Though music has always been in Amy Ayanda’s experience, the life force within her artistry is indistinct from her journey of becoming a mother; at just twenty two years old. The creative energy required to call in a song or to grow life might seem far apart; yet, the feminine source of this principle remains the same. Amy is both an artist and a musician; with the former being her everyday and the latter – an uncomplicated, comforting companion that she shares with her husband Dean Berger and their band. I spoke to Amy ahead of a rare and special performance for Danilo Querios’ theatre series titled ‘Quiet Live’. The next one, featuring Amy Ayanda and Kozo Zwane, takes place at The Avalon Theatre District Six Homecoming Centre on 2nd February 2024 – the site of the old Fugard Theater venue. A seated venue, it is expected to be an intimate and significant affair.
Amy’s relationship to music tracks a sequence of sonic time-capsules; with her decade-long journey releasing music serving as cathartic conduits for growth and grief alike – and today, the garment of music that she wears is a more straightforward site of playfulness. Amy explains that, “I always loved making music, but it was more like in my bedroom. I went up to quite high grades in piano and flute in high school, but then I stopped – it was too intense for me. I painted instead and did art as a subject, which I then went to university for. My brother taught me my first guitar chords, but It was only in my fourth year at Michaelis that I released a song; I had played something I’d written a long time ago, for my friend Thor and we then developed it and put it out. The song was called ‘La Llorna’ and it did very well. It was so random – it was even picked up by Noisey Magazine.” This track captures a very specific moment in Cape Town’s music culture; with Amy’s soft vocals encompassed by poetic and pronounced lyrics – accompanied further by Thor Rixon’s signatured, textured production. It is indie-informed electro; poetic, robust and precise. As Amy notes, the music video was recorded in Thor’s room. Amy would go onto release an EP on SoundCloud that year (to have a pre-streaming age SoundCloud footprint should tell you something about Amy’s sonic path; a veteran.)
Then, something surreal would take place following this initial release and its success. Amy recalls, “I went overseas to Berlin after university, so I was around 22 years old – and I found out I was six weeks pregnant. It was a very big shock, but I had this feeling that ‘I was having this child.’ – I just knew it. Termination just did not arise as an option, even though I looked into it. Everything in me was telling me to have this baba.” As she reflects, now well into motherhood, there is a matter-of-factness that Amy expresses when sharing this part of her life. Though, one could imagine how difficult this moment might have been; as a young woman, at the beginning of their adulthood journey. At this time, Amy’s mom was very sick; so, when her mom found out via video call, Amy knew that destiny had made the decision for her. As Amy says,“My dad is an Anglican priest and I was terrified of getting in big trouble, being unmarried and pregnant. His response was just, ‘I can’t believe your mom got a picture of the scan first and I didn’t!’ He was just so happy that my mom was going to see her grandchild.”
Music was Amy’s catalyst for moving through the many threads of change, grief and love occuring all at once in her life. As she says, when she came home to Cape Town (very pregnant) she was asked to play mainstage at Rocking The Daisies. As Amy says, “I was seven months pregnant at the point. I had no band and no idea how to perform. My partner Dean was like, ‘I will make you a band!’ – and so he got his best friends involved, with Dean on drums, Jesse Gilles as our guitarist and Daniel Breiter who is also a guitarist and producer, and Glein Stein, on bass. They digitised the songs, so it was this mixture of electronic sounds with live instruments. I was just pregnant; really pregnant, growing this baby and performing our hearts out, with me holding my back with one hand and the mic in the other. It wasn’t difficult, it was so much fun.”
The transformative act of giving birth signalled a new beginning; and Amy’s earlier work is completely tied to becoming a young mother, noting that she’s not sure many people realise just quite how personal her earlier work is. Amy says, “I had quite a spiritual way of looking at life when I was younger. I had an intrinsic pull towards nature and going to electronic festivals that took me to other realms. I think you can see that in my work to this day, but I’m not actually that way so much any more. One of the EP’s I named ‘Ab Ovo’, which means ‘from the egg’. I started writing it when I was sitting in the clinic in Berlin, seeing young parents with children – and realising that it was so normal to have children and to incorporate them into your life. The song is me kind of talking to Dean about us doing this. The EP started then, with that song, and was finished and released when our daughter Frankie was one. At the end of the EP, there’s an appraisal and if you listen very carefully, you can hear Frankie’s voice singing in the background.” Walking between the worlds of life and death is rarely so intensely experienced by most people, with Amy saying that “at the time that I put that song out, my mom was very ill; she had cancer for 22 years, and by the time I was pregnant with Frances, it had become extremely severe. Being between that boundary of life and death was profoundly beautiful and incredibly difficult. Back then, music was very much a way to process the grief that I was experiencing.”
I ask Amy whether being an artist and a musician requires a boundary between the two? When a concept arises – how is it sorted, visually from sonically? On how her expression emerges, Amy says that “I have always had a boundary between my music and art. In retrospect, my art is about loss – and belonging, letting go of things – and tender moments that you can’t otherwise hold onto. I think my art still speaks a lot about those things. Music, on the other hand, has remained something that works in and around my life, as it happens. I have kids – and a lot going on – so sometimes I’ll sit down and just write, and then the actual recording only happens a year later. Music is this feature of how I deal with stress, it’s an outlet for how I release stored up energy. With music, I don’t have a self-imposed direction around it and that has been very, very liberating.”
While Amy doesn’t get to perform or make music as much as she’d like, music remains a portal that is precious and necessary for her. Ahead of her Quiet Life performance, Amy notes that this is a rare moment, saying that “we get asked to play shows often but it’s just not humanly possible for Dean and I – with childcare, rehearsals, preparation – so when we do perform, it’s very much the right space and context for us.” As for the performance itself and without giving too much away, Amy notes that the first song is especially picked by her and the band for Danilo, Quiet Life’s founder; “the set is going to start with one of my favourite songs from an EP called ‘Young’, from when I was pregnant with the twins. The song is called ‘Frank’ which is my daughter’s name, and it features an ad-lib; a sound that we stumbled onto by mistake, almost secretly encoded into the track. Dean had this really weird machine at the music school that we used to produce at – and it was broken, which made this terrible sound. We realised that if we could turn it lower and compress it a bit more, it would make this really beautiful hum. So the song starts with this long note, which adds so much length. It’s Danilo’s favourite song – so we are starting with that one. We will also be doing a lot of new songs, too.”
As for the future of Amy’s music? Well, it’s a constantly evolving space. Having transmuted seismic portions of grief, Amy’s next release is her self-described favourite style; “I love sad music. I just wanna write sad shit – it’s comforting.” With a decade-long discography and transient musical career, I am left feeling the rarity of Amy’s music – a very unique space in which her music works for her, as part of her whole life. Amy Ayanda is, beyond labels and job descriptions, an embodiment of how many strands there can be for an artist to weave.
Listen to Amy Ayanda HERE
TICKETS ARE NOW SOLD OUT for ‘Quiet Live 003’ featuring Amy Ayanda and Kozo Zwane’
Friday, 2nd February
19h00 to 23h00
The Avalon Theatre, Homecoming Centre
Portraiture photographed by Jesse Navarre Vos
Written by: Holly Beaton