Writing an international hit was never on the to-do list of Sallay-Matu Garnett, aka singer-songwriter Loah. But that’s what she realized in 2014 when she co-wrote the song, someone new, with Hozier. An aerial hit around the world, it was accompanied by a video featuring game of thrones actress, Natalie Dormer. Looking back, Loah finds this phase of his career surreal.
“It’s wonderful. I’m so proud of this song. It’s such a banger. I love it. of something that people connect to on such a broad level.”
Did it change his life? Maybe – or maybe not: “My life went the way it was supposed to, anyway. I was always going to be a musician. I was always going to do the kind of music that I do. It’s nice to be part of pop music. I like pop. It’s nice to have your little stamp on it.
Garnett never chased success. And in the years that followed, she forged her own path. It is very different from the one followed by Hozier whom she encountered while studying at Trinity College Dublin. Instead of aiming for the charts, Loah blends raw confessional ballads, Irish folk and songwriting traditions from her father’s native Sierra Leone.
She has inspired these influences in a variety of fascinating ways. She sang with the collective Irish Women in Harmony (including the cover of The Cranberries’ dreams topping the charts), portrayed Mary Magdalene in a London production of Jesus Christ Superstar and co-presented, with Una Healy, the RTÉ television series Saturday night heart. Never one to take it easy, later this year she released a vinyl edition of When I wake upan EP of 1920s poems set to music.
Langston Hughes, Gladys Casely-Hayford, Eva Gore-Booth and WB Yeats are among the poets whose work Loah interprets on the collection. She was drawn to their writing and the 1920s in part because of what she sees as parallels to the present.
“They went through a similar period in the early 20th century. The war, the Spanish flu. All that crazy stuff. And the Great Depression that followed. [And] They had this brief period of the Harlem Renaissance and jazz. A truly optimistic moment. It was quite chaotic. »
Garnett’s own life has the lyrical quality of a take
ping novel. When she was 12, her family moved from the suburban town of Maynooth, County Kildare, Gambia in West Africa, a geographically tiny country with a population of around 2 million. Today, she is grateful for the experience. At the time, on the threshold of adolescence, it was quite different.
“Twelve years is a little too old to move. People think you’re still a kid. You might be a little too yourself,” she says.
“You start putting aside those relationships with people. And then you are taken away. I really struggled. It took me a good year to forgive my parents. Once I got into it and, I guess, gave up, it was really wonderful. I’m so glad we moved. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“It’s that Leonard Cohen thing of cracks that let the light in. This upheaval and challenge made me better able to handle the constant upheaval of an artistic career. And be pretty flexible and go with things. And be able to handle stress. And also to experience West Africa – seeing all my family there. Feel at home there. I’m really grateful for that.
She returned to Ireland to take his Leaving Cert. After that, she went to Trinity, where she met Hozier and qualified as a pharmacist. And, after the pandemic ended the music industry, she returned to her old life working part-time at a chemist.
“I was not in intensive care. [But] it was really difficult. You are there with people. When you do this job, you have a responsibility to keep a good vibe and to be balanced.
Amidst all of this were the Black Lives Matter protests. Being mixed-race, Garnett has spoken publicly about race, racism, and what people can do to question their own biases. But she does not wish to be seen primarily as the spokesperson for all Irish people of color. She’s a musician, not an activist. There are days when she wants to talk about songwriting and not about social justice.
“It’s like, ‘I don’t know – ask an expert’. Today I feel like going for coffee, jogging, listening to Kate Bush, listening to Kendrick’s new album. I don’t I don’t have an opinion today. I’m fair. It’s me who’s really human. There’s a bigger topic that’s really important. It’s wonderful that people feel more comfortable own these topics. And talk about their experience. It’s important not to force. Or make people feel responsible, like “they have to do it”. Especially if you’re black. ‘Okay, you’re a black artist. We have to talk about race. Am I? Today?”
Still, she believes the protests were important. It was as if history was unfolding right in front of us.
“Pandemic-like situations, times when people are stuck indoors – they’re dealing with a lot of things that they may have postponed. Emotions they nurtured. People feel out of control and upset. They go, “Well actually, what’s really going on?” It was really interesting, this moment. A lot of really good conversations came out of that. Time will tell what the thing that really stands out will be. There were also a lot of unnecessary things, which I also didn’t think came from the healthiest place. People hurt each other. Violence. It’s never easy to see. There will always be good and bad in a situation. It will be easier to look back [on it] in a few years.”
Besides writing songs, Loah has had success as an actor. She had a role in the recent adaptation of Sally Rooney Conversations with friends (she plays the character Evelyn). Having studied at Trinity, she believes that Rooney’s novels about beautiful, serious young people on the cobblestones of campus contain a lot of truth. It is a portrait that seems real to him. “There are a lot of really smart kids out there,” she says. “It’s quite shocking – you can grow up in your small town, whether it’s Maynooth or whatever. And you think you’re smart. And then you go to Trinity and you’re like, ‘oh my God – they’re so smart’. You realize that you’re actually pretty average. It’s humbling. And that’s good for you. I knew a lot of very handsome and very smart people there. Who were super ambitious and make amazing things in the world now. And I’m glad I went to be around them. They made me dream a little bigger for myself.
When I wake up out on vinyl in October.
Photographer: Nina Val
Accessories/jewelry designer: Bláithín Ennis
Fashion Designer: Niamh Ennis Creative
Director: Lawson Mpamé
Video director: Itchy Drew
Film production: John Anderson
Makeup: Shannan Kane