Ayla Shafer was born on Winter Solstice (December 21st) in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, UK. From a young age she was naturally attracted to the creative arts, drawing and painting for hours and listening to music. Her mother encouraged her to play violin and piano, which in tandem with her attendance at St Christophers, an independent self-governing Quaker’s school that prioritised the nourishing the spirit of the individual, her creativity and enjoyment for the arts flourished. Yet even at this early age, there were already signs as to where her love for art and music might take her.
“I remember as a child painting prairie landscapes with tepees and buffalos over and over again. I seemed to have had this deep obsession with the native cultures of America. I still have one of my little paintings. I was also really into creating with my hands and enjoyed all the crafts: basket making, felting, natural dying and so on. I guess I was already experiencing a fusion of earth-connected living through creativity. It’s so interesting to reflect on the fact that in some ways I was already on my path, even back then.”
At 15 years old, her mother bought her a guitar, and this marked the beginnings of songwriting as a form of personal expression for Ayla. Inspired by the songs of Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Damien Rice and Bob Dylan amongst others, Ayla began writing simple songs which became a sanctury for her. Amongst the turbulence of an unstable home life, music was was a way for Ayla to transform the inner storms into something beautiful. As she approached the end of her school years, it was the call to travel that began to occupy the forefront of her mind – a inner sense that there was ’something out there’ calling her, a path to explore, and as the years went by, and with a gap year approaching in her education, she decided it was time to get out there and see the world.
“Something inside was calling me to travel, so I worked hard at multiple jobs: as a waitress at Pizza Express, and at a live-in care home, to save up to buy a ticket. I knew I wanted to travel the world. I had that sense there’s something much more out there, and I would like to know it.” And that is exactly what she did. At 18 years old, she travelled to the Fiji Islands, New Zealand, South East Asia, Vietnam, Lau, Thailand, Cambodia and India.
“I really didn’t know how to travel the world, so I just used the Lonely Planet travel books! Although I guess I was rather naïve and innocent, my father had travelled round India in 70s, so I knew he was going to be cool with it. My mother on the other hand was very worried! Initially, I travelled on my own, but in New Zealand I joined up with others. And it was there I met up with my lifelong friend, the singer Susie Ro, and the two of us hatched this idea to give ourselves a mission to live off our music. It was extraordinary really. We were both writing songs, and singing beautiful harmonies together, so we just said “let music be our currency”, and we lived by that axiom. I remember at one point we were travelling in a van and the tyre was flat, so we pulled into a garage and convinced them to fix the tyre in return for a musical performance! On another occasion, we needed to catch a ferry, so we went to the office, and they agreed to let us play our music in return for ferry tickets. We thought perhaps it was standard practice, but we later discovered it really wasn’t! It was a magical time, paved in gold, and I experienced a deep trust. But that’s not to say the experience didn’t require lots of flexibility, a little recklessness, and the willingness to sleep in some strange places!”
“I look back at that time as if it was an opening to one of the doors to my future. Often our paths in life have doorways and thresholds to be crossed, and these times affirmed in my unconscious that music has its worth, because of how we were received, and what we received in exchange, through giving our music. We were so supported and blessed. From a cultural perspective, it isn’t really that unusual: look at those travelling bards of antiquity. There’s a core value in many cultures that people are very appreciative of the mystery that music brings.”
Returning to the UK at 19 years old, the plan was to study Anthropology and International Relations, both intellectual and academic subjects, and whilst Ayla was very passionate about world affairs, injustice, human rights and saving the world, there was also a calling within her to continue with the music and the creativity somehow. As a compromise, Ayla decided to take an interim one-year Art Foundation course in Falmouth, towards the end of which she was visited by her old friend Susie Ro, who made the proposal that they jump back into that wonderful van again, and travel the UK, driving around and living off the music. And that’s what they did!
“It was wonderful. We played at lots of festivals, getting free ticket entry and our food paid for, plus £100 a gig if we were lucky. We were very inspired by what we created together, and people were so touched by the music we were creating and by our friendship connection. I guess a year of travelling the world, and a year of creativity during the Art Foundation course had connected me to a deeper truth inside of myself. I finally realised I am not here on this planet to study Anthropology.”
“Also, my foundation year was significant musically, because I started to gig a little and share my music, and it was amazing to me that people would show up for my music. Even with my parents being wonderfully supportive of whatever I wanted to do; it was still quite difficult to shake off the cultural programming I’d naturally absorbed from living in a western culture. Here, art isn’t something you’re meant to do for a living. Music is a hobby, not a way of life. So many times, people used to ask me ‘what do you do’, and I would say ‘I am a songwriter and musician’. To which their response would be ‘Oh, you mean you’re unemployed!’ Ayla was undeterred however, and her songwriting continued apace.
“My first songs were just about figuring out who I was, what I was made of, and what my feelings were. Reflecting on the challenges and confusion of being a young person, of getting to know myself, of meeting myself and my buried sorrow and pain. I never tended to write about love. It was all about working out my inner world, and what was difficult inside. My music helped me to work though my stuff, finding those answers, and reflecting on the beauty of them. Occasionally, I found myself writing more of those political/folk/activist type songs, and I was always committed to that kind of brutal honesty that I had heard in the works of Bob Dylan and Tori Amos etc. That level of revealing naked self to oneself. Not censoring things because they are uncomfortable, and not doing the people pleasing thing. To be so vulnerable in my honest expression was also very challenging.”
Ayla played in pubs and bars, but began to realise that the environment wasn’t ideal, and that people were not really hearing the songs. “In the West we don’t have a culture of really listening, and I found that difficult. I used to come home after my concerts and cry, really cry, because something in me was saying ‘this is not what you’re here for’. I think that was the time I entered my first real ‘dark night of the soul’, and I came to realise that I didn’t want to do things that way anymore, and that I had to really step away. I had to stop doing music – it was too painful, and with too much examining of my own shadow. I knew I needed to take a radical step.”
“I heard about a friend who had travelled to Mexico with a nomadic horse circus, like a travelling circus on horseback, and something in me clicked. ‘Wow’ I thought, ‘that’s got to be just about the wildest thing I can think of doing’, so I decided to take off to South America!”
So Ayla flew off to South America and joined ‘Nomads United’. With saddle bags and little else, 20 people and 16 horses rode without maps ‘just thataway’, stopping to run educational shows about the environment for schools and earning money along the way. Living with their horses, putting up tents and sleeping in fields under the open skies.
“Living with our horses wild and so simple was incredible. There is something wonderful to be around these animals – in some ways the horses were more significant to me than the people really. There’s a connection with these beings that is so powerful. They have such a healing presence. It was a very important time for me. I thought I was going for 6 months, but I ended up staying almost 2 years!”
During the rainy season, Ayla stayed at a yoga school where she discovered yoga and meditation. This was to prove to be a pivotal time, spending four months on a beach in Mazunte venturing deeply into yoga and her own consciousness, she began to explore the culture of North America, and the joys of Sweat Lodges, Sundances and Vision Quests.
“Here I discovered the rich traditions, rituals and songs of Native American culture. It’s alive there and people are living it. I did my first Vision Quest, going into the desert to eat peyote in Mexico, and I had several very intense expansive experiences. I met many other travellers, people from all walks of life, walking all kinds of different spiritual paths. I was feasting upon so much richness I had no idea existed. Also, I didn’t know anything about the medicine music genre, I didn’t know about traditional songs, about people singing together and chanting, using the music as prayer, and this resonated with me profoundly. These elements of being touched by sound and music and rhythm in that context of prayer and ceremony very directly was exceptionally powerful. I had a tremendous feeling of homecoming, like I was finally finding out where I belonged.”
Then Ayla heard about the sacred valley in Peru, and life started to feel like she was connecting the dots in some mysterious dot-to-dot picture of her life. Going with trust, she landed in Peru, and while asking for directions to the sacred valley, someone scribbled her a map where she could sleep near the mountains and be safe. Thus began one of the most significant chapters of her journey into spirituality and sound.
“I dived deep into Peru, drinking lots of medicine and participating in ceremonies and I finally realised that this is what wants to come through me. I was meeting the divine in myself. I felt it, saw it and heard it through the land. I continued to fall so profoundly in love with the earth and nature, and in finding my sense of home with Mother Earth, I could fully give myself to it. It was an incredible time in my life where I really felt at home in all senses of my being.”
But Ayla was low on resources, and began running out of cash, so she started playing music and singing outside restaurants, busking where she could to generate money. And she discovered that unlike life in the West, the culture she experienced demonstrated a blending of spirituality with daily life that does not exist in the West. An integration of ceremony, prayer and day-to-day living that has persisted for thousands of years within the culture.
“It’s mostly us in the West that we make distinctions. Culture and spirituality are not really separate things to many indigenous peoples. They are one and the same thing. Spirituality, and the links between spirit and the earth, is inherent in their whole way of being, and for me, this earth-based element has always been very important to me. I still practice yoga every day, but I have not really felt a calling for me to follow that as a deep spiritual path, to go to India for example and really study those traditions. I’ve been much more drawn to the earth-based traditions, to those ancient roots. All ancient traditions are fascinating for me, but I do seem to have an innate, natural pull to the Native American, First Nation people. This speaks to me very strongly in my life, and what my path has entwined me with mostly is the indigenous cultures of North and South America.”
“My memories of those days are all woven in with these beautiful gatherings and rituals, not all necessarily with plant medicines; I have continued to walk the path of these traditions, for example following the Vision Quest: the Native American tradition of four days, no food, no water, my solitude in nature with no movement and no sound. They have been powerful experiences that have enriched and shaped me.”
Family ties and an inner call to return home saw Ayla journey back to the UK where she started to integrate what she had learned into her Western life, becoming a ceremonial musician. With no interest in performing at concerts, her passion for singing in ceremony and prayer and offering her voice to spirit continued to be her obsession. Connecting into the medicine and ceremonial circles scene in the UK, she continued to spend time with the native peoples that would visit from abroad, or travel to Europe to work with indigenous people and share their ceremonies and spiritual culture.
Alongside this, Ayla also recorded her first EP Words and Wolves, containing five tracks of evocative and exquisite songs described by Songlines magazine as ‘Spellbinding folk music infused with latin mystique’. Recorded simply, with only acoustic guitar and a few other instruments, Ayla’s intention was in no way to seek fame and fortune, but simply to express what was in her heart.
“It’s always been important to me to give the songs a home and to be sharing them. There’s always been an impulse in me. I’m not satisfied if I’m not doing that. But I was finding the channel through singing at ceremonies, singing round fires, playing at a few festivals. It was enough to be really roots with it at that time. I didn’t need more.”
“And then I wrote this song: Vuela con el Viento (Fly with the Wind) and something just happened really. I put it on Soundcloud initially, and it just took off. It went viral. I don’t know why it took off in the way that it did. The song has a magic to it, I guess. How does any song become a hit? It’s the spirit of the song. The way it touches people. I had no idea, but I began to see, like, WOW…something’s happening…!”
‘Something’s happening’ might be an understatement. Whilst the album mix of the track on Soundcloud has received more than 800,000 plays, it is the YouTube video that is the most astonishing, with over 20 million (yes million!) views. One could even argue that Vuela con el Viento (Fly with the Wind) is one of the most successful contemporary spiritual songs ever written. Perhaps it is all the more surprising that the song isn’t written or sung in English. The song is in Spanish.
This song was released with her Debut Album ‘Dive into Water’ in 2016.
“Now that I am more used to writing songs in Spanish as well as English, I have come to realise that there’s a special frequency, a spiritual force inherent to the Spanish language that has a certain energy to it. It has a powerful and indefinable quality to it that is very different to English.”
Appealing to Spanish native speakers might also explain part of the mystery, but what about English audiences? How do they connect with the song when they don’t know what it means?
“I think that there’s something about the mind not understanding what a song means. The music is able to enter us without our mental filtering. We can receive the medicine of sound into our body and heart without the mind getting in the way. It’s a mysterious force. What does it even mean to be touched by music? We FEEL music. Sometimes it is important to understand the words: there are gifts to understanding words, but sometimes it’s good for the mind to not be able to latch on and just receive the gift of the sound. I think there is something to that. So many people have written to me saying what the song has meant to them in their lives, and they have no idea what the words mean!”
At this point, Ayla was pregnant with her first child, which might have discouraged her from starting work on her next album, but at 7 months pregnant, she committed herself to begin working on it. After attending the Aniwa Gathering in Ibiza, where many indigenous peoples from all different cultures around the world share their wisdom and teachings, she met Txai Fernando, the Brazilian music producer, and thereafter began working with him at his studio in Norway, and in the UK, recording tracks for what was to become her ‘Silent Voices’ album.
“Fernando is a brilliant producer with his own unique approach. He had spent lots of time living and working with indigenous people and has an amazing method to music and sound. He works with the spirit of the song, treating it as such, taking care of it, respecting it and what it is asking for. I feel I was also going through a natural ripening at this stage and began to feel the need to more actively share my music and get it into the world. It became more significant to me. I made the shift to realising that is what I am 100% dedicated to doing. But I was still making my money in other ways outside of music, working here and there, selling things that I’d bought from abroad and so on, but the growing success of the Vuela con el Viento single was bringing the importance of my music into in focus.”
“We released the video for Vuela con el Viento when I was literally 2 weeks away from giving birth. It was a bit like birthing two things at once! It was filmed by Kai Ohio, whom I had met in Manchester when filming a live performance I had attended, and I thought his work was wonderful. The video looks like it was filmed at some exotic location, but it was actually at a beach in Liverpool! Ironically, I was so immersed with the birth of my son, and looking after him, that I didn’t even keep tabs on how the video was doing. Around 6 months later, my friend wrote to me and said ‘Ayla I hope you’re claiming monetisation on your YouTube video’ and I said ‘No, why?’ I had no idea it had taken off in the way it did!’
21 million views later, and Ayla is well on her way to global recognition. After several years on the road travelling to Portugal, Brazil and Mexico, Ayla has now returned to the UK and is living with her family on a farm in Devon, taking the time to slow down and enjoy quality time with her family. To tend horses, grow vegetables, and to connect with the land. Yet she has no plans to put the breaks on her musical journey, with a tour planned for next year.
“Honour the Water is the theme of my tour for 2023, and it comes from vision I have to share the music in a more inclusive and interactive way. I’ve never been particularly attracted to the idea of concerts. They have always felt rather one-sided to me. My vision is to create more of a shared space, with the intention of exploring a deeper purpose with my audience. It’s a big step, as I have never done a proper tour, but now it makes more sense. The theme is water: how it is the essence of life, the vision to be planting seeds, that the world is part of this sprouting, and we are all in a new time, with people stepping forward to ask: how can we live our lives in a way that is honouring life? Together we have to find a means to create this new way forward. That we can honour our connections more, to ourselves, to the water, to the web, to the spirit, and to each other.”
Yet touring is only another step on the path for Ayla. She still has a passion to bring the cultural traditions and ways of life she has so profoundly experienced to the senses of the Western world. To build some kind community where these values can be more readily experienced. To assemble her tribe, and fulfil her lifelong purpose.
“I’ve been the traveller for so long, and have always resisted prescribed boundaries, yet I feel I came here with a strong knowing of where I was going. I have felt it as a force compelling me somehow, guiding me. I feel utterly blessed that I can expand this vision further, and experiment with it. After all my travels, I still ask myself ‘Where is my tribe? Where is the life that I really long to live?’
“What really makes sense to me, would be to live in a community with other people, and other families, where we sing, dance, pray and walk our spiritual path together and grow food together, like the tribal people. Where all the aspects of life are not separate. Where music and dance and prayer are not for special occasions – they happen every day, as a part of daily life. In all my travels there’s been a part of me that’s always seeking to find again something that I remember deeply in me from my ancestral memory. In my bones. That I came here to live in a way that makes sense: being connected to the earth, to spirit, to my communities. To be singing, praying, dancing and growing food, feeling free, and not being constricted by the illusions of how reality is presented to us by our western culture, which is strong, and so far away from what I feel is the essence of what this miracle of life is really all about. It takes us so far away from ourselves and that which really matters, which for me is my ancestors, the land, the animals, the children, the songs, the dances, the sky the earth, life, spirit, God, whatever we want to call it. I guess with everything I have been doing, there has been that seeking of something which I know in my essence, because it is my essence, and I’m seeking to try and work out how to live that way here, as part of the 21st century.”
In addition to Ayla’s album releases, she has also worked alongside organisations that protect the Amazon Rainforest. 2018 saw the release of a collection of live, acoustic and experimental tracks with the album Ima Adama, from which Ayla donates 25% of the profits to The Pachamama Alliance. This album release was followed in 2020 by Ayla’s single Music Plants Trees and the Music Plants Trees Remix (featuring Chris Paradox) with Agami Records, which donates 100% of the profits to tree planting projects. Ayla is also leading the way in Artivism with the Music Plants Trees campaign, it’s vision and mission to help reforest the world through music, and to support social and environmental causes through art. For every album and ticket sold at Ayla’s events a tree is planted, and Ayla ensures that whilst she is on tour, her travel is by train or boat when possible.