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Singer Loah: 'In college I found my calling - with a bit of help from Radiohead'

Sallay Matu-Garnett, also known by her performance name Loah, on what she learned about herself during her time in Trinity.

Sallay Matu-Garnett

‘AND THERE WAS nothing to fear, and nothing to doubt.’

Radiohead’s lyrics reverberating throughout the Trinity Exam Hall, a frisson of tense expression right the way up my back, the sound waves emerging from my mouth. The year of Our Lord 2010. This was the moment I decided I would turn my back on all I had promised to my future and become that most commonplace of rudimentary magicians: a singer.

I spent four years in the late 2000s studying pharmacy at Trinity College. By anyone’s standards, I had made the most sensible choice any bright-eyed millennial could make. I grew up with two parents from different countries and cultures, always travelling between the suburbs of Kildare and two capital cities in West Africa: Banjul and Freetown. By 18, I wanted stability, responsibility and a useful body of knowledge. I wanted to stay put!

I had loved biochemical sciences in school but missed the marks for medicine by a hair’s breadth due to unforeseen chaos during my Leaving Cert year. Pharmacy reared its head as the obvious choice, one line of a CAO form above music.

After a post-school ‘gap year’ (a term now made infamous by the supposed ludicrous privilege needed to take one, and the stereotypes that have been created by those who do), I walked through the College Green archway and into those hallowed halls ready for all my wildest expectations to be fulfilled.

‘I’m not a Trinner’

Let me be clear and profoundly honest: those expectations were by no means modest. I never intended to go to Trinity and not become a ‘Trinner’. On the contrary, that was my primary aim. I wanted every scrap of Trinity prestige going. I had always been academically ambitious and I wanted to win at everything. I had also sacrificed a social life as a teen to achieve those academic capabilities, so I wanted to fix that by being present everywhere and being friends with everyone. I wanted the glamour of all things genteel to rub off on me.

I wanted to sit hungover in drab rented rooms or grand, fabulous ones watching old movies. I wanted my vistas filled with cobblestones, columns and gothic windows. I wanted to speak in modernist poetic cadences and I wanted to get wasted at the Pav.

I wanted to join 101 societies and I wanted to fall in love 101 times. I wanted to play jazz and I wanted to play classical music. I wanted to do yoga and I wanted to be carried home. I wanted to sing at student balls and I wanted there to be enough chaos to cry at parties. I wanted to never need to sleep. I wanted to be wealthy, successful and free. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to have a great future.

I did a great deal of those things, a great many more, and attempted to do them all simultaneously. Those years were a gift. And, like any gift from the gods, it could not be returned. In the doing of everything under the College Green sun, I lost myself.

I was a student living on grants that my patient, loving, single mother had helped me secure, so that her daughter – born into poverty but reared through hard work into the middle class, and who was fiercely demanding of life and greedy for every experience – could fill her appetite for knowledge.

I worked several jobs in the summers, at home and abroad, collecting savings and languages. In the winters I went snowboarding with my fabulous friends and tried to keep up on the slopes while simultaneously trying to keep up with pharmaceutics.

Changing directions

In the first year, I tried to leave pharmacy, knowing I probably, maybe, didn’t really want to be a pharmacist and therefore ought not to waste everyone’s time. I wanted to be an artiste, experience everything and then write about it all.

However, there was no plan of how I’d go about doing this. I did, after all, want to be a useful citizen, and an artist with no plan is not very useful to anyone, least of all themselves. So, a friend and my college tutor talked me out of my storm-out, and I reconsidered.

I committed, renamed as what I felt was the more suave ‘Apothecary’ class, made football team names like Bend It Like Benzene and just got on with it. (At no point in my life since have I ever regretted this decision, though I did leave pharmacy eventually. The stability and sense of confidence that comes from being of service have been profoundly necessary to my character and indeed my mental health.) Like any half-decent committed footballer, I knew if my jersey was still clean by the end, I hadn’t played hard enough.

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I failed an exam for the first time in the midst of the maelstrom of heartbreak. I went to a therapist for the first time when I kept crying for ‘no reason’ in laboratories and libraries.

There were club nights. There were choral masses. Front Square was the scene of many a Trinity Ball crime, many a term-time conversation and the ultimate moment of anticlimactic release at graduation. I lived in a Georgian house on Raglan Road with my best friend and I sang jazz standards every week on Westland Row with the best musos. I played the violin and surfed and read and ate Tesco frozen pizzas. My sweethearts made me mixtapes to soundtrack our ferocious, possessive, youthful love.

The fervour and ecstasy, combined with a wild swing from unbounded joy to total despair, exposed deep inner anxieties from a childhood of uncertainty and a fearful dread that all good things must end.

Short, sharp stop

And end they did. Bang smack in the middle of my degree, the 2008 financial crisis occurred.

We heard of older siblings or parents of people we knew having salaries slashed and losing their jobs, business and homes. The dark cloud of the burst economic bubble moved across the waters of our collective consciousness. Suddenly the prospects of a life that sounded as breezy as the chorus of every Thrills song was no more. Bertie Ahern went from being ‘the Taoiseach who drank at the Quill pub in Drumcondra near our mates’ flat’ to the sinister overlord of our generation’s demise.

We were waking up to the end of an era of excess and the end of the Twilight novel series. What was to become of us all? Even though the pandemic of recession was changing the fabric of society, I felt strangely cushioned by the institution surrounding me, along with also getting to spend a semester of my third year on Erasmus in Montpellier. The dream persisted: I had a minuscule and totally lovable rectangular pod room in a student dorm.

I drank rosé, sang in the labs, sang in the jazz clubs and learned that French pharmacies at the time sold the highest number of antidepressants and slimming products in Europe.

Being transported to a city with one of the oldest European medical schools and one of the youngest age demographics was the best and arguably most sensible form of escapism for a still green young’un. Not yet ready to fully fly the Trinity nest, I found a semester to be more than enough time to soak in cosy, reassuring French bureaucracy, education and the Beaujolais festival. Not enough time to miss home. Enough of a break from the growing tension of approaching the educational finish line in the midst of an economic downturn. Alors, on danse.

Returning home after those few months in France, I resolved to squeeze every last blessing I could out of the remaining time. I had not shaken off that strange, unresolved dread but was determined to move forward through hyperactivity and the deranged pursuit of everything that made me ‘happy’.

I can only presume, from the biased view that is memory, that to everyone near to me – family, friend and foe – I was both utterly charming and utterly unbearable.

Be that as it may, by the end of Third Year, the inner gnawing of being out of place and the fear for our collective future was getting louder. I was so involved and so present, yet sometimes I would secretly sleep for days and tell everyone that I was with other people. Flaky was my student name, number and address. I was popular, yet the crippling loneliness I felt regularly drove me at best to write terrible poetry, or at worst to seek help from dangerous thought patterns.

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Music sustaining

The one thing that persistently grounded me in those years of ferocious overactivity (covering this vague, growing sense of inadequacy to enter an uncertain world) was music.

The orchestra rehearsals where I’d sit calmly in a second-violin desk quite literally soothed my nervous system. The gigs with the lads and our dear, sweet soul–funk–jazz band Jazzberries (oh the frivolous titles of youth) hunkered me back to the moment and a sense of fleeting purpose and FUN. To this day, there are chords we sang in a Polish choral piece in Singers that I play to myself when the dung is really hitting the fan.

I am by nature cheerful, but deeper psychological issues were beginning to surface and affect the delicately balanced charade. My colour, this ‘blackness’, and how I interacted with the world because of it, was leading to uncomfortable questions, in brief moments of mental quiet, for which I had no answers.

Womanhood and the sometime prison of its meaning was becoming undeniable: it was allowing me to start allowing myself to fail. By the time my final year came, it was clear that I was existing for what music was giving me and tolerating everything else. I was an exhausted, hyper-stimulated, undernourished life-junkie. That spring in 2010, I had friends asking whether I was OK, as I hadn’t been to class in a couple of weeks. Enter, Radiohead.

When Rob Farhat and Brian Denvir, my dear friends in the orchestra, asked if I would put the violin down and sing two Radiohead songs at the concert of homegrown arrangements they were organizing for us, I set about immediately to find a singing coach.

I might have been in final year, I might have been clinically malnourished and depressed, but I wasn’t screwing up Radiohead. And then I discovered Judith Mok. A friend’s mum, her reputation preceded her. Legend had it she had coached THE Thom Yorke during the recording of Hail to the Thief album. Completely out of my price range or my professional capabilities, I nonetheless convinced her to take me on for a few weeks for this most crucial of engagements.

Suddenly, I had a reason to wake up in the morning. That eleven-beat long note wasn’t going to learn to sing itself. I needed to start meditating again, because how else would I convey the depth of transcendence of Yorke’s phrasing? I felt I should probably start eating properly too because vocalists couldn’t faint on stage, it hadn’t been in vogue for centuries.

The lessons with Judith were (and still are) intense, focused and purposeful. Everything I had always wanted and sought, but for the exact end I had been lacking all that time: to create the perfection of the sound wave emerging from one’s body. Around lesson three, I had the fabled ‘cry’ many of her early students experience, the surrendering to what feels like life’s real work. Those few weeks set in motion a sea change.

Though I trained fully and worked as a chemist, it wasn’t long before I left my first job to dream and to plan a life in music. Though I had always written songs, there was now a sense of meaning and momentum. I could comb apart each line with Judith and excavate profundity in the most humble of lyrics. To surrender to the arts is to hold hands with the humility of the beginner’s mind. There is always more to know and to express and always someone better than you. Infinite homework for the rudimentary magician. Yet in that, there is the potential for infinite satisfaction.

Ten years later, when I watch back over the grainy footage from that 2010 Radiohead show, I find holes in my technique, I hear mistakes. It is not necessarily as magical as it felt. I can see my discomfort in myself.

I remember the nervousness beforehand in the side room of the Exam Hall chatting to Pats (now I Have a Tribe). I had done so many gigs and been tested in that Exam Hall so many times, but I knew this was different. I knew I had found, or rather accepted, my calling in the most roundabout of ways. The future was finally starting.

Taken from Trinity Tales: Trinity College Dublin in the 2000s, published by Lilliput Press, which is out now. Sallay-Matu Garnett is an Irish-Sierra Leonean singer-songwriter who performs as ‘Loah’.

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