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  • Georgiana Gray & Ellie Wilson

The Success of Sofar Sounds? It’s a Secret

A secret location announced 36 hours before the show and an unknown lineup. Armed with nothing but a confirmation email, a thick winter coat and a healthy dose of excitement, we made our way to Leith not knowing what to expect of our first Sofar Sounds event. We had received an email the day before confirming the location as Under the Arch, a small independent café situated on Leith Walk. Upon arrival, the first thing we noticed was how cosy the space looked. Decked out in swathes of twinkling fairy lights, candles, and with a fire in the wood burner, the café had been transformed into the perfect ambient stage. The room felt incredibly intimate, with some of the audience members literally sitting at the artist’s feet on the cushions arranged on the floor. The audience’s first introduction to the artists came written on a chalkboard in the corner, with the names Alienore, Mariama and Ay Wing. We tried to resist giving each name a google before the show started, to keep the secrecy of the evening as intact as possible:

Artwork by Zoë Brown (IG: @Zoe_r_art).

Before each performance, a short introduction was given for the artists, providing the audience with an idea of the genres, stories, and sounds we would be listening to. First up was Alienore, an artist described as ‘witchy pop with indie and alternative influences’. Sold. Her performance was ethereal, with the soft strums of the guitar accompaniment undercutting her dreamy vocals. Filled with natural imagery, the lyrics of Alienore’s songs explore the relationship of nature to the human condition, as she told anecdotes about her experiences of growing up in the French countryside in between songs, to provide the audience with a fully contextualised introduction to her sound.

The song ‘Paradise Lost’ was a standout, as Alienore explored her love of literature through the song, using Milton’s epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ as a mirror for her own connections to the spiritual understanding gained through spending time in nature. Another highlight was the (unreleased) song ‘We Narcissus’, an exploration of life in the 21st century with the intrusion of technology and screens upon the human condition. This song seems to be at the core of what Sofar Sounds is about, as the evening provided a sense of escapism, as the entire audience were joined in the discovery of new music in an immediate way, separate to the Spotify algorithm, and together.

After a short interval, where we were given time to pop up to the bar for a drink, the next act was introduced. Mariama was described as a singer-songwriter with truly global roots, with both her European and African heritage forging connections in her music. As well as this, we were told Mariama spent time in South America, and an inflection of Latin sound through the guitar accompaniment certainly brought some sonic sunshine to rainy Leith. The songs she performed were upbeat and lively, speeding up the tempo of the evening from the lilting opening of Alienore. Mariama performed songs from her album ‘Love, Sweat and Tears’ as well as demonstrating her new work, ready for her album release in spring 2023.

The song ‘Grains of Wisdom’ was a highlight, as her impressive vocal performance filled the cafe, with layered harmonies played from her laptop as the stripped back nature of the event meant there was no need for a full backing band. The novelty of performing these songs live has not worn off for Mariama following the pandemic, as she explained in between songs that the ‘added extras’ of live performance creates a musical experience far more special than listening to the recorded versions.

The final performance, by R&B artist Ay Wing was a perfect sign off for the evening. Described as a driving force of the Berlin music scene, Ay Wing performed songs from her recently released album ‘Bloodstream’. She explained the importance of femininity and womanhood in her songs, as a medium for exploring these aspects of herself while simultaneously uplifting others. Despite the upbeat nature of the songs she performed, the sensual quality of her lyricism was still felt, combining synth with sensitivity.

The final song of her set, and the final of the night, was a special rendition of her song ‘No Wonderwoman’ for which she brought out Alienore and Mariama to sing the harmonies. All three artists are Berlin-based and were participating in a small UK tour, performing at various Sofar events in cities such as London and Glasgow, as well as Edinburgh. Their synthesis in ‘No Wonderwoman’ was clear, as the three women shared the space together to perform a song with a strong message of female empowerment. The community of womanhood was acutely felt in the room, as the audience was encouraged to join in and sing along to the catchy hook.

The draw of Sofar Sounds is that these performances were unique to the event and to the venue. It’s exciting to think about who could be performing in Edinburgh next, and where this could be. From abandoned buildings, to art galleries, to private living rooms, Sofar Sounds continues to put on regular secret events. A ticket to the unknown, but with the reassurance of discovering new music. Sara Sutherland, the event producer of Sofar, explained that for upcoming musicians, applying to be on a Sofar lineup is a great way to get your music into the ears of a whole new audience. There is an inevitably high demand for slots since Covid, but the regularity of the secret sessions means there is plenty of time for everyone to experience a touch of the Sofar Sounds magic.

Alienore and Ay Wing were supported by Edinburgh-based guitarist, Harry Higgs. After speaking further with him, we learnt that his impressive musical background has led him around the world – from California to Eastern Australia – and ended up in Edinburgh. He seems to be well-integrated in the Edinburgh music scene, and came across Sofar Sounds 5 years ago as one of the organisers worked on a show that he was involved in. He volunteered as a supporting artist and did occasional MCing, then met Ay Wing and performed with her to an audience in the impressive Usher Hall. More recently, he performed at a Sofar sounds event in Glasgow in his current duo, which mostly plays a jazz-folk crossover. Whilst we both agreed it seems unnatural that artists cannot promote their gigs with Sofar Sounds until the day before or day of the show, Harry said he could understand the reasoning behind it, and it seems less necessary than normal as there is already a captive audience ready to discover new music. To end, Harry said that although competition is now high following Covid, he has never been busier, a positive sign for him and for the regrowth of live music in Edinburgh.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and we loved being able to interact with each of the artists. If you’re looking for something new to try in Edinburgh, a Sofar Sounds night should definitely be on the cards!

Check out the artists on Instagram: @alienoremusic, @mari.ama___, @aywingmusic, @harry88hammer


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