Editor's note: Find out more about Sonia Leigh at CMT Listen Up.
New Year's Day has always been special to gritty singer-songwriter Sonia Leigh. On a day celebrated as the first day of the rest of the year, she's reminded of her first taste of freedom and independence. In fact, it will be 17 years ago this coming New Year's Day she left her hometown in Georgia for a home in music.
"That's always been a very special day for me because I kind of got my 'nads up to do it," she said with a hearty laugh during a recent interview with CMT.com. And though Leigh doesn't condone running away and admits she was scared as hell, she explained, "I just felt a fire in my spirit that said, 'Do it.'"
And she did. At 17, Leigh left home and moved in with a friend, paying her part of the rent with the only money she had left in her pocket. Soon after, she joined a band and began playing wherever she could find work. Though times weren't always easy financially, some of her fondest memories were living off $20, a can of beans and her own rules.
"I was free," she said. "When you don't have anything to lose, you've got nothing to lose.
"There was a moment where I almost joined the Army because I was just struggling so hard. I almost quit music. Everybody gets to a discouraging place if it's just not panning out right away. ...The hardest part was just hanging on."
Fortunately, she did. She began playing in a restaurant owned by Zac Brown, who at the time, was cooking in the kitchen and tending bar.
"I think the first time I met him, he probably brought me a plate of food," she said.
The two became quick friends and Brown took an immediate liking to Leigh's sound. After he found major success with the Zac Brown Band, she became one of his first artist signings when he started his own label, Southern Ground.
Leigh's debut album, 1978 December, is an eclectic array of tunes featuring feisty, beer-drinkin' ode "Bar" to the rowdy "Ribbon of Red," "Aint' Dead Yet," as well as collaborations featuring Indigo Girls' Amy Ray on "Virginia" and Brown with "Roaming." Leigh wrote eight of the 10 tracks on the album and co-wrote the other two with Brown.
Her first single, "My Name Is Money," was written after Brown informed her that her wardrobe wasn't quite up to par.
"I had some jeans that I loved, but the hole in the knee was not as cool as I thought it was, apparently," she smiled. During a subsequent shopping trip with Brown's wife, Leigh thought of the idea of writing "Money" from the perspective of cash itself.
"I was thinking, 'If money could talk, what would it say?' What kind of attitude would it have? Let's give money a voice.' Now that's a very, very unique position," she explained.
"There's a line in there that says, 'I'm not the settlin' down kind,' and that's basically what it is. Money comes and money goes, and you can't get too attached to it, and you've got to give it away to get it."
What's more, in Leigh's debut music video directed by Chris Hicky, she can be seen handing out the cash she earned in her guitar case.
"That's what I want people to understand about me and the kind of person I am," she said.
As well as her upbeat and sometimes aggressive tunes on the album, Leigh also taps into her feisty, sultry side with songs like "If You Won't Tell" and "I Just Might." One of her most charismatic tunes is the lustful "A Poem From the Ocean Floor," inspired from Henry Miller's novel, Black Spring.
"I was at a time in my life where everything was just so alive around me, and just from reading that book, you start to notice the trees swaying different and the colors just jumping out," she detailed. "He described a friend of his in the book saying that he writes poems from the ocean floor. ... And when I wrote this song, nothing really stuck out to me that I was satisfied with for a song title. ...So I was like, 'This is my poem from the ocean floor.'"
Regarding a lover that leaves "lightning in her veins," she describes a yearning for that "forbidden kiss" and says the song came to her in only half an hour.
"That song was such a blessing," she claims. "After I wrote it, I was like, 'That was a vessel.' That's definitely one of my favorite songs I've ever written."
She concludes her album with the beautiful, bittersweet, returning of home tune, "1978 December." Not only is it the year she was born, but Leigh feels it's an embodiment of what she's been through in her life.
"I wrote that song when I was at a very, very low point in my life," she said. "I didn't have a lot of money at all. But I was really bound and determined to get up on my feet. I was really kind of daydreaming about going home and seeing my folks.
"I may have just come home from visiting them for the first time in a while. Just the wind blowing out in the woods and the moon ... it's just so high, and the trees are kind of bowing down, welcoming me back home. It's like a grand gesture to coming home to yourself."