“Songwriting Is Mystical” Maija Sofia Interviewed

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“​​I am happily living in this world cohabiting with the huge amount of the unknown. With my spooky haunted house experience, I didn’t need to know what was happening.” Maija Sofia has been on quite the journey with her sophomore album ‘True Love’. It’s taken lockdowns and time spent in a haunted Cork mansion for Sofia’s wonderfully mystical record to come together. Unique in its sound, you can hear the echoes of the grand art gallery where it was recorded. Paired with Sofia’s unending interest in historical figures, ‘True Love’ interweaves a personal life with the hardships and successes of saints and witches, relishing in the parallels that appear. 

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It began with an artist’s residency in Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh Co. Cork. An island off an island, Cobh welcomed Maija Sofia between lockdowns and in true unpredictable COVID-19 fashion, another one hit in the middle of her residency in November 2020. “When I was there, everything shut down again. The gallery closed and the director said “Oh you can just stay. We’re probably not going to open again until February. At first, I was like “Yeah! Let’s stay in this art gallery for free.” Then, a week in, the reality of it hit me and I was like what have I done? It was actually an amazing time. I’ve never got to live in a mansion by myself for free beside the sea.”

Sofia was not alone during her extended stay in Cobh. The ghosts of past wandered around the gallery, making their presence known. “Sometimes the shower would turn itself on or I would be in the kitchen and the doors would fling open as if there was a big gust of wind. Lots of footsteps, lots of murmuring.” Sharing her haunted experiences on Instagram, it wasn’t long until the paranormal investigators slid into her DMs. “They got in touch with the gallery, sending the gallery messages like ‘we heard there was a young singer living in the house who experienced paranormal activity.’ Then, the gallery had to email me. There were many emails and the content of the emails became increasingly more insane.”

“Eventually, I thought ‘Why not? I’ll email them back’. They paid for me to stay in a hotel in Cobh, bought me dinner. I’ve never experienced the feeling of being treated like a celebrity and they said ‘you are the real deal. Not everyone has your gifts.’ I had only posted on Instagram about some doors rattling. I thought ‘why don’t I go and see? I’ll go to one of their séances.’ We had a séance at midnight in the gallery, during the full moon which coincided with high tide. They gave me loads of weird equipment like electromagnetic field meters and this spirit radio, they were making me hold a radio antenna in the air. They would say ‘give us a name’ and they would hear a flicker and say ‘I think I heard the name John.’”

The spirits who co-inhabited with Sofia didn’t go unnoticed by the musician when she was making her album: “In the liner notes, I’m pretty sure I put on the sleeve of the album. It’s credited as a collab with the dead. They would be getting in touch otherwise.” Most of the instrumentals were recorded in Cobh.  Sofia was not deterred by her ghosty friends and her band returned to the gallery in 2021 to finish recording. “I didn’t want to make a polished studio recording, I didn’t want it to sound really perfect. I wanted to capture a moment in time rather than make a polished product.”

Different types of ghosts also appear on ‘True Love’. The likes of Saint Sebastian and Saint Aquinas are featured on the record. Many rabbit holes down into the depths of the internet have led to some fascinating discoveries. “With ‘Telling the Bees’, there’s an Instagram account called Depths of Wikipedia which posts the weirdest things that come up. They had a post about telling the bees which is an old European folk custom that if someone dies in the house, for someone else to go out and tell the beehive that someone has died. Otherwise, the bees will sense sadness and the whole hive might die of grief.” This paired with reading about Sylvia Plath’s interest in bees and the tale of St Rita of Cascia (a saint who had a swarm of bees enter and leave her mouth without stinging her) lead to inspiration. 

This type of storytelling is what keeps these types of tales alive and Sofia has followed in the footsteps of Kate Bush to do this. “If you’re a Kate Bush fan, there are songs where you don’t even realise are about something historical or something that she’s read in a book. The song ‘Houdini’ at the end of ‘The Dreaming’, obviously I knew about Houdini as the magician, we’re going to go back to seances again…that song is from the perspective of Houdini’s wife. Her and Houdini made a pact that whoever of them died first, the other would try to contact them via a séance. The code word is Rosabelle believe so that if either of them contacted the other, they would say that. She continued to do this on Halloween night which was Houdini’s birthday every year for 10 years. After 10 years, she announced she wasn’t going to do the séance anymore and she said ’10 years is long enough to wait for any man.’ I learnt that from a Kate Bush song. That makes me want to write songs. The fact that this is a banger which I’ll be listening to casually and then looking it up and finding out this story.”

Sofia’s personal life creeps its way into these tracks even when talking about 14th century nuns: “On my first album, I wrote a song about Bridget Cleary, who was a witch burned in Ireland. A few years later, I’ve listened back and I’ll think ‘I was going through something at the time’ and I’ll be relating to things that happened in my own life in a non literal way. It always slips in even when I don’t mean to. Sometimes I don’t realise either. I’ll be writing about something and then look back and see that it was about me.”

Life works in mysterious ways and Maija Sodia collaborating with the dead added a fantastic touch of mystery to the record, she’s even characterised her craft as a work of unknown forces. “Songwriting is mystical in that way. You’re channeling something at the end of the day and you turn it into a song. If I knew how it worked, I would write songs way more. I have to accept the mystery will move through me and sometimes it won’t.”

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‘True Love’ is out now.

Words: Sophia McDonald
Photo Credit: Anna Heisterkamp