Anyone who saw Sonia Leigh and her band during the inaugural Savannah Stopover Festival will remember the diminutive, scrappy woman with black hair hanging over her left eye, hammering away at her electric guitar and singing strong, and clear, and powerfully at the head of a kick-ass combo.
A fixture for many years on the exceedingly fertile Atlanta club scene, Leigh creates music that mixes country/rock, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues – it’s hard–hitting stuff, and her voice is way more Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt than Linda Ronstadt or Lucinda Williams.
Once you’ve heard her, she’s impossible to forget.
Leigh’s back in town this week, touring for the first time under the watchful eye of a major label, Southern Ground, which was dreamed up and put into motion by the uber–successful Zac Brown – one of Atlanta’s hottest exports.
“Sonia is the real deal,” Brown says. “Her voice is unique, you know it’s her the instant you hear it ... I put my money where my mouth is, and have not only invested in Sonia Leigh, but taken her under my wing for as long as it takes to show her talent to everyone possible.”
Brown has taken Leigh on tour with him all over the country, and he makes a vocal appearance on “Roamin,’” an impossibly catchy, reggae–hued song on her Southern Ground debut, 1978 December (that’s the year and month Sonia was born).
Coy Bowles, who plays keys and guitar in the Zac Brown Band, will open Leigh’s Live Wire Music Hall show with his band, the Fellowship.
1. How have you changed since the first record you made?
Sonia Leigh: I was about 17 when I recorded my first record, so a whole lot has changed as far as me maturing as a musician and writer. I’ve grown a lot as a writer as I’ve aged – I write a lot of different styles, and I’ve allowed myself the freedom to do that. And I’ve gotten a lot of experience out on the road. Learned more about what it takes to become a touring artist. I’ve seen a lot more of the country. I’ve seen what it takes to get on the radio. A lot of people are under the delusion that you record a CD and you’re gonna be a star. But that’s just the fun part. There’s a lot of work.
2. "Ain’t Dead Yet” preaches resilience in the face of overwhelming obstacles – in your case, as the writer, it’s about the music business, right?
Sonia Leigh: Exactly right. It’s about just hanging in there, and keep putting your best foot forward. There’s a lot of people in this world right now that don’t feel like they can realize their dream, so they live vicariously through me. Somehow I’ve got the brains – or lack thereof – to get out there and risk it all. And do it. That song’s just kind of about "Make your moves count. Everything that you do, make sure it leaves a mark."
3. How did the arrangement with Zac come about?
Sonia Leigh: I’ve known him for a long time, before his success, and I always went to him and asked his opinion on things. Because I really valued the way he did business. So I said ‘I’ve got this and this going on – what do you think?’ And Zach said ‘I’ll never hold you back from doing anything, but I’m about to start a record label, and I’d love to have you be a part of it.’ That was just about all he had to say. I don’t know what it’s like to be a major record label, so I don’t really have anything to compare it to. But from what I hear, I’m pretty lucky that I don’t have to ... you know?
4. You sometimes play solo and acoustic, but at the Stopover you had a pretty hot band. They’re coming to the Live Wire With you. How much does that empower you as a performer?
Sonia Leigh: I’ve got my boys, and it’s very important to know that your band has your back. And everybody’s in the moment, and feelin’ it, and they’re there for the same reason. There’s a big difference between playin’ acoustic, because that’s more of an intimate thing and you can change things up. Because it’s just you and the guitar. But when you’ve got a band behind you, that right there is where the energy’s at for me, you know? Everything that I hear in my head when I’m writing the song is manifested, and it’s just dynamite. It feels so good.
5. What do you want to happen? Do you want to rule the world?
Sonia Leigh: You know what? With that comes great responsibility!
I’m still growing. I want to tour, I want to keep building my fan base, I want longevity in music. I want a career. You got your Kris Kristoffersons and you got your Katy Perrys, you know what I mean? And I’m not sayin’ one is better than the other – not out of my mouth – but there are people like Willie Nelson or Loretta Lynn who’ve built a life as a staple. That’s what I want. I want to be respected. I want to be able to continue to write, and make a living at doing music.
Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6
Artist’s website: sonialeigh.com