“In Ireland, I think we speak in this lyrical, melodic way too. So I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to dialects in my songwriting.”
‘Fehdah’ is a musical project by Emma Garnett. You may know her formerly as ‘Feather’, a blend of futuristic African soul. Being of Irish and Sierra Leonean descent Emma brings sounds inspired by the Sahel Region of West Africa, with jovial visits of the “stately swagger” of the Krio language and combining this with what she deems as “lyrical, melodic” dialects of Dublin and Ireland. As an astro-physics teacher in NUI Maynooth, Fehdah associates this with her music – for the coolest reason possible.
“I’d like to think my songs could be played on the Moon. I studied astrophysics but I still don’t know what makes some music sound cosmically inclined, something about twinkly keys and worbly bass feels. Getting a degree has straight up funded so much of my musical work, not to mention giving me weekly doses of physics problems I get to solve in the laboratory”.
Emma shared her thoughts with us recently about many things including performing with her siblings and her sister Sallay Garnett, aka Loah. She tells us about fusing different areas of work, different cultural influences and different genres and aspects of music. She shared with us her wise outlooks on life, mentioning she’s “partial to a cheesy but fabulously honest love songs” and describing love and the subject of love in music as “one of the most profound and confusing experiences we go through as sentient beings”.
What inspired you to form the group and for such different artists to come together? Is group work something you feel you have more freedom in or is working solo something you’re more comfortable with?
I write all the music and lyrics myself on a music software program called Ableton, for a seven-piece ensemble who diligently learn their parts like bosses! The core band members have been playing with me for a number of years but I am lucky enough to know a lot of very talented musicians, so it’s not usually difficult to make up a line up on a gig by gig basis, depending on availability. Playing solo live is actually a fairly new thing for me. It was fun reverse engineering all my demos, which have layers of poly-rhythmic drums and percussion, vocal parts for four singers and guitar and piano samples from people like Ahmad Jamal and Ali Farka Touré and finding a way to perform the songs with just one guitar and one vocal.
I’ve read and heard lots about your music looking forward and being futuristic but referential to the past also. You call to mind Erykah Badu when talking about your influences and I can really see her in your music. You drag inspiration from so many genres. Does it get difficult sometimes with so many different thoughts and ideas and inspirations floating around in your head? Then again, it’s led you to create something really great and original with so many contrasting and intriguing influences…
Yes, Erykah Badu all day! During college I played with a 90s hip hop and soul cover band. We did loads of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, J Dilla and A Tribe Called Quest tunes. But I was raised on artists like Oumou Sangaré, Ali Farka Touré and Youssou N’Dour. My Mam loves West African music, she played so much of it throughout my childhood. I didn’t really take in at the time how profoundly awesome it is but I think it seeped into my brain and now it feels natural for me to reference it in my writing. Most recently I’ve been saturating my ears with afrobeats, pop music from Nigeria (not to be confused with Fela Kuti pioneered, Afrobeat). Artists like Teknomiles and Maleek Berry have been giving me so much life this past year. Let’s see where that goes.
Can you tell us more about the fusion of Sierra Leone and Irish influences?
Most of the music I listen to is from the Sahel region of West Africa. So it’s more of a fusion of cultural surroundings when it comes to my Sierra Leonean/Irish background. I lived in Sierra Leone when I was a kid. I lived in Ireland when I was a kid. This certainly shaped the way I think. While living in Freetown, I learned to speak Krio, which I now use in some of my songs.
There’s a special kind of stately swagger about the Krio language, there are so many ways to say the same thing, but inflection and pitch bring out specific meanings. In Ireland, I think we speak in this lyrical, melodic way too. So I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to dialects in my songwriting. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of sean-nós music and my first singing teacher was in ANÚNA, so she had me performing ‘Siúil, A Rúin’ for my first concert in Maynooth at age 14. I’d like to explore that sound more in the future. I can’t help but hear a resemblance between sean-nós and some of the traditional singing around West Africa, like Wassoulou and Sahrawi. Recently I’ve been covering, ‘Amhrán Mhaínse’, a gorgeous song written by Máire Ní Chlochartaigh.
A distinctive feature in AfroSoul music is emotional vocals – you certainly tick the box there. Do you think getting to so often with your siblings adds another emotional element to the vocals?
Singing with siblings is definitely a treat. Harmonies blend easily and we tend to intuitively lock into each others phrasing. It can’t be understated how truly on point my backing vocalist and percussionist, Zeenat Sarumi is also. It’s like having another family member singing with us. We’re all on the same spectrum. Working with my family is great. But I think that’s because they’re fantastic and dedicated musicians who work hard and deliver every time. That’s been my experience with almost everyone I’ve worked with over the years. It is really special to have siblings who are passionate about music though. We all help and encourage each other. Who wouldn’t want that?
Another thing that strikes me is your music tends to be quite honest of your relationships which in turn makes your music really raw and honest – in particular your song ‘Kathmandu’. Love is obviously one of the most common things to write about. Is this something intentional or is it something that just happens in terms of subject matter of your songs?
Ah sure look! I don’t know any musician who doesn’t have a love song or two in them. It’s one of the most profound and confusing experiences we go through as sentient beings. I am partial to a cheesy but fabulously honest love song.
Even in your style and fashion you can see a huge empowering statement of pride in being Irish but also sharing your African culture too. They’re such colourful and beautiful statements of pride. Ireland is such an amazing place for diverse culture these days. What would your advice be to other women or people who share a different culture as well as being Irish who may shy away from sharing their pride in their culture?
When I was coming up, there was not as many people of colour in Ireland, especially not in Maynooth, so my experience is very different to anyone coming up nowadays. Ireland is so much more diverse but it still baffles people to hear me say I’m Irish, despite my accent. I would say this is the same for Irish kids of colour now and this is a sad fact that has not changed. To those kids, I would say, be exactly who you are.
Fehdah plays RHA Hennessy’s Lost Friday on March 2 alongside Bantum and Cáit.