An Exclusive Interview with Sonia Leigh
As Zac Brown’s personal new project, Sonia Leigh is doing her best to crack the male-dominated (and blonde female-centric) country music radio landscape. Her brand new radio release, “My Name is Money” just recently cracked the Billboard Top 50 and her first music video has just hit the CMT airwaves.
Armed with a gritty Janis Joplin-type voice and diverse songwriting sensibilities, Leigh’s approach is far different than what most of Nashville is putting out right now. While her edgy voice has plenty of twang to call it country, her debut album, named 1978 December, is an eclectic mix of blues, funk, swing, country, reggae and plain straight-ahead rock. Its title track, “1978 December,” is autobiographical storytelling at its best.
Leigh took a break between Zac Brown Band tour dates to talk a bit about her musical and career influences with Engine 145.
Ken Morton, Jr.: Sonia, on your bio, you mention a special influence that came full circle for you regarding Loretta Lynn. Can you share that?
Sonia Leigh: When I was a young kid, my very first concert was Loretta Lynn. I was five years old. It was Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle and The Mandrell Sisters. And that was the moment that I realized that I could be a musician as a girl. I guess Loretta Lynn had heard me make that comment from the stage. And she waved at me from the stage. And now I’ve opened for her a couple times which kind of brings it full circle as you were saying. It’s an amazing moment to be standing up there and sharing the stage with her, you know?
KMJ: Absolutely. With that gritty voice of yours, the comparisons to artists like Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge are pretty common, I’m sure. What’s your take on those comparisons folks are making?
SL: I think that’s an honor to be compared to such incredible musicians and women in the music business. I’ll take that and proudly wear it.
KMJ: Do you view it as a distinction for yourself?
SL: I can see that. I do have a rougher and more edgy voice than most female artists. I’m definitely no Joan Baez. (laughter)
KMJ: At this stage of your career, there a sense of irony that 1978 December is being billed somewhat as a debut album of sorts for you when you’ve been at this awhile.
SL: Yeah, but this is the first Nashville release that I’ve got a great team behind me helping me get the music out to the listeners. Country radio has been jumping on it and spinning it and I’m pretty thankful for as well. And you guys are taking some time to talk to me which is awesome.
KMJ- The new album is a bit all over the map genre-wise—how would you, as the artist, classify it, and is that even important to you?
SL: To me, personally, it’s not as important to classify my music. To radio and to a lot of listeners, they need that box to put it in. But Zac Brown produced it. He helped me reel it in to walk that fine line to make sure that it stayed country music. Some of them didn’t start out that way, necessarily. I think he tied it all together with a fine string.
KMJ: How would the production on this one differ from some of your indie releases?
SL: This is my favorite record that we’ve done to date. Other things that we’ve put out were definitely examples of me just growing up as an artist. The last thing I put out was just a live record that we did at a local venue here. And the one before that was just a soft independent release. There weren’t even drums on that record. This one took a lot more time to get fine-tuned and we have a lot of great musicians that have come and sat down to be part of the record as well. I feel pretty honored just have that part.
KMJ: The title track seems to be extremely autobiographical and personal—is that a fair assessment?
SL: Definitely. That’s a great observation. That’s why I named the record 1978 December. I felt like it kind of wrapped me up as a whole. It shares what I’ve been through in my life. It is who I am. The body of work that you have on the album is a representation of me as a well-rounded writer.
KMJ: What was behind the decision to use “My Name is Money” as the first single? With the different sounds on the record, I’m interested to know what was behind the decision for that particular track.
SL: The decision to utilize “My Name is Money” was a collective decision between myself, Zac and our radio team. This is my first shot out of the gate and every song that Zac has released has been a Number One hit. I had to just open my ears a little bit and just listen to those that have had a little bit of success. You need to take their advice. And I think that with what everyone around the country is going through, everyone can relate to problems and challenges with money. Everybody’s got that love/hate relationship with money. You love it when you have it and you hate it when you don’t, right?
KMJ: I wish I had a more passionate relationship with it, I think.
SL: (laughter) Don’t we all?
KMJ: Talk to me about the impact that the guys from the Zac Brown Band have had on your music and career the last few years. How important has that been?
SL: I meant Zac a long time ago even before “Chicken Fried” hit. I’ve been playing clubs and opening for him for a long time. I’ve watched his success from the wings. He’s mentored me along and kind of guided me and given me advice. And he’s always shared his stage with me which has definitely helped me get in front of more people as his crowds grew. Musically, every one of those guys are amazing. There’s not a weak spot in that band. They are so inspiring to watch. And I’ve seen more Zac Brown Band shows than I can count. I never ever tire of watching them. They are amazing. They are phenomenal musicians and amazing entertainers.
KMJ: Fellow musicians always make the biggest fans.
SL: Totally. You just appreciate that someone can play their instrument like that and the fact that they’re always trying to fine tune their craft and get better. They’re just ninjas. (Laughter)
KMJ: That’s a great description.
SL: They are! They’re just musical ninjas.
KMJ: One last question for you and it’s meant a little open-ended. What is county music to Sonia Leigh?
SL: To me, the word country music makes me think of sitting around with my grandfather, my dad and my family when we were picking on the back porch. That’s where it came alive for the first time for me. It literally was just playing it with my family sitting around during the holidays. That’s when it was introduced to me. That’s always going to make that deep of a root inside me.
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