Maija Sofia replenishes her soul and explores women in history who had been misrepresented, or written out of certain narratives, from the soothing confines of her bath.
With winter’s arrival bringing colder evenings, encouraging nocturnal hibernation, we’re inclined to take this as a period of restoration. A time to recover from endless summer socialising. A popular way to unwind is by taking a bath, should you have access to one. In September, The New Yorker published an article entitled, “The Age of Bathfluence,” in which the reader is enlightened on a rising trend where the bath is transformed into an unlikely source of theatre. A production staged on social media featuring a revolving cast of influencers. With this showcase of serenity, we’re led to believe that immersing oneself in an aromatic vat of bubbles will enable you to reach the pinnacle of self-care.
Subsequently, unsettling undercurrents ripple throughout mainstream media of this reappropriation of the relaxing ritual. Staged vignettes featuring lit candles and a glass of wine proffer idealised glimpses into someone’s life. This falsehood, perpetuated online, has become a source of anxiety for many, founded on a feeling of inadequacy. Fortunately, Galway-born, Dublin-based songwriter and musician Maija Sofia has pulled the plug on this contrived cyber circus on her stunning debut album, Bath Time. That is not to say that the contents of her record are squeaky clean, however. Here, the artist acknowledges various sources of anxiety stemming from relationships, state institutions, and generations of mistreating the position of women. In confronting these challenging issues, authenticity permeates every aspect of the record. From the natural flow in the instrumentation (a result of recording guitar and vocal parts in one take with no overdubs in Dublin’s Ailfionn Studio with Chris Barry over several months) to Sofia’s distinct timbre as she shares stories of wonderfully intriguing marginalised individuals across history. It’s one of those rare records which leaves you feeling simultaneously broken and enriched from its intense beauty. Much like that incomparable warmth that envelopes you long after exiting a bath, Maija Sofia’s music provides an overwhelming sense of comfort, despite the underlying darkness sprinkled across the arrangements.
“A good portion of the album was actually written in the bath,” Sofia told me when we met on one of the first dusky evenings of the season. Since she was a teenager the bath has been a place of solace. Occasionally, her spells of domestic hydrotherapy can last long after the first signs of pruning appear on her fingertips. “If I’m feeling really decadent, I’ll spend hours in the bath, filling it up again when it gets too cold. When you’re in the bath, you’re usually alone and utterly submerged in something like a book. I wanted the album to feel like that. I imagine Bath Time as an album people will listen to alone through headphones. In that way, it’s like going into your own submerged space.” Once you press play, it’s easy to become immediately immersed in and enthralled by the intimacy of her performance across the nine tracks set to arrangements tinged with tonal accents of PJ Harvey and Kate Bush.
Sofia revealed that within the album’s world are lyrics borne from difficult circumstances, “I wrote many of the songs out of traumatic experiences.” Furthermore, the bath’s significance on her songwriting went beyond a place to ruminate lyrics and into Bath Time’s stories, notably with the song Elizabeth. Inspired by Elizabeth Siddal, a woman who regularly modelled for many Pre-Raphaelite artists. She famously posed for Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of Ophelia, completed in 1852, for which Siddal spent protracted periods lying in a bath of cold water while sitting for the painting. Siddal developed tuberculosis and pneumonia, an indirect cause of her untimely death aged thirty-two. However, Elizabeth Siddal was so much more than a muse, she was both an artist and published writer. That part of her, unfortunately, was erased from her personal history. This becomes a commanding commonality across Maija Sofia’s songs.
In this regard, Bath Time makes unlikely bedfellows of Edie Sedgwick, Bridget Cleary, Jean Rhys, and the aforementioned Elizabeth Siddal. Perhaps with the exception of Sedgwick, the lives of these remarkable women were shrouded by their male counterparts. “I’ve always been interested in forgotten shadow histories,” she said. “When I was putting the album together, I had songs that I had written years before I even thought about making a record. There were seven or eight songs I wanted on the album because they fitted together thematically. I noticed that a lot of my lyrics were about women in history who had been misrepresented or written out of certain narratives. I was also drawn to figures who were perceived as merely the wives and girlfriends within various scenes in music and literature.”
While she was working on the record, Sofia was struck by how these women resonated with her. One of Sofia’s most affecting songs on the record is Hail Mary, which originally appeared as a more lo-fi version on her debut EP, The Sugar Sea, released in 2015. On it, she explicitly explores sexual hypocrisy within the Catholic Church whilst also evaluating a toxic relationship she’d been in which echoed the roles in which these women had been reduced to. “When I wrote that song, I was in a relationship with someone who was much older than me. I noticed how I was repeating that pattern. I think I subconsciously identified with all of the women, maybe apart from Bridget Cleary, that would be a bit extreme! Retrospectively, I realised that I related these stories to my own life but at the same time didn’t want to misappropriate someone else’s history from my own privileged position in the world.”
Maija Sofia’s position in the world began deep in the rural countryside of Galway, where she learned violin aged nine before picking up the guitar as she entered her teenage years. She studied online tutorials to learn the basics and pick up a few chords that would provide her with a broad enough musical vernacular to set poems she had written to. She was initially self-conscious about her voice, believing that she didn’t possess the traditional cadence required to become a singer. Fortunately, this hesitation went away and she grew confident in her voice. As the Leaving Certificate approached, she decided to take up the harp, partly inspired by her love for Joanna Newson. With secondary school behind her, Sofia moved to Dublin for university. Prior to that, she had performed a handful of times in her hometown. Once relocated, she continued to play live at open mic nights.
A few years on, Maija Sofia has become one of Ireland’s most exciting and intriguing artists. As well as garnering critical acclaim for her previous releases and live performances, she received the highest compliment when Katie Kim and Radie Peat (of the Dublin-based alt-folk quartet Lankum) covered her song The Wife of Michael Cleary last year. “That was so nice because I’m such a big fan of both of them, I’ve been listening to Katie Kim since I was sixteen. It’s validating to have someone whose music I admire think that one of my songs is worth covering. I feel like people have been really supportive of me and my music. It’s really nice to have a community where you can bounce ideas.” Within Sofia’s community of like-minded musicians are Ronan Kealy aka Junior Brother, who features as a guest vocalist on Bath Time along with Oh Boland’s Niall Murphy lending emotive lap steel flares and Lisa O’Neill adding some fiddle for good measure.
Her recording process and how she has struck up working relationships are often led by her willingness to engage with certain situations that many would be too cautious to even entertain the thought of. She recorded songs for her EP with a guy she met on a park bench in London and she met Christophe Capewell, who contributed violin arrangements to the album, while she was stranded at a festival and in need of a lift to Dublin. This openness to experience has undoubtedly enhanced Sofia’s perception of different environments and scenarios. You cannot help but imagine that this trait has also aided her in transforming the narratives of women such as Bridget Cleary and Edie Sedgwick by retelling their story through some semblance of character acting through song. In this regard, during my time speaking with Sofia, and from countless listens of Bath Time, it’s apparent that she is a natural story-teller.
Finally, we assessed how music can remain relevant and contemporary into the future. Taking a moment to consider the components of what makes a great song, Sofia responded; “Lyrics are what I invest most of my time in. I feel like I’m a writer more than a musician. When I listen to music, I look for lyrics that will evoke something in me. I think that with someone like Junior Brother, for example, one aspect of his popularity comes down to the fact that what he does isn’t a gimmick. He’s an amazing musician with really good lyrics and song structures. There’s so much music now that’s extremely popular but then it just disappears.” After we say goodbye, I cannot help but repeat her assessment and come to the conclusion that people will be listening to Maija Sofia’s work for many, many years to come. And depending on the type of day you’ve had, you might even do so while escaping everything around from the safe solitude of the bath.
Bath Time is out now via Trapped Animal Records.
Maija plays The Sound House on Friday December 6, €10/€12 and Quarter Block Party in Cork on Saturday February 8
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photo: Jilly McGrath