After years of feeling at a loss and trapped, actress and singer Sallay-Matu Garnett has found a sense of ease in herself that has empowered her to follow her dreams, understand past bullying and displacement grievances, and societal conscience as a whole, which is reflected in her latest musical poetry offering
In 2021, musician Loah wrote a piece for The Journal in which she described the exact moment in 2010, during a performance, when she decided to turn her back on the life she had planned for herself and instead go after a career as a singer. She was studying pharmacy at Trinity, a career that appealed because it offered “stability, responsibility, and a useful body of knowledge”. After years of travelling between Ireland and West Africa, she wanted “to stay put!”, she wrote.
“What stands out for me most about that moment is the actual physical experience,” she says now when we talk the day after her shoot for Life magazine. “I feel like a lot of us, when we talk about the things we want, all these dreams and little small desires, big desires, we sometimes don’t step back and go, ‘why?’,” she laughs gently. “‘What is it that I want that for? What do I think it’s going to give me?’ It’s actually an experience that we wish to have. An embodied, physical experience, which is why sometimes when people get what they want, they’re really disappointed, because they don’t get that experience. It’s not the thing.”
They have been projecting, she explains: “‘If I get this, everything will be OK in my life.’
“‘If I get X, I’ll feel Y.’ I guess in the moment of singing those songs — I’d performed a lot, but that particular performance felt different. I had the physical experience of, ‘oh, this feels like a dream coming true. Cool’,” she says, laughing again.
This was the feeling she had been chasing. Music had always been a part of Loah and her siblings’ — a sister and two brothers — lives, thanks to their creative mother’s support. Growing up in Maynooth, they were driven to every music class under the sun. There was, she laughs, “a lot of violin”. Loah is her performing, public title; to friends and family, and in her private life, she is Sallay-Matu Garnett. She found the name in an Isabel Allende book.
In that moment during her college years, she realised that what she had thought she would get from pursuing a steady career was actually what she got from music. “And then being really shocked and going ‘oh, I have to rethink things. I should probably pursue this.’”
That was over 10 years ago now, and since then Loah, who featured on the Irish Women in Harmony single Dreams, has collaborated with, amongst others, Hozier, Lisa Hannigan, her sister Fehdah, and Bantum, and co-presented the primetime RTÉ show The Heart of Saturday Night with Una Healy. She released This Heart, an EP, in 2017, and a single, April Brave, in 2019.
Now, her latest work, When I Rise Up, is a vinyl mini-album of poetry from the 1920s, including pieces by Langston Hughes and W.B. Yeats, set to music — work that is a response to our global situation.
“You have to do check-ins, where you’re like, ‘am I chasing the dragon? Was that (feeling of a dream) real?’ It doesn’t feel like that a lot of the time,” she smiles, referring to a creative career. “There can be a lot of challenges, disappointments. But when you feel that again you’re like, ‘oh yeah’. This is a really unique relationship between me and what music does for my mind, my body and my soul.”
What happened next, after that moment of epiphany? Not a lot, at first, Loah smiles. “I reached the peak of the emotional summit — ‘I’m gonna do this’ — and then there was several years of not doing it,” she laughs. “That was where the dream was born. That’s the beginning, that’s definitely not the end. Then there’s other hills to climb.”
She became a pharmacist, and enjoyed the stability that gave her. But even though she liked her work, she wasn’t happy. “I started to feel that real heaviness again, a couple of years in. The heaviness of the soul. I loved my job, it was really hard but I really liked it, and I liked the people, so the heaviness was jarring. But you can’t ignore it, you know? There was nothing to complain about other than this is just coming from me.”
She called her dad in Sierra Leone, crying, and told him “I don’t know what to do”.
“And he was like, ‘I think you need to leave your job’,” she says bluntly. “‘It’s so obvious’. He said it very nicely.” And so she did, took a career break, went to New York, did The Artist’s Way. Started writing “slowly but surely”.
She came home to Ireland and readjusted the balance of her life. “I whittled it down to a couple of days pharmacy, and then the rest of the time, music. I decided to give myself economic stability; it can be really destructive for musicians and artists if you don’t have it. And then I started gigging. So I felt like, ‘ahh, this is a really good place to be’. It took years,” she adds, comparing the endeavour of carving out a creative career to a triathlon marathon. “It takes time to break habits and start new ones. And even just chasing something that you know you want, but you’re not sure if you deserve or can have. Or have the skills to have.
“Even a few days ago, I felt like I was at mile 18 of my sixtieth marathon,” she adds with a laugh. “This again? I know I can push past it, but you get all the thoughts of ‘what am I doing, this is crazy, I can’t’. And then two days later you’re like, ‘OK, it’s not that bad’.” In 2014, while she was still working part-time as a pharmacist, she was catapulted forward professionally by her co-writing credit on the song Someone New, written with long-time friend Hozier.
“I knew Andy [Andrew John Hozier-Byrne] for years. [At the time] I was still figuring out if I could write. I knew I could, but like, ‘can I write professionally? Is there a difference?’ And then you’re like ‘oh I’m part of an international hit’,” she smiles, adopts a puzzled look, laughs wryly. “So I guess the answer’s yes.”
You get the sense she didn’t feel quite ready for such success. “You have to learn to embody it. I don’t know if I received it properly really, at the time. I was like, ‘OK cool’. But it just felt like someone else’s thing. It felt like his thing.”
Many of the poems she picked for this latest work include mentions of wings or flying. Worked on in lockdown, recorded in 2020 — “it’s that thing when you’re trapped inside, and what you really want is to fly away”.
I mention a quote of hers I came across in an earlier interview, where she said that how other people treat her has no bearing on her self-esteem, and what a place of freedom that mindset is to exit within. This is not something she has always embodied, she says now.
“I was bullied in school, as a teenager. And it’s really amazing to be bullied, because it’s what everyone fears, public humiliation, and scorn. When it happens, it is as horrible as you think it’s going to be. And there’s no escaping the horror of that ostracisation.”
“On the one hand, it gives you a really unique perspective on humanity, of how cruel we can be. And also, there’s the fact of having faced the worst: ‘Ok, well this is the worst thing that I fear, so maybe I’m a bit free now.’ But I don’t know if I really got the freedom at the time. You still fear being bullied, because it was so unpleasant.”
Instead of feeling free from caring about the opinions of others, Loah describes the protective strategy she then adopted: “OK, new approach. Become as likeable as possible.” She laughs, then adds that obviously, that approach plays out terribly. “It’s just really hard. An impossible task.” But a habit she carried into her adult life.
Loah and her family had moved from Ireland to Sierra Leone when she was 12. An especially hard time for such change, she recalls, just when you are putting down roots independent of the family unit.
“I missed my friends so much. All my early letters are just full of anguish. It was around then that I started getting bullied, and when I look back, I wish I could say that it was the mean kids, but I was really grumpy. I don’t think I gave off a very open energy of I’m really happy to be here. I was just like ‘I hate you all’,” she laughs. “Kids are cruel, you know, they can’t see what’s behind that, which was a desire to be accepted.”
It was a really difficult emotional experience, she explains, compounded massively by the fact that her parents separated around this time.
“You’re still quite childlike, but you have so much awareness beyond your size. You can really feel into the big complex difficulties of what the adults are going through. But you have no agency to help them though. You feel really helpless. Also, you have your own really complex world view forming. Your own unique relationships. So yeah, it was shocking.”
Loah is funny, and wry, gently sarcastic, she laughs a lot throughout our conversation. But you also get the sense of someone who has the mindset sometimes referred to as a seeker, constantly questioning and looking for answers, potentially at times exhausting for the owner,
“It is exhausting,” she smiles. “It’s part of a dual nature, of being able to create these really intense, expressive pieces of work, and create a very dynamic life, but then also, you trip yourself up by plummeting into the depths of nihilism and worst-case scenarios. And I can go so extreme with every emotion that I get to experience, like, joy, gratitude, and overwhelming sort of self-torture, anger… ‘will I ever have the answer’, you know,” she laughs.
She thinks it was at this early age, at a time of so much turmoil and change in her life, that this mindset bedded in. As did a sense of vulnerability. “Adolescence does kind of coalesce the pathos psyche. But definitely I was like, ‘oooh, people aren’t safe. People are not safe’.”
The need to people please was further cemented. And to be what she describes as “this vision of external perfection. And glee and fun and cheerfulness. Do not be vulnerable. Bullying trains you that public vulnerability is not safe,” she adds. It’s a thought process she is now working at actively undoing.
It’s around now that she engages in what she describes as “a huge act of public vulnerability. Which I have decidedly turned to, to go ‘I’m doing this’. Because I know that there can be scorn around the corner. Every public figure, at some stage, will experience a negative reaction to something. Even if it’s the most inane stupid thing ever.”
She pauses, looks away as if she might be considering something. When she turns back, Loah says: “A couple of years ago, and I don’t really speak about this publicly, or at least I haven’t done, anywhere, I actually became Christian again, if that makes sense.”
She was raised as a Catholic in Ireland, she explains, but like many, became disillusioned with the church. “But a few years ago, through various really buffeting experiences that were so challenging, it was like, ‘I don’t think I can do life anymore, without a raft. Genuinely, like I’m going to have to read some hardcore philosophy to find out what the point is’.”
It is at moments like that, she continues, that you are “at your most open to something supernatural. And I was like, ‘I think… am I going back to Christ?’ I don’t think I ever thought that would happen in my life, ever.”
A healer suggested it to her as a possibility. It’s not that she had never experienced Christianity, she smiles. Family in Sierra Leone are Christians, as are friends and fellow artists. She even sang in a Christian choir.
“And it just completely went over my head all the time. Nothing,” she laughs. The moment she’s describing felt like suddenly a light went off. “I was like, ‘oh, this is it for me’. It was a really physical, embodied, deep aligning experience, where I was like, ‘this feels like absolute truth again. This is right.’ It was like hearing your name being called, and you haven’t heard it for years or something,” she smiles.
This damascene moment was about four years ago. And, just like in the aftermath of the breakthrough in which she decided to become a singer, nothing much happened next, Loah smiles wryly.
“I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m going to accept Christ’. It didn’t change anything, didn’t change my lifestyle, my habits. For a year and a half I was still drinking, and partying, doing everything. I still drink,” she adds. “But I lived in the way of someone where, if you looked a bit more closely, you’d be like, ‘is she OK? Does she believe in living?’”
In 2019, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar in the Barbican Theatre in London. “It was like a supernatural joke. ‘OK, I get it. Sure, OK cool’. And then I still didn’t really get it though.”
Just before the pandemic, she was planning to move to New York, and then, like all of us, was instead completely grounded. Suddenly there were no more distractions.
“Then it was activated. I was like, ‘we’re all facing ourselves now, and, remember that problem I had a little while ago, and I got an answer, and I didn’t do anything with it, maybe let’s explore that’.”
She was invited to join a weekly online prayer group. “It’s just literally really chilled, where a bunch of us meet and pray for each other, and discuss our challenges, and how we can apply biblical principles to our lives. It’s like, ‘who am I?’” she says happily.
The “container of privacy” the pandemic created gave her the room to properly consider these things. “And really explore, ‘is this real for me, or is this another fad, because I’m an artist? Am I having my Madonna kabala moment?’” she bursts out laughing. “You have to ask yourself those questions. None of us are immune. No shade, I really loved that album.”
It wasn’t a fad though. And it’s this that has helped her chip away at the people-pleasing habits that set in during her early teens.
“I was really starting to live from this space of, ‘my gosh, if I really believe this — that I’m so loved, by the divine creator — why would I ever care what anyone thinks of me?’ Like ‘why would I ever trust an opinion other than the one of that who made me?’ It starts to seem absurd, to even consider looking for your approval from anywhere else. I felt this is the freedom that I was sort of looking for, and didn’t even know how to name.”
The move to West Africa for her teenage years brought positives too. She has spoken about how it helped prepare her for the change and uncertainty of an artist’s life. “It’s all character building,” Loah grins. “And my parents knew, we’ve got to get them to West Africa while they’re still kids. You know, they’re Black Irish, and there’s not that many Black Irish people, they need to feel a sense of wholeness, and the feeling that West Africa is home as well.
“I’m really Irish,” she adds, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. But I feel like my Irishness is more secure, because my sense of what I really am is more secure, having experienced West Africa. Going there, and knowing my family, and speaking the language. There’s no insecurity, or small part of me that’s like ‘what if the haters are right? What if racists are right?’”
Interrogating every aspect of your identity brings a sense of security. “Worst-case scenario, where a completely dictatorial government takes over, and there’s a big pogrom, and they take out everyone with dark skin, where would that leave me? Where would that leave people of colour, that are Irish? Does that make us less Irish? Or does that mean we’re worthless? No.”
That might seem morbid, she smiles, but it is this kind of rigorous thinking that allows her “to stand in front of the president, or whoever, anyone, and be like, ‘I’m perfectly OK, I’m allowed to be alive’”.
It has also allowed her a new sense of confidence in her career. The need for a rigid plan no longer exists. She makes her plans, but knows that things might change, and that is fine. This autumn she will tour America with Alex Cameron. She also has a thriving acting career alongside her music — she recently appeared in Conversations with Friends, and is spending the summer shooting a TV show in Dublin.
“After the events of the last years, I feel like I truly do not know what’s happening. There’s that really funny phrase, ‘humans make plans and God laughs’. I’ll make plans, this is what I want to do. But I think like a lot of us now, I have a certain detachment.”
Loah’s most recent release is “When I Rise Up”, an EP of poetry from the 1920s set to music. Loah chose works by several poets who originate in Ireland, the United States, and Sierra Leone. She is currently running a campaign for a limited-edition vinyl via Diggers Factory. When the minimum pre-order amount is reached, Diggers will make the vinyl and post it to everyone who has ordered. Orders must be placed before October 2022. See diggersfactory.com/vinyl/255702