Pulling at the strands of forgotten figures in history, Dublin based songwriter Maija Sofia is using her voice to give one to other marginalised women.
When Maija Sofia was 14, she went on a march for abortion rights in her hometown of Galway, Ireland. “There were probably 30 people marching, and that was it. And then, a few years later, suddenly we were marching through Dublin with 100,000 people. It felt like something was really changing.”
Abortion in Ireland was banned constitutionally with the Eighth Amendment in 1983. This, of course, meant that Irish women who wanted or needed an abortion had to either travel overseas or go through an illegal, unsafe procedure. In 2018, after years of campaigning by reproductive rights activists, a referendum was held and the amendment repealed, ending the abortion ban in the Republic of Ireland.
At the time of the referendum, Sofia was writing for her debut album Bath Time. The political environment subconsciously led her to focus largely on the stories of women through history; women who had been silenced, treated unfairly in life and in death, to whom Sofia in her writing gave a voice. “Being a young woman through all of this, I was constantly playing fundraisers and helping to organise different events to raise money for the abortion rights campaign. So it felt like it was a really huge part of my life,” she says. “I guess at the time I didn’t feel like I was writing directly about it, but now in hindsight, all these songs on the album are unintentionally about marginalised women’s voices.”
One such example is ‘Elizabeth’, in which Sofia focuses on the death of Elizabeth Siddall. Though herself an artist and poet, Siddall is largely remembered by history as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists in 1800s London. She began modelling for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and began a love affair with him. From then she modelled exclusively for Rossetti, and he painted thousands of images of her. But since she was of a lower class, he was reluctant either to introduce her to his family or to marry her (though he eventually did, towards the end of her life).
He began an affair with another model, Fanny Cornforth, and Siddall, suffering from ill health and post-partum depression after the birth of a stillborn daughter, became addicted to laudanum. She died of an overdose - ruled accidental, but more likely suicide. Distraught, Rossetti had a manuscript of his poems buried with her; but in an almost comically macabre twist, he later dug up her grave and retrieved the poems so as to have them published. In ‘Elizabeth’, Sofia sings from the point of view of Rossetti as he mourns Siddall’s death, taking on both a tender sadness and an almost sarcastic look at Rossetti’s disrespect for his wife (‘I know I should have stayed with you that night / But it got too late and it was too cold outside’).
Maija Sofia grew up in rural Galway, nothing around but “farmers and churches”. It was an isolating experience, being so far from any public transport, friends her age or, in time, music scene, as violin lessons were abandoned and gave way to the guitar. In her pre-teens and teens, she started listening to emo bands like Paramore, and then new wave bands like The Smiths and The Cure. Eventually, she discovered the freak-folk movement, through artists such as CocoRosie, Joanna Newsom, and Regina Spektor.
There was something different about those artists, women who beat their own musical path, who were unencumbered with over-production or hefty recording advances. To Sofia, this was a revelation. “Before, when I was listening to Paramore or The Smiths, I loved it, but on my own, it didn’t feel like something that was accessible,” she says. “When I discovered Regina Spektor, who was this weird woman doing stuff on her own, and CocoRosie who are two sisters, it suddenly felt like something that was within the range of possibility.”
"All these songs on the album are unintentionally about marginalised women’s voices.”
Still, even as she began writing songs, there were no kindred spirits to be found at her secondary school in Galway. The closest thing was boys in their bands playing Red Hot Chili Peppers covers, but there were no girls playing music and absolutely nobody who was writing music. After she finished school, she moved to Dublin, where for the first time she found those like-minded souls, artists, at open mics and gigs. One friend, Ferdia MacAonghusa, was from Galway too, and he and Sofia started collaborating. They made an EP together, bedroom-recorded, and uploaded it to Bandcamp, where it found a small audience.
Sofia moved to London then, eager to be in a city so big and so far removed from her life in Galway. It was there that she took off as an artist, gigging and playing at open mics all the time, and writing some of the songs that would end up on Bath Time. It was there too that she met Joel Clayton of Trapped Animal Records, who at the time was promoting gigs, and Kerry Devine, a Trapped Animal artist with whom she released a split single. After two years in London, though, Sofia grew disillusioned and exhausted.
“I hated how expensive everything always is and how everyone is very career-obsessed. And it’s just so gentrified now as well. I was living in Walthamstow, and in the two years that I was there it just changed so completely,” she says. “It started to get me down rather than inspire me.” She elected to move back to Dublin for university, where she studied English Literature (something that shows in the poetic and literary nature of her lyricism).
Back in Ireland, she began recording Bath Time, recruiting friends to join her. “My friend Méabh I met during the recording process. I’ve always loved the harp, it’s my favourite instrument, so I really wanted to have harp on the album but I didn’t know any harpists. Then as soon as I met her, I was like, ‘Please just come into the studio and just play what you want over the songs’.” Another friend Ronan Kealy, who performs as the artist Junior Brother, provides haunting harmonies on ‘The Wife of Michael Cleary’. “I’m a fan of his work, and he had that kind of ominous kind of feeling and I just wanted his voice on the song, so that worked really well.”
Bridget Cleary was a woman who lived in Tipperary, Ireland, in the 1800s. She married a man named Michael Cleary, but for the time she was unconventionally independent - she spent time living apart from her husband and became a dressmaker and milliner as well as rearing her own chickens and selling their eggs. The couple moved into a cottage that was said to be the site of a fairy ringfort, and when Bridget fell ill with bronchitis, Michael supposedly grew convinced that his wife had been replaced with a fairy changeling. He, along with Bridget’s father and other townspeople, murdered her in a ritualistic burning. Michael was charged not with murder but with manslaughter since the jury accepted the defense that he had truly believed his wife was a fairy changeling; that burning her to death would indeed bring his real wife back.
Whether Michael really did believe this is up for debate; there has been speculation about his mental health, whether he suffered from some form of psychosis. But one can also assume that Bridget’s independence and lack of financial reliance on her husband were threatening to him, and therefore interpret the murder as the ultimate act of patriarchal possessiveness. After all, for all that was made of the folklore and superstition that drove the case - including, according to some at the time, that it was evident that the Irish were too backward to govern themselves - what it sounds like when stripped of that is one amongst countless stories of a jealous and vengeful man.
“When I discovered Regina Spektor, this weird woman doing stuff on her own, it suddenly felt like something that was within the range of possibility.”
Sofia grew fascinated with the story, and retold it from Bridget’s perspective in ‘The Wife of Michael Cleary’. ‘The stars glint like cleavers / My love, it was only a fever,’ she sings, her voice deeply haunting atop the baleful violin. ‘They searched along the rivers and the mountains and the glen / But the wife of Michael Cleary won’t be home again’.
Sofia settled on the name Bath Time for the record for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was a playful streak set against the dark stories she tells on the record and the sound to match, a contrast Sofia liked. She adds, “I love the idea when you’re in the bath, you’re completely submerged in something, and you’re outside of everyday time. An interruption to the everyday. And also, I have a lot of baths when I’m feeling down, so a lot of the lyrics were written while in the bath,” she laughs. Plus, by serendipitous chance, Elizabeth Siddall - subject of the song ‘Elizabeth’ - contracted tuberculosis from a bath that went cold while modelling for the famous painting ‘Ophelia’, triggering the ill health that likely contributed to her suicide.
It’s clear that the record draws from Ireland’s rich history of folk music, from the violin and harp that weave throughout to Sofia’s dark and mournful storytelling. “I love folk music,” she says. “I kind of resisted it because I’m from the countryside, and it’s all people playing Irish trad music in pubs. And I thought that was really uncool for ages. And now, I actually think that that’s really valuable, and the most interesting music in Ireland is the old, mad songs that you hear being sung by eccentric old men in pubs. I just love the weird, dark stories that have travelled through the centuries, and the old ballads.” She re-imagines that traditional folk, however, as mingling with hazy dream-pop; the traditional instrumentation plays around electric guitar and synth, with Sofia’s voice tying it together, sitting comfortably astride the modern era and the bygone one.
Sofia says the DIY ethos in which she operates is “central” to her artistry. “In Dublin at the moment, so many music venues and art spaces and studios are being shut down and turned into luxury flats or whatever. And at the same time, artists are used as tourist traps, and the tourist industry is shutting down the art spaces.”
She is committed to playing in DIY and artist-run spaces, both in order to fight the encroachment by capitalism on artistic spaces and also to foster a feeling of community; the latter, she adds, extending to her signing to the independent Trapped Animal Records for the release of Bath Time. “The whole music industry world really overwhelms me and can stress me out a bit. So it’s nice that these people I’ve known for the last two or three years are still helping me. It feels like a community thing rather than a business thing, which would make me really uncomfortable.”
The first single released for the record was ‘The Glitter’. Sofia wrote it about the novelist Jean Rhys, after reading her book ‘Good Morning Midnight’. Born in the Caribbean, Rhys came to England as a teenager, where she was immediately treated as an outsider. Denied formal training as an actress because of her accent, she ended up working as a chorus girl before writing her first novels. “The song is about that feeling of arriving in a new place full of excitement and optimism, but how that dwindles over time,” Sofia says, “and you realise you carry the anxieties of the old place you left with you into the new life. And trying to reclaim a sense of hope and wonder.” It’s both touching and heartbreaking when Sofia sings, ‘Jean, do you remember how we danced through the glitter?”, a hand extended to that now-dead outsider, both Jean in the past tense and Sofia in the present searching for that hope and wonder.
"You carry the anxieties of the old place you left with you into the new life. And try to reclaim a sense of hope and wonder."
Because the songs on ‘Bath Time’ were written over an extended period of time, there was no overarching concept in mind. “It wasn’t like I sat down with a project,” Sofia says. “I’ve always been interested in, like, the shadow histories of the great artists, how there’s almost always a sidelined woman behind their work. But it wasn’t an intentional thing. It’s only afterward when I was putting the album together that I recognised a thread running through the songs.”
“[Feminism]is something that I’ve always felt strongly about myself, being a young, queer woman growing up in a very Catholic place,” she continues. “Constantly, these are things that I was thinking about. I never felt like I was writing political songs or anything. But now, when I look at them all together as a group, I see that of course there’s a political undercurrent and that feminism has been huge in my life and in my writing.
“What interests me in art and in life is the conversations that women have together, and artistic spaces for voices that have been sidelined. I’ve always been interested in female and queer art. I’m just bored of reading art by straight men. I don’t need to hear about it anymore. I guess that’s what’s felt relevant in my life, and it’s what I want to read about and listen to, so it also informs my own writing.”
“[Feminism]is something that I’ve always felt strongly about myself, being a young, queer woman growing up in a very Catholic place".
‘Hail Mary’ is likely the most pressing feminist expression on the record. Sofia draws on the ‘sexual hypocrisy’ of the Catholic Church, singing, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace / Get into the back seat, wipe the dirt from your face / Learn to fuck with your legs wide open’. It’s something that was important for Sofia, as an Irish woman, to examine. “I was realising how much going to a Catholic school and growing up in that environment, even though I wasn’t Catholic, had made me feel this weird shame about my sexuality and my body. And how there’s so much internalised misogyny and internalised shame that we carry around.”
Just after she left school, in a town called Tuam near where she lived in Galway, the bodies of 800 babies were discovered at the site of a former mother and baby home (where mothers who became pregnant outside of wedlock were kept in what Sofia calls “a weird Handmaid’s Tale incarceration”). That, amongst the other numerous stories of abuse that have emerged about the Church, in part moved her to write ‘Hail Mary’; plus, of course, the debate around the abortion ban - this song is the one most directly influenced by it, Sofia says.
At the time of our conversation, ‘Bath Time’ is still a month away from release. As her debut full-length, the first release of any kind on a label, and the first to have attention building before it’s even out, it’s a landmark for Sofia as a musician. She’s a “little bit nervous”, she says. “But I also kind feel like I’m a bit divorced from it now. Like, the thing that I love to do is writing the songs and performing live. Obviously it’s really exciting to have a physical thing and a finished project that people can access or listen to. But I’m writing new songs, I’m writing other things. I know that I’m a bit of a weirdo and I’m not ever gonna be Radio 1 daytime playlist sort of thing, so I don’t ever expect to make any money or to be super famous. Which is probably a good thing.” (Away from music, she’s also starting work on a PhD proposal. Her academic mind complements her creative mind, she says, and vice versa: “I feel like the music would be less interesting if I wasn’t constantly reading and thinking about things in that way.”)
One gets the feeling that the kind of success Maija Sofia is aiming for isn’t a kind that can be measured, but the kind that you know with certainty when you hear it - to keep expressing the things only she can, in the way that only she can. What she’s created with ‘Bath Time’ is stunning; her storytelling, the way she wears different masks without it ever feeling contrived, and the way she weaves different musical threads together into something uniquely compelling. As long as she continues to create with the same sincerity that she does here, it will be worth following her to wherever her creative output takes her next.