- 08 Sep 20
Folk singer Leah Sohotra discusses her powerful debut album Breaded Crickets, writing about the Magdalene Laundries in song, and the issue of racism in Irish society.
Leah Sohotra’s 10-song debut album, Breaded Crickets, blends the folk singer’s powerful lyrics with the ingenuity of Martin Leahy, who plays well over a dozen different instruments on the LP. Sohotra has been working in music for the last four years, having started out as a poet and storyteller.
The singer infuses her work with a huge sense of empathy, gained from both personal experiences of hardship as well as her work with US homeless shelters, the Cork Simon Community and the Rape Crisis Centre. Indeed, Sohotra’s raw lyrics don’t hold anything back from the audience, bringing previously stigmatised subjects into the spotlight.
“The writing of the album came pretty much entirely from personal experience,” explains the singer. “The songs are about break-ups, romance and friendships, but the last one is about my son Yossef and being a first time mother. I’m from New York but grew up in a college town in Vermont, surrounded by mountains.”
‘Mountain Song’ is reminiscent of Appalachian folk as well as Irish folk, and marks the third single released off Sohotra’s album, following the February release of ‘Grendel’. Balancing life as a mother and artist can’t be easy, but the heavy lyrical subject matter doesn’t necessarily have to be kept from her children’s world.
“A lot of the songs have very adult messages, and my kids have asked me a lot of questions about the symbolism,” says Leah. “One of my favourite things is finding a way to deliver a message that isn’t crystal clear to everybody unless you look closely enough.”
The musician’s heart-wrenching Tuam EP is dedicated to the survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, the last of which only shut its doors for good in 1996 after the discovery of a mass grave. Their stories remain haunting to modern Irish society.
“When I wrote the song initially, I didn’t have any intention of sharing it,” Leah says. “I ran out of songs at a gig but had one left, so I decided to sing ‘Tuam’ to see how it would be received, and it felt so raw and visceral. I was invited to a tribute event held for survivors of Magdalene Laundries at Cork Institute of Technology last year.
“My mother is a survivor of rape and I can’t separate that from myself, it’s too big a part of who I am. One of the hardest aspects of being a survivor is the amount of shame that society puts on you, to make it so that you can’t even talk about it. We saw what happened with the Catholic Church and the abuse within it – if survivors are blamed for what was inflicted upon them, it’s impossible to heal.”
Working with Mick Flannery on her album was an eye-opening experience for Leah.
“I wrote ‘Sam’s Song’ and ‘Drowning Song’ with him, though the latter is one I’m not quite finished with yet,” she says. “It’s about a couple and their experience of addiction, and they ultimately drown after swimming under the influence, but it’s storytelling in the sense that I haven’t had these experiences myself.
“The story of ‘Sam’s Song’ itself is imaginary, but inspired by my experiences of growing up very poor as a person of colour in a wealthy, white community. One of the hardest things to have to deal with is seeing my children be discriminated against. A man in a shop called my nine-year-old son the ‘N’ word last year.”
Leah is of Pakistani and Italian descent, and faced a challenging time while growing up in a predominantly white part of America. With the recent Black Lives Matter protests refocusing the conversation about racism all around the world, self-examination is more vital in Ireland than ever before. Have we progressed at all?
“I’m a citizen here now, and things have changed a good bit,” says Leah. “People who initially thought that they weren’t going to touch the subject of racism because they didn’t think it was relevant to them are now examining it more closely. I find that white people who were raised in poverty or working class homes, and have been discriminated against for their class, often struggle more with having to accept that they have racial prejudice.
“For a lot of white people, seeing themselves as having learned racist behaviours is nearly impossible for them to reconcile with. Prejudices were created in order to convince people that they can succeed by trampling the person next to them, but the blame gets shifted to people of colour. It’s damaging for societies to be so sheltered that they can’t look at an individual and just see a human, but only see the things they’ve been taught are ‘other’.”
With the coronavirus halting live music events, gigs and festivals, the Irish music scene has faced a shattering time. Folk artists, like Leah, who thrive in intimate pub settings have had to grapple with their tours being postponed or even cancelled.
“I put a significant amount of money into putting the album together and feel so privileged to have had a live launch for it,” notes Leah. “I know a lot of musicians who didn’t get to do that much as a result of the pandemic. I missed an opportunity to tour and I don’t know when that will happen again.
“I don’t think gigs will be the same when they come back. Especially since the virus is affecting the older population – you find that a lot of the pubs have mostly older people attending. Especially the ones that host folk and trad music. It’s so important to be respectful of what’s going on right now so people can heal. I think it’s going to be a while before things return to a semblance of normality, but I’m willing to wait it out.”
• The Tuam EP is re-released on August 30. Breaded Crickets is out now.