When Sonia Leigh was seven, and already getting to be quite the expert on adversity, she and her mum set off from the family's broken home for the middle of nowhere Alabama. It was an early lesson for a future troubadour in turning hardship into potential.
“The people who lived in the house before left a record player and one single. It was Willie Nelson's 'Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,'” 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.” Little did she know that one day, she would tour with the outlaw himself.
Fast forward to age 14. “You want to talk about a domino effect of one thing leading to another? A family friend saw I'd been writing music. 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 was like 'You're really good, I'm going to pay for you to go to a studio.'”
The upshot was a conversation with a major label guy and a business card that Sonia picked up again at 17, leading her to her first album 'Remember Me,'recorded in her then-manager's basement in Atlanta. Sure, it was raw, and it's long out of print. But right there were the pencil sketches for a truly singular career in roots music and beyond.
Twenty years later, Sonia Leigh is reaping the rewards of a lifetime paying so many dues that she really did go for broke. And on her second album of 2018 alone, it all reaches critical mass with 'Sonia Leigh & Friends,' recorded in the hallowed surroundings of Abbey Road Studio 3 and as live and direct a record as you'll hear all year.
To go back one chapter in an ever-evolving storybook, January 2018 saw Leigh's latest album of new studio compositions, 'Mad Hatter.' Here, she was set on expanding her core roots-Americana sound and its traces of blues, soul and rock, to embrace even more of her myriad influences. A dyed-in-the-wool devotee of such figureheads as Loretta Lynn and Bruce Springsteen, this time she wanted to open up to some more recent inspiration.
“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.” One review called it “an aggressive collection of troubled confessions, pushing her craft to the edge and beyond.”
Even as 'Mad Hatter' was emerging, Leigh was convening with fellow musicians at Abbey Road, for the single, ten-hour session that conceived 'Sonia Leigh & Friends.' It was created in Studio 3, the very spot in which Pink Floyd made 'Dark Side Of The Moon,' Amy Winehouse sang her final recorded vocals and Lady Gaga cut 'Born This Way.'
“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.”
The album includes versions of three of the new songs from 'Mad Hatter' as well as 'Bar' and the anthemic live staple 'My Name Is Money.' Both of those are from '1978 December,' the album Leigh released on 2011 on Zac Brown's Southern Ground label. “I wanted to be able to bring that song back to life, and what better way?” she says. “To a lot of people it's brand new.”
Just as newsworthy, she performs her co-write 'Sweet Annie,' which announced her as a songwriter on the international stage when it was recorded by the Zac Brown Band on their 2012 album 'Uncaged.' The song became a US country airplay No. 1 and was certified gold.
The album stands as a momentary look over her shoulder, and she was determined to share 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.”
'Sonia Leigh & Friends' is bookended by an exquisite performance of Debussy's 'Clair de Lune' by pianist Jessie Maryon Davies, the piece that Sonia was supposed to be learning when she was at high school. Single-minded then as now, she decided to learn some Melissa Etheridge sheet music instead.
The album also features her friend and rising British artist Katy Hurt, whom she 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.” That's how it was for the young Sonia, who was born in Lakeland, east of Tampa in Florida, before that relocation to Alabama when the family was split asunder.
“My dad played and wrote songs and my grandfather played and sang, so I was always drawn to the guitar. I grew up listening to my parents' records like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and all that. I spent a lot of time in my room alone, playing guitar, writing songs, three or four in a day sometimes. I'm not saying they were all good, but I was definitely always writing and thinking about pursuing my music career.
“Around 12 years old, I got into Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, Floyd, Zeppelin, the Stones, Janis Joplin, the Dead...” she goes on. “A whole rock 'n' roll world opened up to me.”
By the '90s, grunge was in the mix too, sitting happily alongside her country favourites. Leigh may have been the only person in town who loved George Strait and Hole in equal measure. “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 inspiration, both in music and as a guiding light of female independence, was Melissa Etheridge, and just like with Willie Nelson, she would go from fan to collaborator. In March 2018, Sonia set sail from Florida to the Caribbean and back as 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.”
In recent years, based in Nashville, Sonia has practically become an honorary Brit. Frequent transatlantic visits, high-octane shows and festival appearances at C2C, Pride, Buckle & Boots and many others have helped build her strong and loyal following. She's even beginning to get the hang of London buses.
“I feel like half of my time is in the UK,” she says. “I tried to tell people ages ago that the scene was expanding. I was putting a lot of my own money into coming over there and trying to create a presence. Now everyone's going over, so my phone's always lighting up with people asking for connections. I'm happy to help out, I'm glad to see that things are moving forward.”
It's a far cry from the point where Sonia almost gave it all up to join the army. “I thought 'Elvis did it...'” she remembers, “then we went to war, and I thought, 'I can't sell out like that. I can't be a part of this just to have a paycheck.' So I just continued on and pushed forward.”
'Sonia Leigh & Friends' is the latest evidence of a career on an old-fashioned, hype-free upward curve. “I put every single cent into continuing forwards 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.”