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Interview: Sonia Leigh talks Black Deer Festival and new live album

We sat down with the US country-rock star for a chat at last weekend’s festival.

Sonia Leigh
Credit: Sonia Leigh

Alt-country musician Sonia Leigh has won over plenty of fans in the UK with her eclectic style.

A staple of the festival circuit with appearances at Country to Country and Country Music Week, she’s also written two number ones hit for Zac Brown Band – Goodbye In Her Eyes and Sweet Annie – and toured with the likes of Eric Church and Loretta Lynn. Earlier this month she released her latest album, Sonia Leigh and Friends Live in London: Studio 3 Sessions.

I caught up with Sonia at Black Deer Festival, where she performed three times across the weekend. Read on to hear her thoughts on the festival, plans for new music and her work with music programme Supa Jam.

Hi Sonia! How have you been finding Black Deer?

So far it’s great. We just got in a couple of hours ago and got soundchecked. The stage sounds great, it looks great. So far so cool. I’m excited.

You’ve just released your new album Sonia Leigh and Friends Live In London. Why did you decide to record a live album?

I just felt like it was a cool opportunity. I brought together a lot of musicians that I’ve toured with and artists that I’ve been touring with the past five years. I thought it was important to capture that because I used to just dream of coming here, and now I’ve got people singing along and requesting songs. I’ve got loads of musicians that I play with that are like my second family. I come here at least twice a year, and so I felt like it was important to capture that spirit of music with all my friends if it was possible. It just happened to be that it ended up being at Abbey Road, and that opportunity you can’t turn down.

Do you have any favourite tracks on the album?

Yeah, I really enjoyed the opening and closing of Clair De Lune. A friend of mine, Jess, she’s a concert conductor here and she just nailed it. That was special to me because in high school I was supposed to be learning how to play that piece but I was writing songs instead so I never learned it. But I loved it. I used to fall asleep to it because I was like, ‘oh if I can fall asleep to it maybe it’ll help me learn it’, y’know? [laughs] I also have a new song called Letter To The Moon that Broken Witt Rebels played on with me, along with Gab from Katy Hurt’s band.

 

One of the things that struck me about the record was it’s got a similar energy to your live shows. Was that something you consciously wanted to do?

Absolutely. The point was I basically booked ten hours, because I mixed and matched a lot of those musicians too. They hadn’t really played together. So you’re feeding off each other’s styles which keeps you on your toes, and that’s the spirit of music, y’know? So it was very important to have those mess-ups. I kind of like that because it keeps it organic and edgy.

What keeps you coming back to the UK?

Because it’s awesome! Everyone says the grass is always greener and everyone that I speak to over here wants to come to America. But I love England. Everybody here’s so cool and I’ve learnt so much.

Do you find UK audiences react differently compared to in the US or other places?

It’s kind of similar. I’ve noticed in the time that I’ve been coming here how country and Americana music has changed, the idea of what it actually is. In Nashville and America the country music and Americana scene has regressed quite a bit, so there isn’t so much of the traditional Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams kind of stuff any more. And I see that in the artists who are developing over here.

Do you have a typical writing process?

It varies. Sometimes the song will be in my head and I’ll be singing it or I’ll sit down with a guitar and come up with a melody and put some lyrics to it. Sometimes I really have a heavy heart or just something I need to get out and I don’t even know what I’m about to say – I just start writing.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

Yes. And I get scared because sometimes it’s for months. But what I find is that if I just relax and stop putting pressure on myself and let it happen naturally, some really good songs fall out. If you’re not there it can feel empty to me. I kind of try to not be too hard on myself and hope it comes back, but it’s a real challenge.

Would you say festival crowds are different to other shows?

I don’t know. It depends where you’re at. Like in some bars sometimes they’re listening and you don’t know if they’re enjoying it until the end [laughs]. But I think that at festivals people are chilling about the whole day. So I don’t see much difference really.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

I’ve been asked this before and I always say Happy Birthday, because everyone in the world forever will know that song.

What does the rest of 2018 look like for you?

I’m hoping to get on some more tours in the fall, but we’re gonna start writing as well for the next record. I’m really gonna take my time before the next record, because it’s gonna be a studio record, for sure. And all the stuff that’s been building up and resonating, I wanna really take it in and get a good record for the next one.

Are there any plans to come back to the UK soon?

Oh man, you ain’t getting rid of me! I’m gonna come back as long as they keep inviting me back.

Can you tell us more about the next record? Is it going to be similar to your last one?

I don’t know! I know that on the side I’m working on a hip-hop record, and I have another side project called Rob The Man that I’m hoping to get out pretty soon. I’ve been working on this for two years now, and it’s not just music – it’s a lot of things coming along. I’m really excited about that.

You’ve been working with Supa Jam in the run-up to the festival – can you tell us more about that?

Absolutely, I was hoping we would get to talk about that. This is close to my heart because I left home when I was 17 so I came up with 50 dollars in my pocket and my guitar and a garbage bag full of clothes. I had a falling out with my parents that took a long time to heal. A lot of the students at Supa Jam are really coming from that place, so it’s a positive place for them. What I went through, I feel like I was made to be a part of it. It’s so weird it came to me – it’s almost so ironic that here I am being able to show these young people that there’s hope and being able to see it grow.

Sonia Leigh album Sonia Leigh and Friends Live In London is out now.

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