When Sonia Leigh was seven years old, she discovered a record player and an old Willie Nelson single in the house she moved into, and using an old guitar, tried to copy what she heard. She recalls, “There was an old nylon string guitar with three strings on it, and I would just play on one string and try to mimic that record, long before I knew what I was doing”. Although Leigh moved around often during her childhood, all along the Bible Belt and Midwest US, music remained a constant presence as her father wrote and played songs. Leigh stole her Dad’s guitar in order to teach herself some chords, and once she mastered the art of changing them quickly enough, she began to compose some of her own material.
Leigh’s musical influences are diverse and cover multiple genres; as a young girl, her Grandfather would sing Hank Williams songs at family gatherings, of course her Dad’s country music record collection and own songs, and her Mum’s favourite classic rock songs have also had a huge influence. “I grew up listening to country music with my Dad”, she recalls, “but rock slowly became one of the biggest parts of the picture. I just loved it all, and I wanted to play it all. I was never someone who wanted to play only one style. I just wanted to play music”. When she became a teenager, the new age of grunge seemed to awaken something in Leigh, “In my teens, I got into Alice In Chains, Alanis Morrisette, The Cranberries, Sheryl Crow, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Hole”, she explains. “That completely fed my fire. I’m a huge fan of Tupac, too. My mum and I were really poor and came up in a hard place, so I really resonated with his lyrics. Then I left home and was on my own at 17, and really had to hustle a lot”.
Another great inspiration is Melissa Etheridge, and as with Willie Nelson, Leigh has gone from fan to collaborator. In March 2018, Sonia was one of the performers on the Melissa Etheridge Cruise. “I learned how to play guitar studying her records,” says Leigh, “So now to be friends with her and to work with her is monumental for me.”
Leigh started writing songs for friends, and, at age 14, a family friend heard she had been writing music. Says Leigh, “You want to talk about a domino effect of one thing leading to another? Friends would come over and my Dad would get the guitar out, and sometimes I would play a song I'd written. So a friend asked me to write her boyfriend a song, then she took me up to his work and had me play the song for him. He told me I was really good and said he would pay for me to go to a studio”. This eventually lead to Leigh recording her first album, ‘Remember Me’.
In January 2018 Leigh released ‘Mad Hatter’, her latest album of new songs. With this album, Leigh further explored her numerous influences and set to expand on them even further. She says, “I love the roots of country and rock ‘n’ roll, but I also love the curiosity and desire that I felt delving into new styles for ‘Mad Hatter’. I'm a big fan of the Killers, Sia and Halsey, and getting into this new area of music, I appreciate it and love it. I have this one side, but I have a lot of other music that I wanted to express, and I needed to get that out unapologetically”.
‘Sonia Leigh and Friends: Studio 3 Sessions’ was recorded over one 10-hour session, and each track was recorded live. In this age of vastly over-produced music, it shows a refreshingly organic and honest approach. Recorded at Studio 3 at the iconic Abbey Road Studios, where ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was recorded, this album sees Sonia collaborate with hand picked UK musicians including three quarters of Broken Witt Rebels - James Tranter, James Dudley and Luke Davis, plus some surprise cameos! The album also features Katy Hurt, who Leigh describes as “one of the best country artists to come out of the UK...she reminds me of myself when I was younger, because she's always writing, writing”.
Leigh had this to say about her latest album, “This record was a last-minute decision. I had a friend who worked at Abbey Road and we thought, ‘This should be fun to do’. I wanted to keep it real, raw and honest. I co-produced ‘Mad Hatter’ and I got to experiment with making beats and sounds, but I wanted to show people I haven't forgotten about my roots, and have fun with my friends”. As a songwriter, Leigh had co-penned a couple of number 1 hits with Zac Brown Band, including ‘Sweet Annie’ (from the certified gold Grammy-award winning album ‘Uncaged’), which she performs on this latest album.
This album features three tracks from her latest studio album, ‘Mad Hatter’, together with some older tracks such as ‘Bar’ and ‘My Name is Money’ from the 2011 ‘1978 December’ album, plus exclusive tracks that Leigh wanted to perform in this unique studio setting. “I wanted it to say ‘and friends’ in the title”, she explains, “because I wanted it to reflect what the album's about, which is me and the people I've met on my journey while touring in the UK, coming together and making music”. The album opens (and closes) with parts of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, by pianist Jessie Maryon Davies, which is the piece that Leigh was meant to be learning when she was at high school, when she instead decided to learn some Melissa Etheridge sheet music. Having the piano piece at the beginning serves as something of an aural palate cleanser and I have no idea quite what to expect from the next track.
First vocal track ‘Alabama Bound’ has an easy strumming guitar beat which reminds me of ‘Born on the Bayou’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Leigh’s vocals are clear and the song initially feels like a gentle breeze, though I can totally see people line-dancing to this! After reading some live reviews, I discover the song is about moving from the family’s broken home to the middle of Alabama when Leigh was a child, and it definitely has that swaying motion of a road trip. ‘My Name is Money’ ramps up the tempo slightly, bringing a smoky rawness to Leigh’s vocal in places. This song is about the evils of money, rather than the benefits, and is a crowd favourite at Leigh’s live shows. ‘Bar’ is out and out country that (almost) makes me want to shout “yee-haw!”, whilst ‘Jack is Back’ is an emotionally-fuelled song full of whisky-soaked vocals and expressive guitars.
‘Sweet Annie’ is a real highlight. Leigh is joined by a female vocalist and together their vocals sound incredible! There is also a male vocalist who joins in towards the middle of the song and he sounds great too. ‘Dead Mans Sunrise’ has a fantastic ending which is reminiscent of Lynard Skynard’s ‘Freebird’. It’s evident that Leigh has so many genres of music as her influences when the opening bars of ‘Walking in the Moonlight’ filter through. This is one of those tracks that make it almost impossible for you not to move to the beat. It’s a real ear worm of a tune too, and the one I’ve invariably found myself humming during the past couple of days.
‘Ladder to the Moon’, which has beautiful guitar riffs, is sung with such emotion, which is a running theme throughout this album. I guess that is the beauty of it being captured live. ‘Rob the Man’ has twangy guitars, soaring riffs and Leigh is joined in parts by a male vocalist. This is another emotion-fuelled song that sounds really melancholy. When ‘Sky Submarine’ begins with a more upbeat tempo, it’s a welcome relief to be honest. ‘Ol’ 55’ is musically assuasive, while Leigh’s vocals and the accompanying fiddles bring you out of your stupor. Another rendition of ‘Clair de Lune’ rounds the album off almost as it began.
When you listen to Leigh’s songs, you can really hear the cross-over of genres that have influenced her songwriting. Musically hard to define, she’s somewhat of a chameleon that doesn’t fit into your typical box, not that there is anything at all wrong with that! There seems to be a bit of a surge in the southern style country-rock music scene at the moment, with bands and artists that play this kind of music well getting huge interest with airplay as well as appearances at festivals, so I have no doubt that ‘Sonia Leigh and Friends: Studio 3 Sessions’ will be well received. With the hot summer days that are currently upon us, it’s definitely one for sticking on and grabbing a cold one in the garden.
I’ll leave the last word to Sonia Leigh, “I put every single cent into continuing forward as an independent artist,” she says, “If you don't work hard to put everything you've got into it, then
you might as well go and do something else, you know? I feel like the work I've done is paying off, for sure.”
‘Sonia Leigh and Friends’ is released on 15th June 2018.
Clair de Lune, Pt.1 (Live)
Alabama Bound (Live)
My Name is Money (Live)
Jack is Back (Live)
Sweet Annie (Live)
Dead Mans Sunrise (Live)
Walking in the Moonlight (Live)
Ladder to the Moon (Live)
Rob the Man (Live)
Sky Submarine (Live)
Ol’ 55 (Live)
Clair de Lune, Pt. 2 (Live)
Sonia Leigh and Friends: Studio 3 Sessions pre-order link:-
Catch Sonia Leigh at these venues:-
21st June 2018: Hertford, Corn Exchange
22nd June 2018: Black Deer Festival, Tunbridge Wells, Kent (headlining SupaJam stage)
3rd July, 2018: Water Rats, London
Sonia Leigh will be working closely with SupaJam’s fantastic new music education programme for young adults aged 16+ from all backgrounds in the UK.
SupaJam Education in Music and Media:-