With the dust settling on the release of debut album ‘Breaded Crickets’, and several musical & audiovisual collaborations under her belt, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Leah Sohotra about working with the likes of Mick Flannery, taking inspiration from her experiences, and the process of creating in a new medium.
It’s been a long journey towards a long-player for Blarney-based singer and songwriter Leah Sohotra.
Born and raised in the American state of Vermont, and working in a variety of arts and DIY media while making a home in Cork for the last eight years, Sohotra has been present on the city’s folk scene, as well as on Cork’s community radio services, including multicultural online radio station Room101, and the now-defunct disapora station Irish Radio International.
She’s created a profound account of lived experiences, ranging from heartbreak, institutional racism and violence, to motherhood, muse, and friendship, in debut album ‘Breaded Crickets’, self-released in March.
It’s as musically considered as it is deeply personal, as lyrical imagery veers from rural life on both sides of the Atlantic, to the glories of longform Middle English poetry, while a deep respect for transatlantic folk traditions frames the affair, guitar and banjo occasionally punctuated by skittering electronics.
A massive amount of work and reflection, then, for a debut record, and the most recent milestone in a body of work that spans three years of solo gigs, as well as collaboration as part of Corkonian folk outfit Weird Dogs.
When asked about how the ideas behind the album have come together, Sohotra starts with the initial concept.
“You listen to the songs on the album, and they’re love songs… like, with platonic friendships, we tell (each other) our stories, and we get these pearls of wisdom from each other, that we keep going back to.
“They come from a really visceral place, sometimes, of heartbreak, and like ‘The Wolf in the Sheepskin Hood’ and ‘Grendel’, from a place of extreme emotional pain, which is inspiring for me.
“It starts with a lyrical idea. Sometimes I’ll be in a space that’s emotional, or I’ll be needing some catharsis. I’ve always loved writing, and I’ll write stream-of-consciousness, and I like to rhyme. I take time to shape it, and add melody thereafter.
“Because I’m not working with an instrument, the lyrics are where I get my sound from. I’ve been told the songs are quite lyric-heavy, but if there’s a gap... there’s no music (laughs).”
For this album, and subsequent live excursions, Sohotra has worked in collaboration with Corkonian multi-instrumentalist Martin Leahy, who works with Sohotra on taking her lyrics and vocal melodies a step further, playing a total of fifteen different instruments. She talks about how this partnership has come together, and how it’s given her vision a wider scope.
“How I’ll work with Martin, is we’ll talk about the song, and how it feels. He goes about trying to create it. He gets what I do, what I want from the song. I’ll describe it to him, in terms of tones and textures.
“He has a much better idea of instrumentation and what fits, but with ‘Wolf’, for example, I’d asked for electronics, he came up with some sounds, and I was like, ‘that’s exactly what I want’. I want these scratchy sounds, I want these buzzing sounds.
“At one point, there was banjo on a track, and y’know when you hit a string, and the whole string resonates, and buzzes, accidentally? You usually try to get rid of that, but I loved it, and wanted more of it.
“I guess the best way to put it is, we’re interested in the same genre of music, he’s worked with a lot of folk musicians, and he liked the music I was making, shortly after I’d started writing.
“In the middle of 2018, we started recording, and once we started, he went ahead on instrumentation, and it took off, because he had his own time and space to create and engineer it.”
Once writing and arrangements were finished, ‘Breaded Crickets’ was completed in Leahy’s home studio over the course of months. Inasmuch as a piece of art can ever be ‘finished’, Sohotra is delighted with the finished piece, and what it represents for her as a creative.
“From the beginning, it was my goal to create this, and have the album. Going forward, I feel more inspired now, than initially. I want to put it out there, I want to market it.
“Initially, having the album finished was my main goal, like other art projects I’ve done. When I had that finished, Martin said, ‘well, we need to do a release’ (laughs), and I was like ‘oh, why?’.
“We got the band together very quickly, a five-piece. Very good musicians, such a privilege to work with, and so lucky to get to do it right before the pandemic!”
Prominent on the album is single ‘Sam’s Song’, co-written with Leeside singer-songwriter Mick Flannery, who appears on vocals. This latest collaboration continues a working relationship that’s been ongoing for a while now, including multiple support slots for Flannery’s hometown excursions.
“I have a few on the album, like ‘Sam’s Song’, that were based on wanting to create something. I really love collaborating with other artists, and with him, it was, ‘we’re going to make something, and it’s going to be an experience we both share, y’know.’