Loah is Sallay-Matu Garnett, an Irish Sierra Leonean singer-songwriter. She grew up between West Africa and Maynooth, Co Kildare. In 2019, she starred as Mary Magdalene in the Barbican production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and this year in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. She also co-presented RTÉ’s The Heart of Saturday Night.
Joni Mitchell’s songs feel so intimate and vulnerable you feel like she’s singing them just for you – that there’s no one else in the whole world except you and her song. It’s like reading her diary. Very few artists can make you feel that special like you’re being given a special gift of their heart. That’s what huge vulnerability looks like in songwriting. It’s powerful. She’s one of the best that has lived. Her songs are so bittersweet: “Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so sweet/Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling/Still I’d be on my feet…”
There’s lovely vulnerability in Erykah Badu’s songs. They’re heartfelt and sweet and spiritual and uplifting. They reveal something intimate, but the music is contrasted, so it’s this trance-like, hypnotic groove that brings you in rhythmically and then you get hit with the lyrics. These meditations on all these human emotions, like being in relationships as a woman, which you can enjoy at multiple levels. You can vibe along to it: this is so pleasant, I feel like dancing or you can be like, whoa, this is intense. I love that duality. She’s unapologetically herself.
They call Oumou Sangaré “The Songbird of Mali”. She grew up with her mum and she had to work for money for the family so she went out in the street and sang as a child. By 21, she was a Malian star, and has won Grammy awards. She’s this monolith of West African music. Malian music culture is ancient. It’s this gorgeous folk music that is also rhythmic. There’s lots of laments, but most of the songs have wonderful West African rhythms that draw people in. She deals with big themes like immigration, poverty, women’s rights, corruption. It’s such a cool thing about songwriting that you can set the mood and explore this massive topic in three-and-a-half minutes.
I’m drawn to big feminine archetypes like Bjork. She’s an incredible songwriter. She has a huge scope for expression and an ability to make anything into a song. I love her fusion of the classical European orchestral tradition and modern beats. A lot of artists will use strings as this interesting addition to what they do, to make it sound hip or clever, but it’s not the centrepiece. She makes it the centrepiece. It’s built into the fabric and language and dynamic of her work. I love her radical embracing of her musical background and who she is. It makes for a unique take, something you know you never heard before. It’s completely her because it’s from the heart.
I spent my childhood in orchestras. Even when I try and get away from it, I come back to certain harmonic movements. It shows in the technicality of the way that I write. It’s part of my musical language. I feel at home in it. I probably feel more comfortable with an orchestra than I do with a set of decks and beats. I’m always drawn to projects that have lush orchestral sounds and all the little details from the wind and brass. Orchestral music is so expensive and detailed at the same time.
I am a total fantasy nerd. I prefer fantasy to reality. Give me dragons, magic and ancient things rather than people in an office. The writing of the Game of Thrones books is so good. It’s about powerful, volatile humans in this Shakespearean world, making abrupt decisions in anger or huge fits of emotion. For them, it’s a game, but that’s why there’s that excitement. We all have petty rivalries and competition and soft spots where we can be easily triggered by, say, a sibling. But all we can do is stop texting for a few days, but if you have a kingdom you can wage war and kill thousands of people. Throw in dragons and zombies. It’s complete extravagance.
I like the Russian romantic composers. That’s definitely my mum’s influence. I love Sergei Rachmaninoff – he has some beautiful piano concertos – and Nikolia Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin and some Russian opera. It’s because they use their folk melodies and folk tradition. They work that into their compositions so it has that wistful, happy-sad longing that comes from folk music, and then these big, bold string sounds. I love the way the Russians do that. I’ve learned a lot from that.
I have very specific taste with musical theatre. I like bombastic things. I love the musical film Guys and Dolls with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. It’s so funny. It gets me every time. The acting is so suave – there’s a suaveness to the transition from talking into singing. That amazing jazz tune Luck be a Lady is in it. Marlon Brando is a great singer by the way. He holds a candle to Frank Sinatra. The dancing is incredible, like these beautiful, athletic ballet sequences that the men do in the crap game scenes. People had to be multi-talented to get in the movies in those days. They were all amazing performers.
I love Wings of Desire. It’s this Wim Wenders film from the 1980s. It’s about two angels in Berlin. One of them falls in love with a trapeze artist, and then it’s about what happens from there. It’s a beautiful study of humans, seen from this eternal angel perspective. It’s a gorgeous movie.
I always go back to This American Life podcast. It’s so varied and broad. It touches on so many things. Some of the stories, you’d be in bits listening to them. There is an amazing episode about Steven Spielberg going to this school with African-American kids because they’d gotten in trouble over how they behaved when they went to watch Schindler’s List, his film about the Holocaust. It’s about how he reacted when he went to visit them and had this really interesting experience. It’s beautiful how they can find these gorgeous stories.