Michael McDonagh talks to Irish-African musician Loah
Sallay Matu Garnett, known as Loah, a Sierra Leoanan/Irish singer and songwriter will be playing at the Barbican, in next week’s Imagining Ireland concert on 5 March. She is another fine example of the wonderful mixed race talent that has emerged in recent years from the new multicultural and cosmopolitan Ireland.
Having been brought up with roots in Sierra Leone and Gambia, she lived in Maynooth, went to school there and went on to go to Trinity College to qualify as a pharmacist, a career she followed when she graduated. Thankfully she has put Pharmacy on hold while she pursues her music career full time.
“This is my second time to play London, which is nice, I played in London in November doing my own show, and I’m looking forward to the Barbican, as it is a cool venue and cool space.”
I asked her to tell us a little more about her background: “I’m half Irish and half Sierra Leonean and I grew up in Ireland and was raised here. My mum is Irish so most of my schooling was in Ireland in Maynooth.
“We moved to West Africa in my teens and spent a couple of years there with family but then I came home and did my Leaving Cert and college here and have been pretty much here ever since, give or take a couple of stints elsewhere.
“Actually, if I did not look foreign, people would not know by talking to me that I was not Irish in any way – I am very Irish – but, of course, culturally I am half African.
“To be honest it was not the easiest place to be mixed race and there were issues in the past but it is different for my generation.
“I just know older mixed race people who would have had a very hard time because it was so Catholic then and a very homogenised society, not used to anything that looked different but it’s fine now and I’ve not seen anything like that at all.
“Musically, I have a lot of influences in my work and unlike some people my influences are more dramatic.
“Like a lot of Irish people I would have listened to a lot of Irish folk and singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and the tradition and legacy of that.
“Then for me there was blues and soul and then jazz, which I got into when I was in college but then later on I started adding in more West African influences into my work.
“I did not consciously do it but it just happened naturally and I also grew up playing violin in orchestras playing classical music and that comes through, so I have had a really broad musical education and a broad experience.
“It is pretty much reflected in my stuff. I am always working on it but it’s all in there anyway.”
Loah has already collaborated on a song with Hozier and performed on a Kila album. How did this come about?
“Again it was all very organic and happened naturally. Ireland is very small and we all sort of know each other. I knew Hozier anyway and then sometimes you are just around people and they just say do you want to do this and you say ‘ok’ and that’s what happened with Kila.
“Much as I love writing on my own I love collaborating with people. l am a bit of a perfectionist and when you work towards a song and have to hand it over you work hard to bring out your best and so I am looking to do more of that than ever before. I’m actively seeking out collaborations. Whereas once I would just let them happen organically now I am seeking them out as it stretches my muscles musically and it means when I return to my own stuff I am more enthusiastic and have more ideas and inspiration.
“So far anything that has come out as Loah has been me writing it but now I am slowly introducing others into the mix to open it up a bit and to make it more interesting.”
Loah describes her music as Art-Soul. How or why did she come come up with that description for her work?
“To be honest I wanted a word to describe my music that I had made up myself, as it is often too easy to editorialise other people’s work and I thought it would be very easy for my music to get labelled as just ‘world music’, just because they hear music in other languages. I hate that term and I think it is so reductive.
“I guess it is just a short hand way of saying it is a song not in English or something like that or not Western but I am very much Western so I just wanted to make sure that it was not bandied around, so I had to think about what it was.
“In my approach as a writer of poetry –with honesty and groove – it was Soul. Then for the Art there is a lot of influences in there with different styles of music and that seemed a broad way of stating it and it seems to make sense to people then, so I call it Art- Soul.”
A lot of new Irish acts are very much having to follow a DIY path without the might of a record company behind them, how is Loah dealing with this new reality of the industry?
“To be perfectly honest it is really hard and it is definitely a different time to be in Ireland. It is a new time in the history of Art to be working in Ireland. “I think there are pros and cons to this era. The pro is that you are in control of your work and how to do it but the con can be that you spend a lot of time doing everything but music.
“Your attention is divided and it is more challenging and takes much longer to get your act together as a musician and the focus is detracted from the music, as you spend time doing your own PR and organising.
“I am not an anti label person, in fact I am very pro those things as there is a place for them in the industry. Obviously I am against being ripped off, I am anti anybody being ripped off. Everyone should get their just rewards for their music and what they deserve.
“There is an historical anti label attitude to big labels because there are so many stories of artistes being ripped off but I think now if you have good representation and a good lawyer and a good head on your shoulders you can avoid all that and have a very symbiotic relationship with a label.
“I am very into that for my kind of music and from where I am based. It is more transparent now so there is less risk with a label, it is such a different time and there are good lawyers out there and I would not be concerned.
“I think it is more about finding the right relationship with people that are supportive and understand what I am trying to do and you are in a position where you can deliver them music because you are supported to do so.
“Realistically, though, there is not the infrastructure here (in Ireland) for what I do, so I would be looking to find that abroad. I am at the point of doing that now.
“I have been building it here for a couple of years and I am ready to start looking to take it further but I only have one EP out so far, which is nothing in terms of a body of work. I have a way to go.
“What I do in Ireland is very different and there is not really a structure here for it. I am part of a new generation of artistes coming out of Ireland with music which would not traditionally be associated with this country, for which there is no tradition or infrastructure for what we do.
“You might be having a very different conversation within Ireland in 10 years, when the fact that the supply has arrived will mean that there will be a demand for different structures. With just five million people you can’t expect it all to happen here so it’s all about getting heard. That’s why gigs like this, Imagining Ireland, are really good.
“I am really very excited about the Barbican as it will be a really cool new gig. We got to do it already here in the National Concert Hall and I love the Barbican, so am looking forward to it and playing there for the first time.
“I have a band for my live gigs here but for the Barbican it will just be myself playing guitar with a string quartet but usually live I have a full band.
“I tend not to play instruments, as I tend to be more mobile on stage. Generally it will be a five piece but sometimes seven.”
What else does she have lined up?
“I’ve got some festivals lined up for the summer but basically I am concentrating on making some new music. I am into a new phase of writing and I am changing the sound, modernising it a bit by introducing a more technicality and production, which I had avoided before, as I did not know what I wanted. I have a clear idea now – it is about making new music.”
It is truly wonderful that now there is a new generation of deep thinking creative talent emerging from Ireland, that is drawing on such diverse and mixed ethnic roots, to fuse their clear sense of Irishness with the musical influences from their family heritage. This brings us all something artistically new to enjoy, experience and be proud of.
Pick up your tickets for Imagining Ireland: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2018/event/imagining-ireland