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Sunday 23 September 2018

Loah dares to follow her dream

Loah had a successful career as a pharmacist but music was the missing piece in her life. Our reporter meets the singer-songwriter, who has lived between Ireland and Sierra Leone

"It was a culture shock to move from Maynooth to Gambia," says singer-songwriter Loah. Photos: Abe Neihum & Mark William Logan
Loah

Ciara Dwyer

When Loah walks onto the stage of the National Concert Hall on Saturday, February 3, she will take pride in her place. The concert is a celebration of the huge variety in contemporary Irish music - from folk singers to rappers. As one of the many talented singer-songwriters in the Imagining Ireland: 21st Century Song concert, she will be performing alongside her musical heroes - Lisa Hannigan and Paul Noonan of Bell X1.

She grew up with their music. Now they are her peers.

She has come a long way - the 31-year old took a circuitous route, and that has made all the difference.

Once upon a time she was a pharmacist, happily working away in pharmacies, first in Lucan and then in Walkinstown. She enjoyed her important role in the community - dispensing healing medications and organising blister-packs for the elderly. This was what she had wanted, studying hard in Trinity and the College of Surgeons and it was intense. She had a proper job and music was something which she did on the side. That was how it had always been.

Loah
Loah

There were violin classes since she was a child, and a little later on, piano too. Classically trained in both, she performed in a children's orchestra in Celbridge and as she grew older, she sang in a choir in Trinity. While there, she set up her own jazz band too and although she loved music, it was her after-hours recreation, a hobby.

But when she was working in the pharmacy, she stopped singing. There were only so many hours in the day and she struggled to find the time to do everything. "I was studying for my Masters and working five days a week. I couldn't keep up the music too," she said. "Then I got really depressed. I thought, hang on, has this been keeping me going my whole life, sustaining me? The job was fine but then I realised that the music was the missing piece."

She co-wrote a song with Hozier - Someone New - and kept in touch with her music friends, but she knew that although she was on their musical level, she didn't have the same vision or confidence.

"They were all doing their thing, working on their tracks. They were very driven. But I had this other career, and not just any career. I loved pharmacy," she says.

She felt torn between the two. Then one day, she dared to dream big and that was the beginning of her musical adventure.

"I had to make the transition," she said. "It was hard. In 2013, I had to think seriously about it. Am I allowed to be an artist? I come from a very humble family. We all love art but this idea that you have the right to work on art all day, every day. It took me a long time to adjust, to try to earn a living at it and to take a risk."

As she speaks, her eyes light up.

"I've become disciplined about it now," she says with a smile.

Born Sallay Matu Garnett, she came up with the stage name of Loah for her musical career as she wanted to separate herself from the character of her performer. A focused young woman, she is full of plans and ideas for the year ahead. Rather than waiting for opportunities to appear, she has grabbed life by the throat and made her own musical choices. She is a bright young woman, bursting with initiative.

Last year, she released her debut EP, This Heart. She decided to take control of her destiny and so, she financed it herself. The album and her performances in festivals such as Electric Picnic and South by Southwest in the US were met with high praise. The writer, Zadie Smith, is a fan, as is Bill Whelan, the composer of Riverdance, with whom she toured. He describes her music as "superb" and she has also performed as a soloist with the RTE Concert Orchestra. All the hard work was worth it.

When people ask her to describe her music, she tells them that she has come up with her own phrase - "ArtSoul".

"This means that I'm part of the singing/song-writing tradition," she tells me. "I sit down with a guitar or a piano to write a song. If you strip it back, it has to stand on its own two legs. You've got to touch people, and you're telling the story of your time and people. That applies to all music and art."

When she is describing her work, she speaks with great confidence. But who is this woman and why is she creating such a stir in the musical world?

I meet her in the National Concert Hall, ahead of her concert. Clad in a camel coat with her hair braided, she has a calm demeanour. She sips her tea and is warm and friendly, but very quickly, it is clear that she wants to talk about the music. It has taken some time to get to where she is today.

Before we met, I watched her videos. Her first song is called The Bailey. She wrote it and then recorded it with a string quartet. It was just putting something out there, seeing what would happen, so when I see her singing, she strikes me as composed and confident. Her voice soars and as her friends tell her, she doesn't make her life easy; she writes complicated music, beautiful but very different with flashes of brilliance. It's as if she likes stretching her vocal range. There is nothing simple or easy about this first song and that makes her all the more interesting.

Very quickly, you can see that she is a musician. With all those years comes musical confidence, and knowledge of music theory. While she only started considering a career in music in 2013, she has been getting ready all her life. And she has had so many lives already.

Her beginnings have been the making of her. Sallay had a colourful childhood. Born in Kenya, she was raised between London, Maynooth, Gambia and then Sierra Leone. Now she is based in Dublin and all of these experiences have influenced her life, music and the way she sees the world.

On the day that I meet her, she is getting ready to go to Offaly, to stay with some friends in Birr. She plans to switch off from the world and concentrate on her craft - song-writing. Her face lights up as she talks about this creative hibernation. She is getting back to her core; quietening down, so she can take a guitar or violin in hand. Or she may sit at the keyboard. It is the start of a new year and she is excited about the future.

Her father is from Sierra Leone and her mother is Irish. They met in Kenya, when her mother was travelling, and teaching English. Sallay was born in Kenya and spent a year there but she hardly mentions that these days. She sees herself as belonging to two countries - Ireland and Sierra Leone. After moving so many times, Sallay decided that she wanted to do her Leaving Cert in Ireland and go to college here.

The music began when her mother bought her a violin at the age of four when they were living in London. Far from some child prodigy doing the Suzuki-method, there were group classes in school where the kids made scratchy sounds.

"My mother is Irish and I think that so many Irish mothers have this idea that they want their children to learn music. They want to give you opportunities and do the things which they didn't get a chance to do."

When the family moved to Maynooth, for the first time, Sallay continued with her music classes. But when she was 12, the family decided to move to Gambia. The idea was that it was close to Sierra Leone and safer.

"It was a culture shock to move from Maynooth to Gambia. We had read the Lonely Planet book but I still feel like sending them a letter to tell them that they had a lot to answer for."

She laughs at the difference between what she had expected and what it was really like.

"We thought that we were going to be stepping into some backward place; that we would see everyone with tribal stuff on, and it would be village life. The book showed the most extreme version. It'd be like showing one town in Sligo and saying, this is Ireland.

"We walked into the most fancy school in the capital and the kids were much wealthier than us. They had swimming pools and maids and I wasn't prepared for this privileged middle-class West African culture. It was a culture shock. They would go on holidays for months in the summer time and we couldn't afford to do that. They would head off to Disneyland.

"Kids can be very cruel the world over and I was bullied. They used to steal my homework. I was the new girl and I was shy and I didn't speak much. I wasn't open to the experience and people took that badly. I was very upset to be there. I wanted to be at home with my friends in Maynooth. They made fun of my accent and my body because I was skinny. Their culture is the opposite of here where everyone is trying to be skinny.

"It definitely makes you think about how different cultures view people and the way you are supposed to look. There are so many different ideas of beauty."

After her second year, just as she was settling in, the family moved to Sierra Leone. It was safer by then. I ask her why they did all the trekking, all that uprooting.

In fact, she was getting back to her roots.

"My family is there," she says. "It was great to be around cousins and aunties and form a connection with them. When you've got a lovely warm family in Sierra Leone, it gives you a bigger view of the world. You learn about West African culture and the way people communicate in so many different languages."

While in Gambia and Sierra Leone, music was still a constant. She played the keyboard and life could have carried on nicely in Sierra Leone but Sallay chose to come back to Ireland.

"I'm Irish and if I didn't go to college in Ireland, I was going to lose my connection. It's about having two nationalities.

"At the end of the day, I'm black. I'm never going to pass for Irish. Most weeks, I'm asked where I'm from. It's a mentality and it will change in time. Ireland has been a certain type of Ireland for so long, so I understand that question. But if you don't live in the place that you're from, you are always going to feel removed from there. If you're in a place and you look different to everyone else, it's important to know that side of you and to feel comfortable with it."

Sallay had to learn to feel comfortable to be an artist too. She had stayed working in the chemist while her mother was sick with cancer. She was grateful for the time to be home with her, and to understand her medications. But when she got better, Sallay's mother urged her to focus on her music. It was time.

One day she decided to take a break from pharmacy. She went on a long holiday to New York, alone, where she stayed cheaply in Airbnb accommodation. It was there that she read Julia Cameron's ground-breaking book The Artist's Way. Sallay explored the city and more importantly, her creative self. Solitude was the key. Fired-up by the positivity of the city, she also got great clarity.

She knew that she was meant to be a musician. If she took it seriously, the world would too. She came back to Dublin with a plan and passion. From then on, she has been singing her own song. See her for yourself.

Loah will perform as part of Imagining Ireland: 21st Century Song at the National Concert Hall, February 3 with a range of Irish artists; Paul Noonan, Stephen James Smith, Saint Sister, Maria Kelly and more. The concert will then go to the Barbican in March as part of Culture Ireland's GB18 Programme. NCH ickets from €27 on www.nch.ie. Loah's turban headwrap is by Brazilian designer Thais Muniz of Turbante

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