23 Jun 2016
“I figured it is the end of the day and it would be nice to just relax,” says Sonia Leigh on the patio of an East Nashville bar. On an increasingly rare break from touring, the artist takes time to reflect on the past few years and her rise to success in the exclusive world of country music.
“Growing up in Atlanta, my dad played music. He was a writer, and I’d listen to his songs that he wrote and I’d steal his guitar. As soon as I learned a few chords and I could change them fast enough, I started writing songs too.”
For Leigh, traditional country music provided a rich soundtrack to her childhood.
“At different phases in my life I was exposed to different styles of music. My grandfather sang a lot of Hank Williams. My first concert was Loretta Lynn when I was five,” Leigh says.
As a teenager, she most identified with the music and message of Melissa Etheridge.
“I never talked about it much because I didn’t want to be a cliché,” she says of her fondness for Etheridge. “I studied her craft of writing very intensely. I remember when “Yes I Am” came out and I was young, just realizing my sexuality, and now I’m playing the Melissa Etheridge Cruise.”
Setting sail from Tampa, Florida on October 31st, the Melissa Etheridge Cruise will visit Key West and Cozumel, Mexico with featured performances by Etheridge, rocker Joan Jett, Leigh, and others.
“I’ve done a lot of things and I’m more excited about this than I’ve been about anything in my life,” Leigh says.
Making the leap to full-time artist and songwriter had a lot do with Leigh’s hustle and passion for her craft. The foundation of her career was laid in Atlanta, where she played every Sunday with her band when she wasn’t even old enough to kick back with a cold one herself.
Through a series of opportunities, she ended up in opening slots for then up-and-coming star Zac Brown. Her work with Brown as both a co-writer and an artist undoubtedly brought her music to a greater audience. However, the decision to finally pick up and move to Nashville was inspired by personal tragedy.
“I was living in Atlanta and was on the road a lot and my mother was sick with cancer. I was about to go onstage at the Southern Ground festival and I got a call that they were worried she wouldn’t make it through the night. She ended up hanging on for three more weeks. In those three weeks I thought about what’s important and what happiness really means and what success really means and I had been thinking about coming to Nashville and I thought, you know what? I’m not getting any younger,” Leigh says. “I went to be with her, and decided by her bedside that I was going to do it. I left her funeral and drove straight to Nashville.”
That passion is evident in her music. Leigh has an impressive body of work. After six albums, most recently 2014’s “Counting Skeletons,” Leigh has begun releasing a series of singles while she plots her next move.
Catchy hooks and clever lyrics are a staple of Leigh’s sound, from the sunny “Put It In Your Pocket” to the brooding “When We Are Alone.” One of her most recent releases, the rock-oriented track, “Spider in the Roses” is a collaborative effort with fellow songwriter Daphne Willis.
Her latest single, “Live Like Ghosts,” which Curve is exclusively premiering prior to its widespread release on June 24th, touches on an issue that hits close to home for Leigh and most members of the LGBTQ community.
Just in time for Pride month, the song provides an epic backdrop to the ongoing struggle many people face when realizing their sexuality. Though 2016 is a more progressive time than ever for LGBTQ people in terms of policy and equality, there is much further to go to ensure the safety and equal rights for all in every one of the fifty United States.
“It’s about living in a closeted relationship. I really want to shine a light on that. It’s really like an anthem. There is a line in there that says “We fight for the love of our lives,” and we do have to fight still,” she says. “I know what it means to me and what I’ve seen and it’s my experience and that’s what this song is about.”
A departure from her more country rock sound, “Live Like Ghosts” has a sweeping electronica edge and features Rob the Man. Described by Leigh as a “dark march,” “Live Like Ghosts” aims to let people who are struggling to come out of the closet or are afraid of living in the open know that they are valued, and seen, and important. How, in a sense, it is more important than ever to come out and live the truth.
Leigh recently had a cameo on the primetime-hit show “Nashville,” where she shared the screen with Chris Carmack who plays Will Lexington, an out star who has struggled with being accepted by fans and the industry alike. As it turns out, art may imitate life in this case.
“There is a ways to go with how Nashville views gays in the country music scene. I’m hoping that it changes. I’m really left of center of country. I will say that there are gay people in country that are not out and that’s really sad to see that they are afraid of not becoming successful if they were out and it’s hard to watch that struggle. I’ve just always been out. I don’t give a damn,” Leigh says. “It’s becoming more and more common. It’s only a matter of time before it’s not that big of a deal.”
In addition to spending considerable time touring, Leigh does a significant amount of co-writing with some heavy hitters in the Nashville songwriting community. Balancing her work as an artist and a songwriter has challenged Leigh in new ways.
“It’s hard to sit with a stranger and open up and dig in,” she admits of the typical Nashville set-up of publishing houses putting writers together to work on songs. “To get something good, to get to the meat on the bones, you gotta be able to not be shy.”
“I am lucky enough to have the best fans in the world. I just want to continue to create,” Leigh says. “I’m proud of being an independent artist. I’m very positive about the future. I’m happy because I’m in control of what I’m doing.”
When asked what kind of advice she would give young artists just starting out, she says, “Don’t try to chase what’s already been. Try to create a new footstep to fall in. Step outside the box and create a new sound. Don’t try to be like anybody else. By the time you get anywhere that’s gonna be old. Be original. Stick to your guns.”
That advice has worked well for Leigh, who gazes out into the distance as the sun sets over the Nashville skyline. As her beer sits empty on the table, she contemplates all that has been, and all that will be.
“I left home when I was seventeen with fifty bucks, a garbage bag full of clothes, and my guitar and I’m about to play the Melissa Etheridge cruise. I have to stop and appreciate how far I’ve come out of nothing.”