Hitting new highs: How singer Loah left her day job after co-writing one of ex-boyfriend Hozier's catchiest songs
After co-writing one of ex Hozier's catchiest songs, Irish-Sierra Leonean singer Loah left her day job in pharmacy. Fresh from playing Mary Magdalene in the West End, she talks to Shilpa Ganatra about her dual identity, the changing face of Ireland - and why she's happy to be single right now
Around seven years ago, Sallay Matu Garnett hummed a formative tune she had going around in her head. Her then-boyfriend, Andrew Hozier-Byrne, heard it, and asked if he could use it within the songs he was writing. Sure, she said, let me play you the rest of what I had in my mind. By 2014, Sallay had become Loah, Andrew had become Hozier, and though they were no longer a couple, their tune was released as Someone New, one of the warmer, upbeat numbers in his debut album. It went on to sell 972,000 copies worldwide - earning her a small royalty with each sale.
"At the time, it was really nice because it helped me leave my job," she says, over lunch in a busy café in London. "I'd been phasing it out, but it gave me a nice little cushion to fall on so I could quit completely.
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"The song also gave me recognition for my work - people saw me as someone who was serious enough to do gigs. That was what I needed at the time. But I've had to work hard since - it's going to be a lifetime hustle."
At least the hustle is going well, it seems. Leaving the day job as a pharmacist behind to concentrate on her own brand of ethereal folk-soul hybrid informed by her Irish and Sierra Leonean roots, she's become an eminent name in contemporary music in Ireland, working with the likes of Kíla and Conor O'Brien of Villagers.
Today she's cool, calm and collected, and dressed in loose-fitting linen, with her dreadlocked hair accessorised with cuff clips (the poignancy of which I'm now aware, thanks to Emma Dabiri's Don't Touch My Hair). In a Shepherd's Bush café full of beardy, sockless media types, it's clear who the creative in the room is.
Playing a curveball, Loah has spent the summer here in London trying out something brand new in her career: musical theatre. She spent two months as Mary Magdalene in Timothy Sheader's Barbican production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which won an Olivier when he first put it on at the Open Air Theatre in 2016. Certainly, her powerful vocal lends itself to the challenges of the theatre, but how did this leftfield move come about?
"I auditioned, it was as simple as that," she says, with a calmness and confidence that's pleasant to see. "I almost ended up doing musical theatre a couple of times in Dublin but, for whatever reason, it didn't work out. I have an acting agent in London, so this came up. I wouldn't have gone for musical theatre at this stage, but they were specifically looking for singer-songwriters for the roles - it was the style they were going for.
"Being part of a huge production is eye-opening," Loah continues. "There are five people just taking care of the props, everything from a non-label, non-alcoholic beer that I hand to Jesus, to pieces of bread. It's taught me a lot about the concept of putting on a show, and especially the idea that every moment sets up the next moment. It's an arc of an emotional journey, so I know I'll be thinking much more about setlists in my own work."
Now that the production has come to an end, it appears to have acted as a useful interlude of said musical work, rather than a new career direction - "although everything can change tomorrow", she says as a caveat.
The break appears to have helped clarify her next set of goals. Up until now, she's been happy to go where the wind takes her, playing the odd gig, a special performance when invited, and a steady release of singles once they're ready. "But you can only float for so long, then it's terrifying to just keep floating. I haven't had anyone guiding me creatively, so while I've been figuring out how to make a living in this world, I've just been saying yes to things," she says.
"But most people do their figuring-out behind the scenes, and then present themselves. For better or worse, I made myself known to the public and then I was like, 'Oh, crap… this is not… ah wait, I didn't think about this.'" She lets out a generous laugh. "That was very unintentional. If I had any regrets, it would be that. But I just didn't have the wisdom to plan and think ahead."
It helps, for the purposes of launching herself into the next phase, that she's recently become single. "I think if I was to get in a relationship and want to settle down, that would change my relationship with this work," she explains. "It's even just hard to want kids as a woman in music, when touring is an issue. When my male friends tour, they leave their kids at home with their girlfriends and wives. So I'm very happy to be single for now while I'm still building. It's almost important, in a way."
First off, her plan involves pulling together "a big chunk of work", most likely with long-time collaborator Bantum, otherwise known as Corkman Ruairi Lynch. The producer and singer have already released a number of songs together - most recently the pulsating dance-floor hit Summer of Love. "The music we make doesn't sound like either of us, and neither of us could make this music without the other," Loah says.
"Maybe it's because when he sends me his beats, they're minimalist and spacious enough that I can add to it. Whereas sometimes, depending on the producer, they might have sculpted it to a much greater state by the time you get it, and you can't see where you fit in."
They'll bring both old and new tunes to a live setting when they play the appropriate venue of the Pepper Canister Church, as part of Dublin Fringe Festival.
"And we're planning to bring in Brian Dillon from [Dublin band] Meltybrains?, who'll add synths and soundscapes for the live setting," she adds.
In the longer term, she's already made preliminary steps to spend some time in places where the fusion music scene is more mature. It's either back to London or to the States, where she lived the New York dream and stayed in a loft apartment in Brooklyn in 2013.
"I love Ireland and I would stay if I could, but I also have to be realistic," she explains. "The reason I've been able to do so well in theatre is because I have an acting agent, who does all the logistical stuff for me. So my priority is to get a music agent or label, but in Ireland, because the music I'm making is so different, there hasn't been any obvious fit. I don't want to leave, but the realities might necessitate it."
Scanning back to her early years, it's evident that both music and travel were in her bones. She was born in Kenya, after her parents - a Sierra Leonean father and Irish mother - met travelling in Africa. They returned to Ireland, where she stayed until she was 12. Then they relocated to Sierra Leone so that both she and her sister (Emma Garnett, a singer known as Feather, who often performs with Loah) could immerse themselves in the other half of their culture.
"I got to grow up in both places, which, I realised, is quite rare for people who have mixed heritage of any kind, whether it's like Irish-French, or American-Japanese," says Loah. "I've spent enough time in Sierra Leone to feel like it's part of me; it's not just the place my dad's from. At the time it was traumatic as I was leaving my friends, but now I'm really grateful.
"Left to my own devices, I would have just totally identified as an Irish person who has a parent from elsewhere," she adds. "But there would have been a part of my identity that wouldn't have been fulfilled because your appearance is so much a part of your experience. The world doesn't care if you feel Irish when you look African. So you need to own both aspects of you, and sit in any room - for me, with Irish or African people - and feel like you belong there. It's a big problem with mixed-race people."
How did she feel when she first moved to Sierra Leone?
"There were definitely growing pains there," she says. "We're fondly referred to as the international cousins. But we fly the flag for both sides. There's a term in Creole, 'two SIM', which refers to when one phone can have two SIMs in it, so you get called that if you have dual heritage. I'm a two SIM. I'll live with this duality for the rest of my life, and that's fine - that's my lot."
This "two SIM" idea is reflected in her music and lyrics; she sings in English as well as Sherbro and Krio, the languages of Sierra Leone. It's allowed her to use her music as a means of expressing her heritage, mixing African with European, and new with old. It's led to even more creative projects, like a songwriting camp with Icelandic and Sierra Leonean musicians.
"So now I have a single coming out with one of the biggest rappers from Freetown in Sierra Leone," she says. "In the same way that I'm collaborating with the lads and my sister in Ireland, it's nice to have that relationship in Sierra Leone. Especially because Ireland is changing in a very dramatic way in a very short time in terms of ethnological make-up. There's always been mixed-race people, but having access to both parts of self wasn't necessarily an option when Ireland was more of an emigratory place."
It's not lost on Loah that Ireland is in a critical period when it comes to its ethnic composition. Historically, it's had waves of immigration before, but it's only recently - as nationalism is on the rise globally, just as Ireland has its most noticeable (let's face it, dark-skinned) influx - that it's become a political battleground.
"I saw it coming. I had the opportunity to go to England to study but I remember distinctly thinking at 18, 'This is going to get weird - I want to be here when it kicks off,'" she says. "I want to see how everyone interacts out of personal curiosity, but also anthropologically.
"This is a new phase for us: how will we filter our nationalism with this new set-up? It can be hard, because people are challenged, and they realise they're racist. It's not always their fault. I often blame a lot of 19th-century rhetoric coming from the empires that specifically set out to dehumanise people from different parts of the world. Like Encyclopaedia Britannica literally had sections on why Africans and Asians are inferior. My mum remembers seeing that in textbooks when she was in school. The media is part of the rhetoric, and that influences people's minds.
"But on the other side, Irish people are fiercely loyal and have a self-protection so if you transition to being fully Irish, you become one of us," she adds, remembering her own happy childhood in Maynooth. "The tribalism is ferocious and very loving, and I experience it all the time. It's like, 'Okay, she's foreigny, but she's one of us - don't touch her.'
"Those who are emotionally aware have a deep understanding of the pain that Irish people have gone through for centuries, and understand the need to emigrate, and the need to find a better life," she says.
"Those people are at the forefront of the welcoming committee. They're in a majority, because most people are not in a position to deny Ireland's past. But the ones who are against it are often quite loud. So there's an unfortunate side effect, and it ends up as racism."
Given the cultural shift and the considerations that being mixed race presents, I wonder if she's given thought to how she might raise any children, hypothetically?
"I'd love to have children. I already have a gorgeous goddaughter," she says. "Her mum, my best friend, is white-Irish and her dad is an African-American, and I think that her generation will never know anything other than ethnic diversity in an Irish context. She goes to an Educate Together school, so the families of the pupils there are from everywhere. She's going to have her own culture.
"So our generation are probably the ones that are overthinking and analysing it from every which way, because it's a new thing for us to process as adults. When she's older, there will be a new language and concept around it, which will be really interesting for us to learn from."
Equally, in the future, being mixed race will be far more common, Loah envisages. "The fact is, everybody's travelling, everyone's falling in love with everybody else all over the world, and moving their kids everywhere," she says.
"I have nieces who are half black-Irish and half-Slovakian. They look white, but their family is black. It's just going to get weirder and more interesting."
Loah and Bantum play the Pepper Canister Church on September 7 as part of Dublin Fringe Festival. For more information, see fringefest.com
Photographed on location at The Curtain hotel, 45 Curtain Rd, Hackney, London