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Relative values: Sisters set to make big noise on the music scene


Loah and Feather

Loah and Feather






Loah and Feather

Two sisters, two bands, one harmony of voices. Meet Sallay Chandra Garnett and Emma Garnett, Irish-Sierra Leonean sisters known on stage respectively as Loah and Feather.

Both songwriters, they've brought a little stir of African sound to Ireland. Singing in very different, very rich voices, they mix in Sherbro and Krio, Sierra Leone's old and new languages. When they break for banter, it's in earthy Dublin accents.

If, earlier this year, you saw Loah at the Body and Soul festival, and then Feather at Electric Picnic, you may have done a double take, and thought 'Haven't I seen that backing vocalist before?'

Because in a rare loosening of the bonds of ego, they alternate roles and become each other's backing vocalists.

They both admit there's something special about singing as sisters. "It's pretty luscious," says Sallay, and Emma concurs, "The frequency of siblings is really good. It's easier to blend with each other rhythmically."

For Sallay, this owes as much to their friendship as to technical similarities. "Emma is a legend. We rely on each other. We know what we're trying to do harmonically, and we get the style."

The girls' polar approaches to making music is an insight to creativity. Older sister Sallay (Loah) writes with a piano and a guitar and doesn't hide how tortuous this can be. "I find the listless hours are the hardest. Getting up in the morning, facing yourself, staring at the blank page."

"I write so that I can gig," she says. "I like moving around, singing for people there and then. It's the utmost of being alive. There is a buzz you get which is unmatched by anything."

Emma is quite the opposite. Though she's approaching the public more timorously, "still trying to develop the sound", songs pour from her every day. Sitting in her bedroom she uses the computer programme Ableton, which allows her to sample different instruments and record vocal parts.

She has a cat, Bella. "Usually she's well behaved but sometimes she stands on my laptop keyboard and deletes all the best takes, or starts meowing for attention in the middle of a recording," laughs Emma.

You could safely put money on these girls, even in today's vague and multitudinous world of potential stars, whose music lives on Soundcloud, so rarely making it onto iTunes or Spotify to be sold for some cheese-paring sum.

This year Loah was signed to Ensemble Music, a new Irish music production company that take on more unusual, cross-genre acts that would otherwise be heading off to London.

Sallay sings soul, funk, jazz, folk, gospel (not all of these at once). Fans compare her to Sinead O'Connor, Grace Jones and Jeff Buckley (which she likes, though he's a man). She can pull out a hit: she co-wrote Someone New with Hozier for his latest album. Hozier, 24, and from Wicklow, is a megastar, and the album reached number 2 in the US charts.

Oh yes, and Sallay is a chemist; Emma a lecturer in astrophysics in NUI Maynooth. These are just part-time professions.

We talk over chai tea and chocolate biscuits in Sallay's shared flat, one floor of a Georgian house in the centre of Dublin. The sisters are nothing alike.

Sallay (28) is wide-eyed and expressive, speaking in long, verbose paragraphs. She is intense, warm company, welling up with laughter every few minutes.

Emma (24) is cool, relaxed, self-assured, with the attitude of an older sister. They share the trait of seeming old before their time. That, and "clothes stealing" from each other.

Their father, Tommy Garnett, is from a village in Sierra Leone and their mother, Anne Fitzgerald, is from Crumlin. "She's the quintessential Irish mammy. She's so sweet, and softly spoken, and chatty, but she's fierce!" says Sallay. "She does these insane things, but with a cup of tea and a calm little chat."

She had just "bopped off" to Kenya to teach English, where she met their dad. The sisters and two brothers grew up in Maynooth and spent four years in West Africa. They moved from Gambia to Sierra Leone in 2001 just before the 11-year civil war ended. Their father runs Environmental Foundation for Africa, a charity that dealt with the impact of that war on mineral mining.

Sallay says her adolescence was spent "locked in my room practising piano and violin".

"I was a total nerd. I just came home and cleaned my room and studied every day. I just really wanted to do well." Emma was a clever crammer, "I was good at science, so I did physics the whole way through."

But how does an over-achieving science geek stumble onto the precarious path of the musician? Sallay tells a story of competing drives, one finally overthrowing the other.

In their house, every creative whim was encouraged as well as a strict work ethic. "Our parents were into the idea of us being scientists, but also flooded us with amazing music our whole lives. Soul, funk, folk, Joni Mitchell, Miriam Makeba [a South African singer] booming in the kitchen. We're like, 'guys, it was bound to happen'."

Studying pharmacy at Trinity, Sallay always dreamt about being a musician. She suppressed the idea because of "Fear with a capital F".

"All through college I knew that I wanted to do it, but I tried to reject it. I wanted to have a nice little job and keep a low profile. But I had just an overwhelming urge to sing and to write music."

She was in bands, orchestras and choirs from her teens. As 'Babadorie', Sallay, Emma and their brother David sang catchy covers of African songs. She sang in a band called Jazzberries, a period of "innocence and fearlessness". If you put her name into YouTube you'll find clips of a sweet-voiced girl with long plaits and some grungily turned-out boys.

They did well, playing at Electric Picnic, and one day in 2011, she quit. "I wasn't expressing what I wanted to. I started losing confidence as the gigs got bigger and bigger, but not knowing why. I just stopped and disbanded. I hit a wall, because I wasn't developing and I had lost my way."

She drifted off the music scene, never to be heard, but she had quietly found a vocal coach, the redoubtable Judith Moch, a Dutch opera singer. She describes her as an "old school diva, her entire life is her art". Sallay had to adjust her rose-tinted notions of the rock 'n' roll existence.

"If you have a day of work, you don't go on a mad bender the night before," she says. "In alternative and pop music there is a glamour to not caring. But that doesn't work for me."

She is focused on being physically strong and healthy and is a disciplined yogi (she got her middle name, Chandra, in an Ashram).

In 2013 Sallay went to New York and lived with musicians in Brooklyn, "kind of the hipster dream really. People there, they don't apologise for being artists, which I think Irish people do!"

Loah, her first solo act, was born, named after the 'loa' or pagan deities worshipped by the Haitians, which Sallay read about in an Isabel Allende novel.

Kneeling on the sofa, breaking into belly laughter but maintaining a very zen, worldy-wise air, this is a girl who sees clearly the path before her. But her drive to succeed is running parallel with the disaster in Sierra Leone, which she reads about several times a day.

In April she returned there to see family, planning to soak up some traditional music in the countryside. In the same month the first fatalities of the deadly Ebola virus were recorded. "There were whispers of it in the news, but nobody was really worried," she says.

Sallay speaks from the position of both a chemist and a musician, who lives for gathering people close together - which Sierra Leoneans don't do anymore because of the risk of contagion.

"For some people it's just a headline, but it's really harrowing, because you've been there. It's your home. My thoughts and prayers go to the whole country. Sierra Leone has had a tough time already, and things were really starting to move again."

When the girls lived in the capital, Freetown, the UN peacekeeping force was a "solid presence". "Peace brings opportunity and security so people can plan ahead. People were really going for it, there were enterprises springing up," says Sallay.

"I feel so sad, and I have so much time and respect for the doctors and nurses that are still working. They are putting themselves at risk every day and I just think they are heroes."

Her eyes are sorrowful and the room feels very quiet. "My greatest challenge has been to surrender, and let it happen. To feel home is in jeopardy is scary. But it makes me feel more encouraged to keep going, because we all have to do the best we can."

Sallay's song The Bailey - "This is love this is government, these are 24 of our seven sins/This is here, this is paradise, we can share it, if we try" - hits on Sierra Leone's troubled history. Or so I thought.

"That was just about cliff-jumping in Howth with the lads from college," says Sallay. "It was one of those things where your friends say 'Would you do it?' I did it. The swell was a bit strong for me to swim in and I couldn't really get out. I felt very vulnerable.

"I jumped in to impress my friends. In what other areas of our lives are we just following along, cause we think it's a cool thing to do, and haven't really looked at the facts? Sometimes you don't really think about your actions. All your decisions, even what you're consuming, could be more considered."

Will Cry is a simple love song so desperately sad it would make you wish you had a broken heart, all the better to enjoy it. "Heartbreak, it's probably one of the biggest experiences you have. It's just like 'Jesus! What is this?'" she shrieks. "I mean I've heard gazillions of songs for the past 20 years about it, but when it actually is happening to you, you forget! That you've been warned by Al Greene, by Aretha Franklin, by everyone, ever. Nothing prepares you. It's shattering. But by the act of creation you somehow take a bit of power back," says Sallay.

She has plans for a small tour and an EP next year. It has helped that she is a friend of the family at Pickering Forest House, heiress Marina Guinness's home and a stomping ground for young musicians to rehearse, record music and even live in, as Glen Hansard and Kila have.

"It's really just a nurturing environment, and so many amazing artists have passed through there." She ended up on a Kila album, Soisin, singing Katy's Tune, when Marina pushed her into the room they were playing in.

But next to her, Emma is quietly ambitious. "If one of us makes it, it will be easier on the other one. Power in numbers," she grins.

Sallay cuts in, asserting herself as the older sister. "I want Emma to do the best she can, and better than me even. I don't want anything to happen to her, ever, ever, ever. I only want amazing things. Sometimes protectiveness comes across as kinda viscous, or overbearing."

Loah plays her debut headline gig at Twisted Pepper, November 15.

Feather plays at Royal Hibernian Academy, November 26.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Eve North, evenorth.net

STYLIST: All clothes and jewellery kindly provided by Folkster, 9 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2, folkster.com

MAKE-UP: Dearbhla Keenan and Amy Browne at Brown Sugar, brownsugar.ie

LOCATION: Very special thanks to the Irish Georgian Society, 58 South

William Street, igs.ie

Irish Independent