November , 2011
By David Huff
Finding Success One Road At A Time
JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview With Atlanta GA Country Artist
All other Photos courtesy of Sonia Leigh's Facebook page
After years of paying her dues on the Southern music circuit, Sonia Leigh has finally found herself. Thanks to a little help from some friends, this wandering soul has found her comfort zone. The payoff for her long apprenticeship is a major label debut and a rocking new attitude that’s taking country music by storm.
About seven years ago, the long and winding road of fate took Leigh to Zac’s Place, a restaurant in Lake Oconee, Georgia. The eatery also provided a platform for artists to perform their craft. The house band at the time was a fledgling group called the Zac Brown Band. A strong bond and friendship with the establishment’s proprietor, led Sonia to open shows for her friend throughout the South.
Zac Brown, as the world now knows, finally hit his stride in country music last year. On his road to stardom, he never forgot his past. Brown created his own label, Southern Grounds, and the first artist he approached was Leigh. As she said in one interview, it was a no-brainer. Sonia had opened for Zac from wing shacks to stadiums over the years. Signing on to his label only seemed natural.
John Driskell Hopkins, a long-time collaborator of Brown’s, was the co-producer for 1978 December, Leigh’s recently released recording for the label. She penned every song on the album including her current hit, “My Name is Money”. Is Sonia Leigh a bit unconventional for country music? Perhaps – but the same thing could be said for her friend and mentor, Zac Brown. It didn’t seem to hurt his career at all.
JAM: I thought the music scene in Atlanta was all hip / hop or rap. I was surprised both you and Zac emerged from that area playing country music. What’s going on there I don’t know about. Is there an underground scene in Atlanta that’s just now starting to get some attention?
Sonia Leigh -It has been there all along, it’s just now coming to light. There is a tremendous amount of talent in and around the Atlanta area. It’s not all just Southern Rock or hip-hop.
JAM: This is your first album in three years, the other being a self-financed independent release. What’s the difference between Sonia Leigh today, and Sonia Leigh three years ago?
Experience obviously. Since the last record I have grown as a writer. I’ve gone on the road with Zac Brown opening for him and that opened my eyes tremendously. When you go on the road, it brings forth new ideas and material because you’re looking at life from a different place.
JAM: You have been on the road most of your life it seems. How is this any different?
The circumstances for being on the road have definitely made a big difference. I’ve toured most my life out of my own pocket. That meant it was harder to expand the territory where I could perform. I couldn’t go to the Midwest for instance, simply because I couldn’t afford to. Being on the road with Zac has given me the opportunity to bring my music to different regions of the country. The audiences know what to expect from Zac, so when they see a female artist with attitude performing for them, they get it. Trust me, the difference between today and yesterday is literally night and day.
JAM: You have been friends with Zac for years. You witnessed first hand his growth and finally acceptance. Did his long overdue overnight success also signal to you that the path you’d taken musically would also have its day in the sun to shine?
Zack had expanded the scope of his music by the time I was ready to do the same thing. I was growing in a different way than he and his band did. The bottom line is this. The music you’re playing has to be there, it has to connect. One thing a lot of people don’t understand is the fact Atlanta is home to a lot of great country writers and musicians. There are a lot of styles represented there. Everyone respects each other because we all know how difficult it is to make a name for your self.
JAM: The Southern Ground thing that Zack put together, is this his version of John Rioch’s Muzik Mafia? He created his outfit in 2002 to bring talented singers and songwriters together under one tent?
I’m not that familiar with the John Rich thing, and how he ran that camp.. What Zac has done with Southern Ground is create a family atmosphere to nurture talent. We all grew up on the scene together, so in a sense, we have one another’s back. We all look out for each other. We write together, play on each other’s albums and even tour together.
JAM: When your music represents a little bit of everything like rock, blues and country, is there a danger you can get lost in the sound trying to establish your own identity?
There’s always that threat the three styles won’t cooperate with one another. My job is to make sure I’m staying true to myself as I incorporate various styles of music into my own distinct sound as I’m writing. Here’s the thing. Audiences just want to hear good music. As long as you stay true to that principle, then you are staying true to who you are as a musician.
JAM: What did you say on this album?
I talked about the troubles I’ve overcome and touched on families pushing through in hard times. Writing for me has always been about the struggles I’m going through. I slowly began to realize my troubles are shared by a lot of people these days. It’s difficult for people to express there frustrations when they think they’re faced with a hopeless situation. My music, I believe, is an outlet they can look to as a way to express, and understand, that there situation isn’t hopeless. There is a light at the end of what seems a very long tunnel.
JAM: Including your recent release, you’ve put out five albums the past dozen years. Has each recording been a slow step in the process of Sonia Leigh discovering who and what she is not only as a person, but as a musician?
Up until now, all my previous albums were independent releases. The answer to your question is yes. Artists grow up on their records. It’s the one constant thread in all their albums as they hone their songwriting skills. Every album you release is a milestone for where you have been. As we mature as people, you start looking at the world differently. Things you once took for granted, you now look at in entirely different ways. That viewpoint shows up in your art.
JAM: I would think the most difficult task any songwriter faces is this. What songs do you decide to put on an album, from the vast amount you’ve written, best represents the particular moment in your life to present to the public? I would think it’s especially critical on your national debut.
Well, that’s a good question. I did have a lot of material to choose from. I was very conscious on what songs to select that I believed would connect with people. At the same time, I didn’t want to make it so personal where someone listening to the music wouldn’t be able to identify with the song. I also wanted there to be a feeling that I had a good time making this record. There’s a lot of emotion that goes into selecting music you feel best represents you. It definitely was hard to pick what songs to put on this record.
JAM: Then how did you do it?
At first, it was like shuffling through my past. Every song you write captures a specific moment in time that you’re living. When you put a song on an album, you have to decide if you want to relive that moment over and over again. That’s really what a song is all about, reliving one’s past. In fact, there’s a song from my last record I decided would be right for my first nationwide release. It just happens to be one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I felt it needed a national stage, so we included it. Also, Zac and I wrote a couple of songs together.
JAM: One of the interesting things about songwriting I’ve discovered through interview artists is this. When an musician completes a song, it may not be right for them to release at that particular moment. Later on down the road, however, the tune is worth revisiting. In an odd way, its time has come. Do you wrestle with that problem a lot?
To put it bluntly, yes. When I write a song, it means I’ve got to get something off my chest. So I don’t look for style points, or cosmic meaning. I just write because there’s something I have to say before I can move forward. I don’t even consider what anyone else listening to the song is going to think. Sometimes during my show, I’ll pull out a song no one has ever heard because it feels right to sing it at that particular moment. Is it personal? Of course it is. But I only perform bits and pieces of my past at special moments, because I feel its all right to open myself up to the particular crowd I’m playing for that evening.
JAM: You left home at 17 to literally follow a calling you felt strongly in your heart. What was going on at your home leading up to your decision to influence you to make that kind of move?
Like many teenagers that age, I had a falling out with my parents. In this case it was my dad. I also really wanted to get out of the small town we were in and start chasing my music. I felt, in my heart and head, the right thing to do was say goodbye to the past and look toward a future. So I left home. Since then I’ve repaired the relationship with my father. Family is extremely important, but the thing with teenagers is they just like to butt heads with their parents. Only later do they realize they’re the most important people in their lives. Let’s face it - all teens growing up create some kind of friction in their household as they try to establish their own identity within the family unit. I can almost guarantee you that everyone reading this can tell you of one instance in their life where they rebelled against authority, meaning mom and dad, as a teen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical thing either. It could be a resistance to the thoughts and ideas that are being pushed on them that frankly, they don’t agree with.
JAM: Wheret was the little town you left for the big city?
I was left high school out of a small Indiana town and made my way south to Atlanta. It took awhile to get there, but that’s where I finally settled down. I really liked where I was living when I was in high school, but you know, things happened and I decided to leave.
JAM: I don’t think it matters whether or not you graduated high school. You had a goal and decided to pursue it. There’s always a danger living in small towns that you get stuck in a rut, you never leave, and your hopes and dreams simply become wishful thinking. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. You can get stuck in a loop reliving your life over and over again.
You know, you hit the nail right on the head. I came to the realization that if I didn’t follow this passion I had for music, it would be lost to me forever. My fear back then was this. If I didn’t get out, music would become an afterthought. I had this overwhelming dream inside my heart and I just had to take the chance.
JAM: I think the worst thing that can happen to anyone in life is to live with the nagging question, “What if?”
I agree completely. If you think it was easy for a 17-year old to strike out on her own, you’re crazy. All I had was a guitar, some clothes and a dream. Listen, I know I have been blessed. A lot of things could have happened to me along the way. My life could have turned sideways real quick. But fortunately, here I am today speaking to you about the dream I was able to pursue and turn into reality. We’re talking about the opportunities I have to present my music to the world, and I’m so thankful everything fell into place.
JAM: The interesting thing about playing an instrument, particularly a guitar, is this. You can be the biggest nerd in the world growing up. Kids will make fun of you if they perceive any weakness. However, you put an instrument in that nerds hands, and they can make magic with it, suddenly you earn a great deal of respect, and your past is literally forgotten. Does that make sense?
It’s funny you brought that up. There was this bully in high school that would not leave me alone. She was constantly on me, and made my life unbearable at times. She just recently contacted me on Facebook to friend her, and even came out to one of my shows. Today, we talk all the time and have become pretty good friends. But you’re right about the instrument. It can take a geeky high school freshman that everyone teased and give them respect.
JAM: I firmly believe that everyone has a gift inside of them. A lot of times people will suppress what they’re good at in order to fit in or conform. Taking a chance just isn’t in their DNA, it lies only in their heart. In a strange way, they almost live vicariously through the ones they teased growing up, because you’re doing what they were afraid of.
You are absolutely right. Some people will think I’m lucky to be where I’m at today. They don’t understand how hard it was to get here. I live in a totally, completely different world than most people are accustomed to. I’ve lived in the 9-5 world for brief periods of time, but I always knew it wasn’t for me. It’s amazing at times to look back on those times, because it was a different kind of life. It was almost like I had been abducted by aliens and forced to live their existence.
JAM: I’ve met a lot of musicians through my line of work who thought they were abducted by aliens, and I’m not talking about the 9-5 world either.
I’m sure they got some great songs out of the experience no matter which world they were writing about. I know I did.
JAM: On your new album, how would you describe where Sonia Leigh is coming from in regards to the music you presented for public consumption?
There’s a lot of different sides to Sonia Leigh presented on this album I’ve expressed through the lyrics. I play a little blues, throw in a reggae vibe here and there, there’s obviously country and the rebellious rock and roll side of me as well. I’m also baring my soul to share some of the emotional highs and lows I’ve been through. I have touched upon a lot of different subjects. Is there a theme that ties the music together – no. It’s just me. This record is a representation of who I am at this moment.
JAM: Are you acutely aware that you could get caught up in Zac Brown’s shadow if you aren’t careful?
That is true to an extent, but Zac’s not that kind of person. Yes, it is his record label, and the two of us are great friends. But he’s also aware that it’s extremely important I establish my own identity to be successful. He doesn’t want anyone standing in his shadows. Zac wants to share the spotlight. I’m more than happy to step into it.