In a recent interview Zac Brown opened up about what it takes to become a part of his record label, Southern Ground, “To be a Southern Ground artist, you have to be a lifer. It’s not about winning a karaoke contest or a television show to become famous. It’s about really paying your dues.” Zac could not have described Sonia Leigh in a more perfect fashion. At just 17, Sonia left home to pursue her dream of playing music. She worked tirelessly, playing the bar scene in Atlanta and cultivating her songwriting skills. Fate intervened when she began a regular gig at Zac’s Place, Zac Brown’s restaurant on Lake Oconee in Georgia. They had an instant musical connection that evolved as Zac’s fame grew on a national stage. He served as Sonia’s mentor and friend, pushing her to be at her artistic best.
Sonia is startlingly driven. She did not follow an easy path to success, sleeping on many couches in Atlanta while hunting the next steady paycheck. Her ambition alone kept her moving forward during lean times. She never questioned what she was meant to do; performing has always been her destiny. Her stubbornness is what makes her so relatable. Fans love her tenacity and her ability to take the pain from the past and transform it into a powerful lyric or melody.
Her vocal stylings range from a stirring Loretta Lynn twang to a sultry southern rock swagger on her debut album for Southern Ground. CMT took notice and highlighted her as October’s Listen Up! Artist of the Month. As her single “My Name is Money” climbs the charts, Sonia spoke with Country Music Pride in anticipation of her homecoming show at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, GA.
I discovered a YouTube clip of you performing on a local morning show back in 2007. What is different about Sonia in 2011 than Sonia in 2007?
Oh no! Well, I’m older (laughs). I think I have grown as a songwriter and as a person in that time. Life has changed so much since then.
Each of your songs feel so personal on your new record. Tell me about the writing and recording of 1978 December.
There are some songs that I wrote around that time, back in 2007. I held onto them because I thought they were strong enough to add to my record. We recorded some in Atlanta and we did some work in Nashville too. We have a lot of extremely talented musicians on there that I was lucky to work with, like Clay Cook and Matt Mangano. We would just move around from place to place and it took a while because we were on the road with Zac Brown. So in between our landings points we would do some recordings.
Did you record where ever you were at the time during the tour?
Yeah, if you listen to “Bar” on the album you can hear everyone singing along, the whole Zac Brown Band and crew. We set up in a locker room after a show we had played, a Blackberry Smoke show. Songs like that are special because we recorded where ever we were, just set up shop.
Do you have a song on the album you feel most connected to?
I really am proud of “I Just Might.” It really embodies a lot of my influences like Jackson Brown and Sean Costello.
Has music always been an important element of your life?
I’ve been playing music since I was big enough to bang on something. I wanted to be a drummer but my Dad wasn’t having that. My old man plays guitar.
Your Dad sounds very wise.
He is, my family is very supportive of me.
I saw you play over the summer with Zac Brown Band and Blackberry Smoke. One thing that struck me about the show was I felt each of you were there for the music. You’re very authentic.
Thank you very much. That is one thing I love about Southern Ground records. I’m happy to be a part of the movement of music that is coming out of Atlanta. Joe McGuinness, the Wheeler Boys.…you can go over to Northside Tavern and hear amazing blues music. All of us are excited to be part of this.
How did it feel when you had the opportunity to perform with Loretta Lynn?
It was surreal. She was my very first concert. My Dad took me to see her when I was five years old and to be opening for her was a reality check. I thought, “Wow. This is really cool. Even if this is all I do for the rest of my life, this is pretty awesome!”
What music are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I don’t really listen to my iPod. I have a record player that I listen to, vinyl! I play Bruce Springsteen, Stones, The Band. I recently scored the Beatles “Rubber Soul.” Newer music, I listen to Zac Brown Band but I also am really liking The Band Perry. They have a cool, fresh sound and I have a good feeling about them. I am always down to listening to Sean Costello. Country music, I listen to Kris Kristopherson, Alabama…
You listen to the good stuff!
Always. I love looking for records in whatever city we are playing in.
Sonia returns to her hometown to celebrate the release of her album on Southern Ground Records, “1978 December” at Variety Playhouse, 10/20/2011.