Loah is an Irish-Sierra Leonean musician whose refreshing, genre-hopping ArtSoul music and mesmerising live performances affirm her as one of Ireland’s most exciting young artists. She’s traded her double life of pharmacist-by-day, musician-by-night for full-time music-making, and is now one of a select few artists represented by Ensemble, a new Dublin-based music company run by a group of musicians and friends who came up on the Trinity scene. Their intention is to present music in a different way, showcasing music in unconventional settings so as to create a space for more neutral audience observation and participation. Loah performed in the somewhat eery setting of the Freemason’s Hall in September for the launch of Ensemble, and she says unusual venues work well for her music, which itself is “genre presented completely without any normal context” . Growing up, Loah spent blocks of her development in Maynooth, Gambia, Sierra Leone and London, making the cultural overload that comes from everyday experience of both open-air Djembe drumming and the local Ceoltais an essential part of her ArtSoul sound of today. Coming back to Ireland with an exposure to and love of a set of new cultural references from West African pop music to Caribbean Dance Hall, Loah experienced a personal remove and disassociation from Irish society. As well as realising she needed to re-integrate herself, she also found that the people she had played with in Ireland had moved on down more conventional tracks that were no longer available to her. While she now had a wider musical approach, she didn’t have the technicality anymore. It was at this point that Loah made her own space for expression, playing piano and writing songs alone.
You lived in New York for a summer recently. In what way did your time in the unfamiliar environment there impact your musical identity?
Yeah, that was huge. Funnily enough I played very little music there, but it changed me extremely. It was more of a broader artistic development that happened there. The artists there are so convicted, it’s this culture trait. Even if you’re not convicted, you portray it; “Fake it ’til you make it!”. So that was huge because I think we’re like the opposite to that here, we’re like, “Oh do you wanna hear my terrible song? I did get nominated for a Grammy but it’s sooo terrible..” . That modesty is great, but I do think the Irish self-deprecation can go too far and stop us from doing things. The crazy enthusiasm people have for their own work because of the amount of competition over there is something I also absorbed. You really have to believe in it and fall in love with your own ideas, just like anyone I know that’s a good artist. It seems like a sort of selfish act, so it’s hard to commit to the individualistic nature of what it is to be an artist. Another big thing for me was that in New York there’s a lot of stuff going on with the black community. I’ve always listened to a lot of black music, and I sang funk and jazz when I was in college. While I definitely got it, I didn’t get it as much as when I was over there. I started to really appreciate my heritage, because the black community over there are so disjointed. There’s so much tension there. I felt very grateful for how much they share their art with us, because the people behind the music we enjoy are really struggling, going through so many inner battles just to share their work. So I thought, what am I sharing? I’m just sort of floating along! Then I thought, the best thing I can give is my story. People there were really interested in my background, and someone even said to me, “You’re so lucky you know where you’re from, I don’t know where I’m from” . That really resonated with me, it blew my mind. We just take that for granted. So I thought I really need to look at home and express that. I spent a lot of time alone at jazz gigs there, where some of the best musicians in the world are there just shredding their hearts and souls in these tiny clubs. Jazz is this hot, energetic, expressive music with a huge intention behind it, the intention being to challenge people and musicians, to break down boundaries and stretch what music is. That’s the energy I want. I also did the book “The Artist’s Way” while I was there. I was quite blocked before I went to New York, I didn’t know what direction I was going, it was a dark period where I just didn’t know how to approach art. So doing that course while in this really intense cultural centre was explosive, I’m still recovering!
During your performance at the Freemason’s Hall, you mentioned that you like to use different languages you learned growing up to convey certain tones in your music.
Yeah, that’s really fun. We only really started learning some West African languages when we moved there in my early teens, so I was young enough to get into it. Krio, the main language in Sierra Leone, is really emphatic. It can be quite an intense, descriptive language. It feels very strong and people deliver it in that way. It’s great for story-telling because of its really dramatic tone. Every word is really important, there isn’t much flowery, polite language like English. Krio is obviously a full language now, but that emphatic essence that came from its beginnings as a simplification of English is still there, so it’s very get-your-point-across. There’s a phrase in one of my songs which basically means, “With all the time you’ve wasted, you’ll get your shit together” . In Krio you use the expression, “Sober up!” to say, “Get with it!” . Cortege is sung in Sherbro, which is my Granddad’s language and is only spoken by the Sherbro people. So it’s really private. It’s just this one tribe, and that tribe has its own language and rules and things. Using Sherbro, you can be so expressive and so from the heart in a way you might otherwise be embarrassed to be. I love that, that you can be really honest, and share with everyone. I have thoughts in different languages all the time, so to not use them in my art would be the biggest lie! If I was gonna swear, I’d speak in Spanish, you know? It’s a truer reflection of the person that I am now.
How does it feel performing in Sherbo? On the one hand being so expressive and so intimate, and on the other hand having an audience that doesn’t understand what you’re saying?
I actually think it’s the most liberating thing. People connect to that song more than any of the others, since I don’t hold back at all. I never feel any limitation or hesitance within myself, caus I’m like, “they don’t know what I’m saying!” . Because of that freedom, I perform that song with more heart than any of my others. It’s ironic that the song that nobody understands is the song that people connect to most. I’ve started to introduce that more, because the liberation of that has freed me up artistically. The confidence to do that definitely came from working with Discovery Gospel Choir in Dublin. We sing in at least 25 different languages, and everybody brings a gospel song from their country. Working with them, I started to wonder why I wasn’t singing in my languages.
How does that relate to genre for you? Do you approach your musicalities in the same way you do language?
Yeah, you’ve nailed it on the head there. When you’re so connected to many different types of sounds, you can draw on any of them to convey what you need. An intense power chord on a guitar has such a specific sort of intensity that you just get, and similarly there’s this softness that you can convey with Sherbro, made even more fragile by the fact I’m not a native speaker. The way I can deliver it is so specific. You can get every layer that you want. It’s so lovely being able to draw on all of that very naturally, so yeah there’s no difference, it’s like, “I’m trying to say this, and the only thing that will do that is a flamenco groove!” . Like the way Bobby McFerrin talks about underlying universal languages in music, it’s never so alien that people don’t get it. Although I’m finding now that sometimes it can alienate the musicians I play with a little bit, because it requires a really wide breadth of listening and understanding. So while I love that, and want to refine that and always operate from that place, I’d also like to have my own sound within that if that’s possible. I feel like that’s my life’s work, hopefully I’ll get there!
You also mentioned at your concert in the Freemason’s Hall that Cortege is about the feminine strength in the family.
Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting subject, women in music. On the one hand there is this desire not to be classed as a woman, you just want to be a musician… but I am a woman! So it is a different experience, you’re in a different type of body and you have different feelings and experiences. I very much feel that the act of writing music is a very feminine act, that is, femininity as a quality which anyone regardless of gender identity can possess. If we’re just talking about the gender-stereotypical energy required to compose, it’s really submissive. You have to surrender and let it come, you can’t force it, so I feel like the creation of art is very “feminine” in that way. To finish it you need that stereotypical masculine energy, to get it out there and hone it. Virginia Woolf wrote an essay on the androgynous mind of the artist and that amazing union between this binary that goes on in creating art. I suppose what I find in our society is this complete denial of femininity as a strength. Feminine qualities are so often seen as weakness and they’re undermined. Society says, “Those are nice, but we’re more interested in power and goal setting and intensity and forcing”. I have found that doing that to myself led me into creative block. Being an intense goal-setter was wonderful in the external world, and it got me a lot of things, but it also completely cut me off from my nature, which is to write. Through coming back to writing and being more “feminine” or sensitive and starting to express more, I started to appreciate the role of women in my life, like my mother or my friend’s mothers. The gentle, pervasiveness of the feminine spirit that is just so subtle and humble and keeps things together. It’s so subtle and fluid, and it doesn’t announce itself. Around that time when I was thinking so much about this, and the wonderfulness of certain feminine qualities, my friend’s mother passed away. Apart from their mum, the family was all boys, and my friend said to me, “We don’t know how to talk to each other. Our mum kept us together and we didn’t even notice.” . It was so traumatic to hear that. That really struck me, so I wrote the song for him and for his mum, kind of as an ode to that. It was a microcosmic occurrence of something macrocosmic. There’s this undermining of the feminine energy, and it’s the thing that creates life, creates art, creates everything. It’s this moving, accepting, creative energy and we bring our masculine energy to it to make stuff out of it. There’s a Puccini quote about writing Madame Butterfly where he says that he didn’t compose Madame Butterfly, it came through him and he was just there to put it on the page. For me that’s exactly the humility of the feminine spirit, like saying, “I’m just letting this move through me.” I’ve gone on a long inner journey to realise that!
Growing up you were exposed to and entrenched in so many different musicalities. How does that affect your music-making now?
It’s easy for me to move in and out of different musicalities naturally, however it’s difficult for me to write out music for highly educated musicians. So there’s a bit of a gap in my skills in terms of where my ideas are at and what I can actually communicate, which is quite a technical thing. It can be a bit of a struggle for me to get my ideas across, but I’m working on it so the ideas are clearer so people feel that they’re involved in something. My sister is a great influence on me in that regard because she’s an amazing producer of her own demos. She has a clearer sound by virtue of her being better with technology. Being so skilled with individualistic technology like Ableton makes it easier for her to portray complicated fusion.
I read something you said, which was “The best hope you have of telling a good story is talking about the place you’re from” .
That’s actually a Zadie Smith quote, which I read and I was like, “Yeah, I feel ya!”. Yeah.. Foreign and at home.. You know I sometimes feel I have the privilege of even greater acceptance in Ireland, because there’s no pressure for me to conform. I’m already different. So I have this kind of unique, original card, which makes people think, “Well, you’re obviously not going to be exactly the same as me”. It’s like a free pass to be different. In any given music scene, no-one’s expecting me to deliver the best of that world because I’m not fully a part of it. So in that way it’s an amazing privilege and advantage. I’m not of any family, I’ve no ties to anything particularly, so I have this free pass to just be involved with a few things and I don’t have to prove myself too much in any of them. I’m on the fringe, but then that also leaves me really lonely. In a way, to be an artist that’s the ideal set up because you’re an outsider, and you get to kind of see the whole picture from the outside. But I can also see lots from within. Like I have a lot of cultural references, but I’m also somewhat separated. That lets me tell the whole story from a lot of points of view and let’s everyone hear themselves in my stories while they know it’s different. It’s a nice place to be. I think it took me a while to accept that, I think I used to just want to be like everyone else, like, “I hate my hair, I wish I was this colour, no I wish I was that colour ..!” I had many years of feeling lonely and like an outsider before I realised it was the single biggest blessing of my life.
That must have been so amazingly liberating, realising that what made you feel lonely and alienated was actually the best thing!
Yeah, years of turmoil ending in me thinking, “This is great!” . There’s no rule book for what anyone should be, but there certainly isn’t one for me. Even in New York where there’s a larger black community, my accent meant that everyone was coming at me blank, completely stumped. They didn’t know how to place me, and that’s great because that moment of curiosity gives me the freedom to radiate whatever. Even my family in Sierra Leone, they know that we’re mixed, so they don’t expect the fullness from us, but at the same time we’re obviously deeply entrenched in that family life. So in the last few years I’ve really appreciated that.
So fluidity is important for you artistically?
Yeah, I guess one thing is you have to be very okay in yourself though, to be that way. So I think that that has brought me closer to my sister, say, over the last few years. We get each other and we work on each other’s projects. She was singing with me at the Ensemble label launch at the Freemason’s Hall and we’re making a video together later. We’ve sort of come to similar places within ourselves where we’re like, “Oh we’re different, but we fit, but we don’t..” and that makes us very inspiring to each other musically. We kind of have a little scene of our own, our family scene. One of our brothers is a musician as well, living in Germany, he’s at a different place to us now, doing a lot of electronic music. So yeah we have this freedom to move, but it’s nice to be grounded with each other, because you need something to ground yourself sometimes. A feeling of being home.
Words: Cara Spelman
Illustrations: Lisa O’Sullivan