After the recent Imagining Ireland showcase at the Barbican in London, the Guardian nailed it in a review by saying “this was Ireland, but not as we are told we know it”.
The concert could easily have been called Reimagining Ireland. Curated by Bell X1’s Paul Noonan and Lisa Hannigan, it was a celebration of Irish music rinsed of all preconceptions and cliche – featuring hip-hop, grime, spoken word, soul, avant-garde composition and electronica as well as the folk and trad you’d expect.
Dublin-based singer-songwriter Loah featured at the London Concert, sharing a stage with Mango & Mathman, Seamus Fogarty, Saint Sister, Brian Deady, J Colleran, Stephen James Smith, Maria Kelly, Dowry and Crash Ensemble. The performance followed a showcase at the National Concert Hall a few weeks before – itself something of a landmark event, a snapshot of an eclectic, boundary-breaking era in Irish music.
Chatting over the phone, Loah says she’d usually try to avoid seeking praise “from the outside”, but adds that the Guardian piece “was validating, for people to see our scene the way we see it”.
The way Loah sees the Irish scene is one of collaboration, exploration and mutual respect. Before her current solo venture as Loah, Sallay Matu Garnett co-wrote Hozier’s Someone New and appeared on his debut album after meeting him through the Trinity College music scene. She also appeared on Kila’s album Soisin, performed with Congolese guitar virtuoso Niwel Tsumbu and the Discovery Gospel Choir and was a regular on the Dublin jazz scene.
But Sallay was never really destined to be a bit-player, even in high-profile collaborations. Her 2014 videos for Cortege and The Bailey ensured an immediate pass onto the ones to watch lists. The initial hook was her stunning voice – one of the most striking to come out of Ireland in years, with hints of the jazz and R&B greats, as well as the melancholy of Beth Gibbons or London Grammar’s Hannah Reid. Her music also sheds light on her upbringing between Ireland and Sierra Leone, flitting between loose west African jazzy inflections and aching chamber music.
Sallay admits that this initial wave of public interest knocked her off course slightly, as she “hadn’t really got a solid writing discipline” back then. “I have a tendency to be a workaholic. My parents grew up working class, so I have that consciousness of just feeling useful when i’m working,” she says.
“But I had a couple of years when I started my career, as I started to grow in popularity and people started finding out about me I found I got creatively blocked. The exposure was a little bit daunting. I battled for quite a while, and the block finally dissolved about a year ago.
“So I’m grateful for being able to accept and realise you’re not always in creative flow. It comes and goes, so when I have it and when I’m inspired to work, like I am now, I’m absolutely ravenous, as I don’t know when that darkness will descend again. I want to make the most of this flow and the vitality and energy that comes with that. I’m delighted when I wake up with so many things to do.”
Over the past year or so, there’ve been plenty of artists lining up to give Loah things to do. After a few years of head-turning gigs and festival slots, she finally released her debut EP This Heart in 2017, and she has featured on the soulful hip-hop track July 16th by Loud Motive, and the The Scratch’s haunting folk spiritual Shadow. Her best feature to date is the team-up with Cork electronic producer Bantum on Take It – a slithery electro-pop earworm. And just a few days before our chat, she was part of the flagship St Patrick’s Day concert Equivalent Exchange, curated by electronic composer and producer Kormac, co-writing one of the performance pieces.
This inclusiveness and willingness to disregard borders has been a feature of Loah’s music from the off. She says she’s still touched that people barely notice when she segues between English and the Sierra Leonean Sherbro language in songs like This Heart and Cortege, as if it’s not something ‘other’, it’s just her one voice.
“I don’t know if it can be confusing for people, but I respect that,” she says. “But that’s how I grew up so I don’t know how to be any other way. I think in different languages, I have random thoughts in Krio and talk to my sister and my dad in Krio. But it’s a rare enough thing so I guess i’m allowing people into a really strange personal world. I feel a lot of gratitude for how people are open to my bizarre little mixed race head.”
She goes a step further than most on the give-and-take notion of collaboration, admitting: “I don’t believe in originality.” Taken out of context it’s a clickbait headline or a pull quote, but she elaborates: “You think you can have an original take on something but you’re always standing on the shoulders of giants.
“Of course there are rare moments in history when people have gone completely off script, but it really is rare. It’s almost arrogant to think that you could be completely original, because everything you’ve learned in art is through the medium of hearing it from other humans. It’s important to come up with your own response or version. Everything is really transient, I think it’s all just a big human experiment of creating stuff, and finding people you enjoy making it with.”
She fully admits the Irish scene can be very cosy, with a small-town mentality at grass-roots level: “Like often these things happen if someone knows your cousin or you met at a gig or through someone at college, or someone you worked on a deli counter with!”
There’s an obvious competition between acts in Ireland at the minute. At the club level there are only so many venues and festival slots to go round, and there’s a daily PR scramble for for social media hits. Loah agrees to a certain extent, but laughs at the idea of proper rivalry, and there won’t be any beefs in the Irish music scene any time soon.
“Imagine a beef in Ireland, like you’d walk into the Spar and see them, we’d all be wiped out in a week! It’d be ridiculous. Seriously though, you’re too on top of everyone’s business to have any serious beef with people. It’s like we’ve been thrown in together, we’re too small to be anything other than mates so that’s the beauty of it.
“It makes for really true, honest art as well, because it feels safe to create from the heart, and you’re not bogged down by, ‘I need to be better than this person’. It’s more like, ‘I wanna be as good as my mates’. That’s a better motivator, that’s better than competition.”
It’s safe to say there’ll be no daggers at the Red Bull Free Gaff showcase this weekend. Loah has been rounded up along with a squad of other Irish artists for a secret house party that sticks to the BYOB Good Friday underground buzz of years past, before the recent lifting of the booze ban. She’s joining her Imagining Ireland buddies, the Dublin grime duo Mango x Mathman, and Bantum, who she’ll be working with again soon. The bill goes heavy on hip-hop, techno, house, soul, disco and reggae, pop and beyond, with sets by Wyvern Lingo, JYellowL, Krescent, Palms Trax and loads more — there’s no space for the house party eejit in the corner with an acoustic guitar singing Wonderwall.
“There’ll be a load of cool heads around the place, and it’s such a good snapshot of how the scene is right now,” she says. “Loads of these artists are based in the capital, and doing really well spanning so many genres. We’re very lucky, we have a unique little pot here.”
Loah isn’t content to be hanging round Irish house parties for long, though. After a few years as ‘one to watch’, she’s hit the ground running this year. She’s already started working with a new collaborator “to bounce ideas off and develop a little vibe together that will translate into a new direction”. She has also been working further with Bantum, and she’s playing at Other Voices live at the Helix on April 11, as well as the inevitable festival slots to come.
“I’m planning on building more of a team this year to help me with others sides of this,” she says. “For sure I appreciate being inspired and having people want work with me and I don’t wanna take this for granted.
She adds: “I still feel like in Ireland I have so much to do, and even expanding across the continent. Obviously if I was to go on tour in Germany now, there’d be nobody at any of my shows, so I have a wider view on this.
“I’m not thinking, ‘Ah cool, I’ve landed, I’m here’. I’m always trying to work out how I can slot into this really exciting time in music. I really feel like I’ve finally sprouted, but I wouldn’t see it as the whole flower. The bud has sprouted and that leaves me in a beginner’s mind state. I feel like I’m at the beginning of the journey, and that’s a nice place to be.”
- Loah plays the Red Bull Free Gaff party tomorrow (Saturday). Free Gaff runs at a secret Dublin location tonight, tomorrow and Sunday. Full info here (but you may be too late, it’s sold out)