The talented artist of Haitian descent, Ayiti Coles, talks about her roots, her singing career, and all of her influences.
Who is Ayiti Coles?
I’m 19 years old. I consider myself a real artist at heart whether it’s singing, writing, drawing, photography… I’m laid back, silly, a bit of an airhead and quite impatient. I always try to stay open minded and really think it’s important not to judge anyone or anything.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Paris, but I’ve considered Haiti my home ever since I arrived there at the age of two. Got there as a toddler and never left!
I’m currently studying International Development in McGill University, so I’ve been in Montreal for about a year and a half now. It’s the first time I’ve left Haiti for more than just a few months. Montreal is a great city but, to be honest, I do miss home—my family, the food, the culture, the SUN. Winter is so long here! Haiti is home to me and nothing could ever really take its place in my heart. Lakay se Lakay.
Tell us about your post-earthquake experience.
Personally, I was lucky enough that my family was unharmed; we only lost the house. I will always say it: I was part of the lucky bunch. I was in my senior year at the Lycee Alexandre Dumas when the earthquake happened, and even though school stopped for a month, I stayed and passed my French BAC and graduated there.
The earthquake was really a terrible thing to live through. There was so much loss: human lives, entire homes—all gone in 38 seconds. And then, there the exodus: in the weeks after the earthquake, you could see big buses packed with people heading back to the provinces. Most of my friends and classmates left the country. To give you an idea, by the time school had reopened, my class had gone from about 60 to 15 students.
The song Ghost Town is about this whole experience. To be honest, I felt left behind, and very alone for the first month after the earthquake. I had seen life as I knew it change completely before my eyes, in less than a minute, my hometown turn into rubble. Almost every body I cared about had left and I had no one my age around for a while. One day I went to pick up something at my cousin’s house, which is at walking distance from where I was staying. This was a residential neighborhood where many people I knew lived, yet as I was walking, no car passed by, just one lonely motorcycle. It felt so empty. Then when I got to the house, it was empty as well. My cousins had left to Florida the week after the quake, but I could tell that everyone had just abandoned the place without looking back. There was a dirty plate on a table, beds undone, clothes in the hampers, a light on. Everything was left as is, abandoned. I stood there and thought, “this is what most houses in Port-au-Prince must be like at this moment.” I realized the city had turned into a Ghost Town.
That’s where the idea for the hook came, and the rest of the song is just all about the same feeling of living in an empty, destroyed city. It was a sort of therapy for me to express what I believe anybody living in Port-au-Prince at that time would feel. Poor, rich, black, white, we were all in the same boat. It was a dark period for anyone even remotely Haitian and I still get emotional when thinking about it.
In “Ayiti—In a nutshell” you mentioned your Latin roots and also your French roots. Tell us a little bit more about your ancestry and how you embrace it in your music.
On my father’s side, my grandmother is French and my grandfather Haitian, while on the maternal side, both grandparents are Chilean. My father grew up in Haiti, and his side of the family lives there. As for my mother, her parents have been living in Paris for about 40 years now. I used to visit my Chilean family in Paris every summer, which brought me closer to both French and Chilean cultures. You could say I learned to speak Spanish by listening to my grandmother and my grandfather talking one another in Spanish, while taking strolls in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
As for how I embrace this in my music, I don’t really try do anything in particular. I believe it shows through naturally, as it’s all a part of me. I’ve contemplated writing songs in French and in Spanish. I actually write prose in both languages and for now it’s only prose, but who knows? Maybe down the road it can become a song.
Tell us about your singing career. How did it start? Have you recorded any single? Any album?
One of my first souvenirs of singing is the Christmas carol show when I was about 5; I had a solo in “Petit Papa Noel.” Also, I participated in two out of the three school plays that were produced at my high school. In 8th grade I was lead in the Emilie Jolie musical. However, my decision to pursue music came after the earthquake. I always knew I wanted to be a singer, but I was always shy about it. In 2010, my perspective on life changed. I realized we have to go after what we want, even if it means deviating from the traditional path. I decided I didn’t want to waste any more time being afraid and had to pursue my passion and give it my all. In the fall we recorded about three songs, including Ghost Town, and ever since then I’ve recorded about 7 more. Technically I almost have an album, though I’m not quite ready to put it out yet. I’m still figuring out whether to add or alter tracks.
What place does music hold in your life?
Music and I go way back! My dad used to sing me to sleep a lot when I was a baby and I believe I’ve been singing pretty much ever since I could talk. Not a day goes by without me singing, or trying to write some lyrics. Music is pretty much everywhere in my life.
How would you describe your style?
As an artist I have many influences. I love different genres of music. Bands like Fall Out Boy and Paramore have marked my early teens and then I grew into liking house music, DJs like Steve Angello, Richard Grey and Avicii. I’m also a huge fan of Lady Gaga, Lana del Rey, Florence and the Machine and Fiona Apple. It’s not easy to incorporate all of these influences in my music but again: it’s a part of me, so I believe that it will show through naturally. As for now, my style is somewhat “alternative.” It’s a mix of bluesy alternative-rock and electro-pop.
Do you come up with the music or the lyrics for your songs first?
I usually write the lyrics first. Once or twice did I put lyrics to a melody but it’s usually the words that come first. It’s very important to me that the lyrics are mine. I don’t want any one to speak for me, or to sing someone else’s emotions. I believe it’s part of the job to be able to express your feelings and beliefs in your art. As for the composing, I’m still learning and growing as an artist, so I’ve had some great producers help me put melodies to my lyrics, but my goal is to ultimately do it all, from the words to the song.
Do you play any instrument?
I took about six guitar classes with a private teacher when I was in middle school, but I disliked it. Patience isn’t my strong suit and learning and instrument requires a lot of it. He showed me a few basics but apart from that I’m self-taught. I practice often, I’ll get the hang of it.
What is the hardest part for you in terms of creating a song?
The hardest part for me would be melodies. I mentioned already that I’m still a little bit green at composing a melody, but as time passes I’m getting more familiar with the creative process, and understanding how things work. In one year I’ve already gotten more confident and I participated in the composition of two of the latest songs I’ve written.
When I google Ayiti Coles, an athlete (horse rider) comes up. Is that you? If yes, tell us a little bit about that.
Yes, that’s me! I used to be very serious about riding. I’ve represented Haiti abroad on several occasions, including at the Panamerican Games for young riders, in 2005 in Chile, where I made it to the finals, and in 2006 in Argentina. I’ve also competed in Guatemala, and placed 3rd on the first day of the competition. I also competed in Germany and West Palm Beach USA many time. Riding was a great experience, and a great school of life. In this sport, you’re not alone, it’s all about your communication with the horse and how you build a trusting relationship with it. There’s a lot of discipline and responsibility that come with it: taking care of the horse, of the equipment, being dressed properly for the competitions etc… so it forces you as a child to show maturity and a sense of responsibility. I’ve stopped riding after the earthquake because I had to focus on graduating, and now I’ve chosen music, but it’s still something I love to do as a hobby whenever it’s possible!