Maija Sofia considers love, ghosts and the redemptive power of songwriting.
At first glance, the title of Maija Sofia’s new album True Love could be seen as ironic. The songs detail the fervour that comes with being young, in love, losing and in no state to put yourself first. Fast forward a few years to the point of evaluating what’s left in the aftermath of something as heady as your early twenties? What remnants you are left with?
‘‘I don’t know if you’ve ever been really, drastically in love. But that kind alters you as a person. And then even after that person has left or you’ve moved on or whatever, the trace of their influence in your life has sort of altered your way of being in the world in some way,” explains musician and songwriter Maija Sofia. It’s a haunting, one of many explored by Maija on the album as well as in her own artistic process. “I feel like writing to me is like mediumship, without being really wanky about it,” she tells me. “When I’m writing, sometimes I don’t know where the thing is coming from. And I have to allow my body to be a vessel for the haunting, because that makes sense to me.” That following of an instinct, the faith in intuition, is something that has guided Maija Sofia in her artistry and is one of things that has positioned her as one of Ireland’s most exciting songwriters.
True Love is the musician’s second album, emerging from a time of huge change and transformation. Where her first album Bath Time is quiet and introspective, True Love sees Maija step into a new era of power and potentiality to take up space. A change in scenery facilitated such growth. “I wrote Bath Time in house shares, having to play really quietly because I had like four housemates. I think that affected the songs on Bath Time, they’re quite introverted, or quite small,” Maija says. Moving to the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh to write True Love enabled her to get louder in what was a moment of rare stillness. “I had an artist’s residency for the first time which meant I had a space to myself for the first time in my whole life. I had a big, empty, echoey space to work with and I was able to be as loud as I wanted to. I was able to sing much louder without being self-conscious.”
photo: Jilly McGrath
As they emerged, the songs gave her a chance to reflect on what had inspired them and the distance she felt towards those feelings and memories in the present, as she explains, “Interestingly to me, I wrote most of the songs when I was in a phase where I was like, ‘I don’t believe in love anymore’. Instead, however, I realised that it wasn’t love that I had experienced but a sort of madness. It was dysfunctional and dangerous and I’ll never put myself in that state again. Thankfully, I outgrew that initial cynicism of not believing in love. In the past, to me, the love-madness experience was founded on addictive states and being pushed to the extreme; these were the things I was thinking about whilst writing.” Indeed, the subject matter Maija approaches on True Love is communicated with a searing clarity bolstered by the sonically palpable lived experience behind it.
With expanded space and time at Sirius came room for sonic experimentation. Maija’s engagement with singing is as a somatic, instinctual process where exploring her own vocal capabilities allowed an opportunity to discover more instinctual honesty. “It’s like my voice knows which way to lead me. Sometimes I’m just like, ‘Why can’t I get a good melody? Why is nothing working here?’ Then, sometimes, I’ll be playing some chords and the melody will just lead me somewhere completely different.”
A few months after her residency, Maija returned to Sirius with her band to record what she had written. The range of instrumentation and the ingenuity of the musicians themselves – Maija, Chris Barry on bass, Solamh Kelly on drums, Méabh McKenna on harp, Ryan Hargadon on sax and clarinet, Ruth Clinton on theremin and David A. Tapley on pedal steel – add rich texture to the sonic landscapes of each song and create expansive worlds that make the emotions expressed all the more palpable. Recording in an art gallery, however, provided its own challenges, “It was not like an ideal recording environment at all because it was this really big, echoey room. It was an odd place to record, but it was also really fun.”
Maija continues to consider how the unconventional setting suited the style she was going for with True Love, “I wasn’t interested in making a perfect, polished, super-produced album. Whenever I’m making anything, I want it to be like a capsule of a specific moment, including all of the mistakes that go into that moment. I guess these songs were made in that way of knowing it wasn’t going to be like a studio-produced album. It’s like a recording of a specific time and place.”
The treatment of the album as a capsule rather than as a challenge to be executed perfectly serves the subject matter of it perfectly. The songs are bound-up with ghosts – Saint Sebastian, Saint Rita of Cascia, Chagall, Leon Theremin – some haunting in their stories, others in their literal haunting of a space (Saint Aquinas has a lot to answer for in this regard). Indeed, the word esoteric permeates the work and Maija’s own experience of the world, “I’ve always been really obsessed with mythology, particularly ancient Greek mythology and the symbolisms. Also growing up in rural Ireland, there’s a set of myths we have available to us as well as the myths of Catholicism; the saints and the saints as metaphors. Journeys and symbols are interesting to me.”
Yet it’s a testament to Maija’s sense of self and spacing that the stories of others never overshadow her own. Rather, she relates the figures of mysticism and mythology to the current and the contemporary, instilling a soft reverence for the human condition. On an initial listen, one could all too easily view True Love as a collection of sad songs documenting loss, tragedy and trauma. “I was on tour last week, and afterwards a man was like, ‘Not very cheerful!’” Maija explains. “And I responded to him saying, ‘What do you want me to say? Sorry?’ I don’t think my songs are that sad. Obviously, they explore places of darkness but to me the very act of writing a song is a redemptive move. It’s like a gesture of hope or something.”
Indeed, hope should be one of the key feelings people should leave with after listening to True Love. The arc which the album takes is one of reclamation, not redemption. True Love is a fitting title for an album that charts a journey from frenzy to cynicism to a place of loving, truly. Maija concludes, “I think there’s like a self-protective nature that has to come in. There’s a balance; there’s a way to throw yourself fully into all the possibilities of love while also maintaining your own identity and your own sense of self.”
True Love is out now on TULLE.
Maija Sofia plays in Whelan’s on Thursday September 28.
Words: Julie Landers
Photo: Anna Heisterkamp