre – the notion of inhabiting a different role as a singer helped her cope. “I’d say it’s like a split personality when I’m on stage. I try to be another person that’s not really me. I can be quite shy when people first meet me but after a while I warm up to myself”.

She began entering competitions, starting at Talented Teens in 1996. Back then she was singing R&B, debuting with a Toni Braxton song. “I kept doing competitions and then people tend to see you and book you for little local shows and, literally, it just happened by luck”.

It’s interesting that she puts it down to luck – ability and drive must have played a part too. Four years of gigging later, Aysha was offered the opportunity to support Destiny’s Child in their 2000 tour of London, Manchester and Birmingham. “I was doing Live At The Hackney Empire, when someone saw me there and booked me on another show. I opened up for Jon B, and Dru Hill. Somebody saw me at the Dru Hill concert and booked me for the tour.”

I wasn't sure if I could sing

The platform brought interest from UK reggae label Jetstar, who signed her for a deal. They had the idea that she record Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name for a compilation, Pop Hits Inna Reggae Volume 1 (“I’ve always loved reggae but I’d never tried it before”). Yet, soon after, she would drop out of music for seven years. “Nothing much happened from that [Jetstar album] if I’m honest” she clarifies “I was studying at the time so I didn’t really take the time to do the music properly. I wasn’t writing and then I just took a long break. Studying, working, just life”.

Aysha focused on learning to be a nurse, met a man and had two children. Raising them meant she set aside live singing. It seemed her foray into entertainment had been a temporary distraction. Then another chance event drew her back.

“After Whitney Houston died someone I knew from back in the day asked me to sing at a tribute in London. I did that and realised “That’s what I want to be doing”. From then I’ve just been singing everywhere I can”.

It’s odd that her three biggest breaks all involved covers of soul and R&B – yet now reggae is her focus.

“As I’ve gotten older the music that I turned to is reggae. I listen to reggae on the radio and it’s just a natural progression. There was nothing there for me in R&B anymore. Soul and R&B has changed over the years. I know everything has to change but it just doesn’t sound the same. The soul’s been taken away. To me it’s too much pop or too much hip hop which I’m not really into. I just try to bring those soulful elements into the reggae.”

Her aunt kept telling her about a new night in London called Reggae In Da City. Run by future collaborator Don Chandler, it was a fresh concept: a talent show-meets-networking evening where singers and musicians passed through and jammed with the house band.

“One day I went and spoke to the band and wanted to sing an R&B song, Jazmine Sullivan Need You Bad. They just built the track around me into a reggae style. I knew the crowd loved it and I thought “This is something I can do”.”

It’s also where she met Adrian, who was drumming with the band. Both had come out of previous relationships and playing together turned into something more.

It's like a split personality when I'm on stage

“It was after a while of me going there a few times. It was always very friendly and before I would actually sing I would always speak to him about what type of song I should do - something different on something that they know. Obviously I know his talents so I said I’d like to work with him and it just happened naturally”.

Aysha LorénTheir first single was an update of Louisa Mark’s Keep It Like It Is: “A song that I loved from the moment I heard it” and one she debuted at Reggae In Da City to a good response. Adrian sent the song to his DJ contacts “and before you know it in the next two months it was on all the radio stations. I was hearing it everywhere”. Promoter Orlando Gittens was impressed enough to give Aysha a guest spot at his annual Giants Of Lovers Rock show opening up for the major names in the music.

After an EP, Back To You, Aysha commenced work on her long-player My Wishing Well – with Adrian producing the majority of tracks.

“I’d come up with an idea bring it to him and he’d basically make the magic. I could go to sleep one night and wake up and there’s a song waiting for me. And sometimes he will come with an idea that I particularly would never think of but I would try it just to see how it works and it has always been a success. I’d also say he takes on a management role just because it gets difficult to deal with and speak to everybody for bookings so he would do that for me”.

I go to sleep one night and wake up and there's a song waiting for me

A cover of Tamia’s Officially Missing You came from Chris Peckings, who had been taken with Aysha’s Studio 1 based Back To You (produced by Adrian and 1Xtra presenter Seanie B). Adrian’s friend Paul Yebuah aka Jazzwad contributed Say So and You Make Me Say Ooh, while the title tune was helmed by formidable roots artist Prince Malachi. “My Wishing Well is from his camp. They built the song at his house at his studio. He’ll call me on the phone and say “How are you doing today? Are you nervous about your show coming up? Don’t be nervous” and he’s very, very supportive always gives me advice. He’s a great guy - very talented too”.

Aysha’s links still stretch outside of reggae. The sultry Better Than Sex – was penned by AC Burrell, formerly of So Solid Crew.
“I’ve known AC since before So Solid because we used to both work at Jetstar”, she laughs, “I know his writing skills. After So Solid he had the opportunity to go to America where he works with the likes of Tamar Braxton and Lady Gaga. When I started singing again I contacted him on Facebook and said “I’m doing my music - can you send me a few tracks?” It did take nearly six months to get a track from him but I fell in love with that song straight away”.

Perhaps most exciting of all though, given her soft and soulful background, is a reimagining of Peter Tosh’s Pick Myself Up. Her voice is as far from Peter Tosh as it gets - yet it works. Adrian, who is now sitting with us and has not intervened except to occasionally correct Aysha’s memories, takes over.

“It’s weird because I don’t normally listen to Peter Tosh, he says. I know all of his music but I can’t say I’m his greatest fan. I was in the shower and the song came into my spirit and I spent the whole day singing it. I don’t know if I heard it subliminally or somebody was playing it but it just came to me. So after listening to it I said “You know what, I want to try this with Aysh”. I sent her the YouTube of him singing it live and I don’t think she ever opened it until a meeting we were having…”

“With Anthony, Luciano’s manager, who was taking me on as an artist” Aysha continues “And he said that I needed something more crossover that will work in Europe as well. Adrian said “Well I sent you this email months ago with Peter Tosh” and when I actually heard it I loved the song”.

It’s natural for a romantic reggae artist from the UK to interpret old standards. But how confident is she when it comes to writing for herself?

“I think it’s something I’m developing. You have to be in the right mood. The right headspace. Sometimes I’m not going to be able to write anything and the next week I might be able to write three or four songs. But I love doing it and it’s nice to see afterwards and say “I’ve written that”.” The song she’s most proud of is the scathing Gone Boy, concerning a commitment phobic lover.

“It’s a song that women can relate to,” she laughs, “That one came very easy!”

Her June album launch featured guest appearances from some of the UK’s biggest stars. There were duets with Tippa Irie and Christopher Ellis, who feature on the record, and short sets from original Lovers Rock queens Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson. Aysha is modest as usual about her extended family “Luckily enough Adrian works with a lot of the artists so he’s got a friendship with them as well. I was able to be amongst them at shows backstage and we’d talk naturally. Carroll invited me over to her house, just as a mentor, really, to discuss where I want to go and what I can do to help myself. Same with Janet - they’ve just really, really been supportive in what I want to do”.

I think some nerves are good to have

At the launch Janet made a point of encouraging her, saying she didn’t need to get so nervous before going on stage. Is that something she needs to work on?

“I always think some nerves are good to have. It’s normally when I’m doing my makeup and getting ready I start to get really nervous. I don’t think it’s something that will ever go but it empowers me to go on stage and show people that I can do it and I can be a different person.”

Aysha Lorén’s My Wishing Well is out now.

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