Sophie Janna and Margot Merah – better known as The Lasses – have been creating and performing music collectively for more than 10 years. They first met in Amsterdam in 2012, but before that, both women were raised by talented families.
Both of Merah’s parents are singers, and her mother has been in a choir for four decades. It was inevitable that Merah, too, would go down the path of music. “As a kid I played a whole range of instruments: trumpet, tenor horn, saxophone and the organ,” she recalls. “The question wasn’t if I wanted to play music, or why. It was more a matter of what. As a student I wanted to play a quiet instrument because I didn’t want to disturb my roommates. So, I taught myself to play guitar quietly and to sing songs. I have always written little poems and when I played the guitar, and those poems later became songs.”
Janna’s story is similar: her mother was in a vocal group, and so Janna and her siblings witnessed rehearsals and performances from the time they were children. “My family performed at village fairs and churches from a young age, and we learned to play instruments from our aunts and uncles. We used to sing all the time – while playing, while doing the dishes, on long walks – I think you would find me singing more often than you would find me quiet.”
Music was so ingrained in Janna’s life, in fact, that it didn’t even occur to her to pursue it as a career. It wasn’t until she was doing her PhD that she realized her weekly Irish singing sessions were keeping her going.
“I discovered that if I wanted to really live, I needed to put music at the center of my life. Of course, it took another few years before I discovered how I could actually pay my rent from making music, but I play music because I wither if I don’t.”
As fate would have it, Janna met Merah at one of those Irish singing sessions.
“We realized very quickly that when we sang together, everyone stopped to listen,” recalls Merah. The pair then decided to perform some concerts as a duo. “As both of us are prone to self-doubt, it was really helpful to work together,” notes Janna, adding that the more they played together, the more confident they both became. “It wasn’t hard to put together a set, since both Margot and I already used to play and sing solo. We just combined our songs and whoever didn’t sing lead would sing the harmony.”
That same year, the pair created their first recording together as The Lasses. In those early days, they would record everything themselves, then burn a handful of copies and print out their own album covers before a gig. Recently, they released their fifth album, Near Far.
“The main thing is that we have started to take things a bit more seriously,” explains Janna. “When more people started to get excited about our music, we realized that maybe we could invest a bit more money in making a professionally recorded album, and I feel that with every new album, we have dared to invest a little bit more, thinking our music might in fact be worth it and that people might want to buy it.”
Although The Lasses call the Netherlands home, they share a passion for Celtic music. As Janna points out, their roots can be an advantage – even traditional Celtic songs sound “fresh” to them, as they didn’t grow up listening to 20 different versions of those staple tunes.
Near Far, which was recorded in collaboration with Janos Koolen, is largely inspired by The Lasses’ tours of Scotland in 2018 and 2019.
“We were a bit apprehensive at first to play Scottish traditional songs in Scotland, us being a Dutch duo. But as it turned out, people were proud that we sang their songs,” says Janna. “We’ve learned most of our songs from sessions in Scotland or back in Amsterdam and started playing them out of sheer love for that song. During the pandemic, when we couldn’t get back to Scotland, we decided to bundle some of our favourite Scottish songs, both contemporary and traditional – and the result is Near Far.”
Merah describes the record as “a beautifully crocheted blanket” – “The instruments we play are like a little bed where our voices and harmonies can rest on and Janos adds the beautiful extras.”