Lira - A biography
In a global music world brimming with solo female performers, Lira stands out as that rare thing: an artist who has been able to create a formidable career without compromising the very values that feed her creative soul.
This may not sound like much but cast around the current charts and it becomes clear that Lira's ability to retain a deep sense of integrity whilst selling Double Platinum and raking in the awards is not commonplace.
For this 30-year-old, it's a no brainer. "If something doesn't resonate with me, I won't do it," she says simply. "I have to really connect with the words that I am singing or the statements I am making or the clothes that I am wearing - or else I'd rather not be in this."
Indeed, because of this commitment to herself, Lira almost didn't pursue the kind of music career that has seen her become one of South Africa's most successful artists, respected by her peers and critics alike and adored by fans.
It's not something she likes to dwell on now, but Lira's first start in the music career came in 2000, when, just in her 20s, she was punted as South Africa's newest R&B "starlet". Then signed to one of the country's indie stables, Lira released an album (2003's 'All My Love') and took to the road but quickly bailed when she realised the vision her label had for her was based as much (if not more) on her looks and what she wore than her singing and songwriting. She returned home to Daveyton on Johannesburg's East Rand for an extended period of introspection before taking the plunge and heading back into the recording studio.
These days it's a source of real pleasure to Lira (and her longtime supporters) that since the release of 'FEEL GOOD' in 2006, her career has become the byword for integrity. And when her looks are mentioned, it's only in the way Lira's undeniable sensuality and extraordinary beauty plays a supporting role in broadening the reach of her music. Just recently, for instance, Lira was named one of Glamour magazine's Women of 2009, cited for the passion she brings to her music and proving her weighty impact on worlds outside music.
It might be overused in many instances, but passion is a particularly apt word when talking about Lira.
It was her passion for music that saw Lira reject a potential career in business (she studied Financial Accounting and Auditing at the Vaal Technikon) that would have brought this fiercely intelligent woman a reliable source of income.
But Lira's desire to be a musician came early and never went away. In fact, she wrote her first song at just 16 and never really stopped. "A few friends and I decided to enter a talent show -- and we wrote a couple of songs and one of the songs I wrote, called 'Let Me Be', went on to win best composition and best performance," Lira recalls. "It was an epiphany for me -- at that moment I realised that I could express myself creatively through music and that people got it."
After that first misstep as an R&B singer (hardly a crime given her young age), Lira has not put a foot wrong in ensuring that an increasing number of people "get" her music and a scant three years after the release of 'FEEL GOOD' Lira's now considered the foremost adult contemporary female solo artist in South Africa.
She credits working with Victor Mngomezulu (a keyboard player) and Tshepo Sekele (a bassist) as well as producer Robin Kohl (of Jazzworx) on her 2006 Sony debut, 'Feel Good' as giving her the confidence to really craft her own sound. That release proved to be a compelling calling card for Lira, delivering an album that swung with consummate ease between jazz and soul and pop even, to create the beginnings of what is now Lira's signature sound.
What was remarkable from the start was Lira's ability to reach out and touch the widest spread of music fans, young and old, black and white and she is now established as a crossover artist capable of delivering to everyone from hip, black urbanistas to suburban grannies and everyone in-between.
For Lira, the personal pleasure she takes in being able to create music that so many different people "get" is undisguised. "If I look back on the past four years, the most amazing thing to me is the way that I have been able to break new ground in a country that was previously built on division," she says. In this Lira sees herself as a product of the "new South Africa". "Even though I was born when apartheid was still in force, I never experienced the hecticness of it. I was able to go to a 'white' school and so learned to see white people as equal and when I look at my audience it just makes sense to me that it is so mixed and diverse."
But even though Lira sees herself as a product of a democratic South Africa, she's not blinded by the challenges her home country faces. "South Africa is not the easiest place in which to live but even though I am aware of this, I choose to live my life in positivity and I want to be a beacon for others in that."
Indeed, a deep sense of positive spirituality increasingly filters into Lira's music and the way she lives her day-to-day life -- and it's not a stretch to discover why she called her gold-selling, multi-award winning 2008 album 'Soul In Mind'.
When the album was first released Lira described the 13-track record as "the sound of a woman getting into her own skin, of finding her own creative voice". "My music has to be empowering," Lira says of the songs on the critically-acclaimed 'Soul In Mind'. "I am very, very conscious of that -- especially growing up in Africa. I don't want to bring anything negative into my music yet do that in way that is not preachy."
With that as her guiding vision, Lira easily snagged the hearts of fans around South Africa and in June 2009, 'SOUL IN MIND' reached gold status (20 000 units), an infrequent occurrence at a time when record sales are diminishing globally.
'SOUL IN MIND' also proved to be the hot favourite at the 15th annual South African Music Awards (SAMAS), the country's most prestigious music awards event, winning a leading four SAMAs including the prestigious Album of the Year and Female Artist of the Year.
Ask Lira about the armful of SAMAs she received at the early May 2009 ceremony and the most important thing to her was the acclaim her multiple win earned from ordinary fans. "Immediately afterwards it really had not sunk in. But on the plane to Cape Town the next day I had people congratulating me in a way that showed they felt like they had also triumphed that night and that is when what we had been able to achieve really hit home."
It's this attitude, coupled with her ability to still see the small (but important) details in things that ensures Lira remains solidly on firm ground in a career that can so often catapult its stars into a world of rampant egoism. "Just the other day I was driving in Joburg and these two older white ladies began hooting at me like crazy," Lira confides. "At first I thought there was something wrong but then I realised they just wanted to wave at me because they had recognised me. At the same time, I stopped at a traffic light and an older black lady on the pavement also began shouting and waving to me, in support. It's at those times that I really feel blessed to be able to do something I love, in the way that I want to."
And already the rest of the world is hitching itself to Lira's music. Over the past few years she has undertaken live dates in several new countries including Italy, Germany and Fiji and she's poised to make an impact on the US music scene. This ability to reach over borders is not something Lira takes lightly. "It's a privilege to have the chance to connect with people in other parts of the world," she says.
But to those fans that have been following her career for close to a decade now, the fact that Lira is being embraced outside South Africa's borders is no surprise. After all here is an artist who creates songs that are not bound by trends or fashion but instead have all the makings of lifelong favourites. Tracks like 'Dance of Life' off 'FEEL GOOD' or the album's title track (which earned Lira a fourth SAMA in 2009 for Best Remix of the Year) and 'Rise Again' off 'SOUL IN MIND' are timeless and are sure to hit home with music fans around the globe. Lira is also someone who takes her music with an enviable seriousness, always pushing herself as a singer, performer, songwriter and musician (she plays the acoustic guitar). And, while she never trades in it, Lira's Afrocentric yet global sense of style only adds to an already compelling artist's appeal.
For Lira herself, the challenge now is to see just how far she can go with her music. "Already the response we have had from fans at the international shows and on the internet gives me confidence. But I know that I can take my music so much further. In the end I make music for as many people as possible to hear. It's feel good music that anyone anywhere in the world will be able to connect with in the way I do."
* Audio CD and DVD - Live In Concert: A Celebration (2009)
* Soul In Mind (2008)
* Feel Good (2006)
* All My Love (2003)
The 16th Annual South African Music Awards (SAMA)
* SAMA - Best Female Artist
* SAMA - Best Global Chart DVD [Live In Concert: A Celebration]
The 15th Annual South African Music Awards (SAMA)
* SAMA - Best Female Artist
* SAMA - Album of the Year [Soul In Mind]
* SAMA - Best Adult Contemporary Album [Soul In Mind]
* SAMA - Remix of the Year [Feel Good]
* SAMA - Best Selling Download [Feel Good]
* SAMA - Best Music Video [Ixesha]
* Best Music Video [Feel Good]
The 16th annual South African Music Awards take place on 17 April
* SAMA -- Female Artist of the Year
* SAMA -- Best Global Chart DVD
* SAMA -- Best Album Packaging
* MAMAS -- Artist of the Year / Best Female Artist
* Channel O - Best Female Artist /
* MOBO -- Best African Act
* Wins SAMA in the Best Female Artist award category two years in a row (April 2010)
* Wins SAMA in the Best Global Chart DVD category for 'Live In Concert: A Celebration" (April 2010)
* Performs to 10 000 capacity audience at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (April 2010)
* Receives three SAMA 16 nominations (March 2010)
* Showcase Performance at MIDEM, Cannes (Jan 2010)
* Sold out Kirstenbosch Show (Jan 2010)
* Sold out Artscape Performance / Suidoosterfees (Jan 2010)
* Live concert DVD sells PLATINUM in first month of release (Dec 2009)
* Berlin Jazz Festival Performance (Nov 2009)
* Studio album SOUL IN MIND sells GOLD (2008)
* Studio album FEEL GOOD sells GOLD (2007)
Lira was born Lira Molapo in the East Rand eDaveyton (Ekurhuleni). Her music is a sweet mix of Afro-Jazz, RnB, soul among others. After winning a competitions for young singers and songwriters, Lira started performing live at the age of 16, singing both cover versions and self-penned songs. In 2000 she was discovered by musician and producer Arthur Mafokate, who had her sign with his own record label, 999 Music. She wrote all the songs on her album that was called All My Love (2003) and released in May 2003. She left 999 Music and teamed up with keyboardist Victor Mngomezulu, bassist Tshepo Sekele, and producer Robin Kohl. In 2006, her second album, Feel Good, was released and was a bigger success. She received five nominations at the South African Grammy Awards (Best New Artist, Best Female Artist, Best R&B Album, Best Single, and Best Video). “Feel Good”, was hailed as a great Afro-jazz album. It had hits like Feel good and Ixesha. ‘Feel good’ was twice number 1 on Metro FM’s charts on the National Top 20. Her third album, Soul In Mind, came out in 2008. Lira set a soul scorching benchmark with her 2006 album FEEL GOOD – and with her late 2008 release, SOUL IN MIND she’s once again created a record that is defined by its honesty, soulfulness, femininity and utter joyfulness. What’s more, the 29-year-old has also delivered an album that effortlessly shows Lira’s growth over the past two years – most especially as a songwriter and intuitive performer, turning the young girl who showed the first glimpses of her gift more than five years ago into a woman with a world class talent. “I think the album is the sound of a woman getting into her own skin, of finding her own creative voice and exploring the music that people heard on ‘Feel Good’ but taking it much deeper,” Lira explains. Importantly, however, that “taking it deeper” is never at the expense of alienating her audience: instead Lira has, in SOUL IN MIND, crafted an album that will fold itself into the hearts of listeners, offering the warmth and comfort of someone who instinctively knows how to convey life’s big themes in a way that instantly resonates. SOUL IN MIND is a perfect example of this.
Over the past few years – buoyed by multi-platinum sales of her two studio albums and live DVD, a mantlepiece full of awards and support of fans – Lira has made no secret of her desire to find a global audience for her music.
“I have big dreams,” Lira has frequently been quoted as saying – and it looks increasingly likely that this rare artist will see those begin to flourish in 2011, with the release of her fourth studio album (and third for Sony), RETURN TO LOVE.
RETURN TO LOVE is a masterful record that draws together everything that Lira has worked for since she first embarked on her music career – at first tentatively with her 2003 debut ALL MY LOVE and, from 2006 onwards, with mounting confidence in her singular abilities.
Lira’s triumph at the 2009 South African Music Awards, where she won ‘Album of the Year’ and ‘Best Female Artist’ for the 2008 record, SOUL IN MIND, and subsequent multi-platinum sales of her second two records and her LIVE IN CONCERT – A CELEBRATION DVD (2009) were proof enough that her heady mixture of old school soul, spiced with enough contemporary twists, had exploded with serious intent amongst her South African audience.
But, one listen to RETURN TO LOVE, and it’s clear that over the course of her first trio of albums, Lira was only just beginning to reveal her musical gifts.
“I was very focused on defining the ‘Lira’ sound even more, with this album,” Lira says of the vision behind possibly the classiest – yet infinitely accessible – record to come out of South Africa in a long while. “I wanted to send this out into the greater musical world with a real solid, really refined sound that is unmistakably my own.”
In this quest, Lira, and producer, Robin Kohl, have succeeded handsomely. If comparisons are to be made, there’s a real feel of Sade’s earlier work, in Lira’s scorching, soul-filled vocals. And yet the subtle sense of her South African roots that flickers throughout the material, along with Lira’s unique vocal stylings mean there is nothing copycat about RETURN TO LOVE.
“It was always my feeling that I don’t want to be boxed into being a particular kind of artist,” Lira says with the quiet emphasis of someone who knows precisely what they desire. “On this album, too I didn’t want to be restrained in what sounds we included on the album so there is some funk, ragga, urban, traditional African sounds, and, of course, plenty of soul.”
At 11-tracks, the album finds its lyrical footing in all the things that Lira loves – from dancing to singing, being introspective, loving others, philosophising, and stirring people’s consciousness. “I love to dance. I love to love! I’m a romantic. But I also like to be contemplative,” she says.
Aside from this tribute to the things she adores, there’s another – perhaps more subtle – reason for the album’s title.
“My first album was titled ALL MY LOVE and it was an album that initially caused some heartache for me,” Lira says of the kwaito-pop offering that introduced her to South African music fans. “It was released at a time when I hadn’t yet found even the real beginnings of the sound and presence that I wanted to convey and was fumbling a little in the dark. But yet that album forms part of my history and so this new record is something of a statement about an acceptance of who I am – a return to me.”
Fittingly too, Lira’s given name is Lerato Molapo – Lerato meaning love in seSotho. It’s no surprise, then, that Lira sings, so full of joy, “Over the years I’ve gone through so many changes/But I’m ready to get back into my skin again” and, later, “Falling in love with who I am” on the uplifting and unabandoned album opener, ‘When I Dance’.
Soulful – Romantic – Playful – Contemplative: RETURN TO LOVE is all of these things and more. What’s perhaps most striking about the album is that, in the hands of Lira, none of these come across with even a hint of cliché.
Indeed, throughout the songs on RETURN TO LOVE, Lira’s lyric writing shows the kind of growth that only few artists can boast of. Whether she’s writing about the relentless tug of heartache on ‘Call Me’, or the plaintive plea for answers in a world that’s lost its way (“Money and greed cast a shadow on the sun/Yes, I see it burning up the skies”) on ‘Abba’ or the need for individuals to take charge of their live on ‘Get Into Action’, Lira’s words have a force that few can match.
In preparing for RETURN TO LOVE, Lira and her producer (and husband) Robin Kohl took a “songwriting sojourn” – their first ever.
The result is a set of songs that’s as diverse (stylistically and in language) as they are sparkling fresh. “The process of working together was something that we really focused on – and at least four new songs came out of that intense breakaway to just write,” Lira explains. One of the songs that emerged from this process was ‘Mali’ – a delightful and hugely infectious take on money that sees Lira directly ask “money” to bless her, her family, her community and humanity and spread amongst everyone. It is based around a Bossa and Mbaqanga musical mix and is an album highlight. Another written during this joint creative period was ‘Phakade’, a remarkable composition that’s as pure a song about finding a soulmate as you’re likely to hear – and has all the makings, in lines like “You are my joy/A beautiful gift”, of an evergreen wedding song.
For an artist known for her emotional-ballads and uplifting songs about personal journeying and fulfillment, RETURN TO LOVE also features a song that’s slightly more sombre. “I’m aware that, as a musician, you can’t fight the urge to write about how you are feeling – including the times that you are not at your best,” Lira says, revealing, yet again, her now trademark frankness in her comments about the track ‘Be My Friend’.
RETURN TO LOVE, more than any of Lira’s previous releases, captures the energy of Lira’s live shows. “There’s something about this band that only those who have seen us know and that is that we are a rocking live act,” Lira says. It’s for this reason that Lira’s band members, including bassist, Tshepo Sekele, pianist Victor Mngomezulu, drummer Joshua Zacheus, backing vocalist Brenda Mtambo and guitarist Grant Tregellas are among the musicians contributing to RETURN TO LOVE.
Says Lira, “Our live shows are a journey that we undertake on stage – that takes audiences through different emotions, as we travel through the songs and we wanted to capture that on record in a way that conveys real energy.”
Few who listen to RETURN TO LOVE would disagree with this approach –and, in the end, the album is a triumph; a perfect introduction to Lira for newcomers to her sound and nothing short of a deserved new step on the journey of an artist who really is extraordinary.