"Even when I was child, in days when it wasn't easy, I used to smile a lot," says Ayo. "I think it's because my parents gave me the name they did. A name becomes like a guide -- it's something very st

"Even when I was child, in days when it wasn't easy, I used to smile a lot," says Ayo. "I think it's because my parents gave me the name they did. A name becomes like a guide -- it's something very strong."

Ayo was born Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin in Cologne, Germany, in September 1980 to a Nigerian father and Romani -- or gypsy -- mother. Ayo, which translates as "joy" in the Nigerian language of Yoruba, was a nickname her father had given her as a child.

"Later, I had a friend," Ayo recounts, "who always used to call me 'Joyful.' And it fit. I am joyful. I love to laugh."

But Ayo, who decided to title her debut album "Joyful," explains that emotion as something far more complex than happiness. "People will listen to the album and may at first wonder, 'OK, what is joyful here?' But it's joyful because there's a lot of hope. I believe when there's hope there's joy, and I do have a lot of hope."

That hope reveals itself most fully in Ayo's rich yet ethereal voice, which seems pulled from somewhere deep within, profoundly soulful, yet shimmers as if it has emerged almost fully intact, unscathed.

And in many ways that unique sound represents the journey of the singer herself. At around the age of 6, Ayo's mother became addicted to heroin, which led the family into poverty and then fueled her parents' divorce. Thereafter, Ayo and her siblings spent periods of time in and out of foster care, until her father was finally granted sole parenting rights when Ayo was 14.

But Ayo says music has been her "therapy" since she was a child, allowing her to stay positive and optimistic instead of falling into despair. "What I share in my music is from my experience. I need to tell the truth. I'm not a good liar, anyway," she tells Billboard.com. "And I believe that only if you stay who you really are, can you bring something new and meaningful to the people. It doesn't matter if you are black or white; our feelings are the same. As long as we share our true emotions, we can all connect."

And Ayo's music, which draws upon and deftly blends the varied sounds of her youth -- reggae, soul, folk, jazz and rock -- is most certainly connecting. "Joyful" was released in Europe in 2006 on Polydor and bowed in the 'States in November via Interscope, debuting at No. 16 on the Top Heatseekers chart.

Currently serving as opener on tour with Babyface, Ayo recently brought an unsuspecting crowd at New York's Nokia Theater to its feet after she capped a spirited set with the heart-wrenching standout "Down on My Knees."

It was a fitting reception for Ayo who, after spending several years in London and then Paris, is now living full-time in the Big Apple.

"I believe so much in energy," she says, "and I love the energy of New York. It's so stimulating. It's good for your mind and your soul."

With a dedicated following already established in Europe, Ayo now aims to build momentum stateside. "I hope I'm going to reach people and touch people here, because I believe in people more than in record companies. People will find you and share with you because they want to, not because it's all hyped up by some label. They don't want the hype. You need to create something that's bigger than just a business thing, because in the end, that connection you make is not in the record label's hands, it's in the universe's hands."

And Ayo wants to create something that is lasting. "People joke with me and say, 'Haven't you gotten everything out of your system? Haven't you already said everything in your lyrics?' But I tell them I'm still in therapy, I still need sessions -- it's not over yet. I still have a lot more to say."

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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