We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the releases we’ve heard in recent months from Lethia’s Natorium. A unique and characterful punky artist who remains true to herself and firm in her path. We love an artist who knows their true self and therefore we wanted to get to know a little more about Pena Hughes-John, the artist behind Lethia’s Natorium.
Lethia’s Natorium is NOT a band but a music project created by singer/songwriter Pena Hughes-John (‘Pena’ for short). The musicians that play on the songs (and indeed accompany Pena at music events are all session musicians. Some of them work with Pena remotely (both here and overseas) as well as at the recording studio where the songs are mixed and mastered. The choice of musicians that appear on each of the songs vary, depending on the mood and what is needed and all this is decided by Pena herself.
We just love your ability to juxtapose sad lyrics with bouncy and upbeat music – such as you lived here like a tenant, how do you come up with your ideas?
I think after many years of writing ‘the usual’ love songs (mainly breakup songs) I’d gotten to a point when I thought that there are more things to write about and instead, focused on subjects that affect many of us. ‘You Lived Here Like a Tenant’, for instance, incorporated a few ideas within that song. At the time of writing, my household were watching a lot of these reality nightmare tenant-type programmes on the TV. Meanwhile, there were marches and demonstrations about the planet and the plight of future generations. As a child, I grew up listening to a lot of Abba songs and one song in particular: “One of Us” had this (what I would call) ‘all around the houses’ type chord structure within the song and this was what led me to the music for ‘You Lived Here Like a Tenant’ as my Abba moment type of song.
Your vocals are very distinctive and unique. There are touches of a few female artists we love, whom we’ve mentioned in reviews before (most specifically, Toyah), but tell us more about your singing. When did you come to singing? Were you trained?
I think as far as singing is concerned, I do come from a musical family with most of my uncles and cousins either playing musical instruments or performing in some sort – but not in the genre that I do I hasten to add! My music tends to raise eyebrows as I’m not doing the whole RnB kind of thing – nothing against modern-day RnB, I just never really gelled with that genre of music I find rock, indie and post-punk to be much more exciting and enjoyable type of music to be part of.
I began singing at a very young age and did have some vocal training in my late teens. A couple of years ago I did go to have some vocal lessons (mainly to iron out some bad habits that some of us vocalists have) but the tutor felt that I didn’t really need her help but my main flaw is not warming up my voice before the studio or doing a gig. Instead, I just launch into song (hahaha).
What’s the best gig experience you’ve had?
Ahh, this takes me back…way back when I used to be a samba dancer (who sang a little bit) when a guy approached me. He was putting together a band specifically for Hitchin Rhythms of the World and I can’t remember how the subject of me singing came about but he drafted me in. At the time, I was teaching samba dance locally, drafted a small group of my students on the stage and in full samba costume, I grabbed the mic and accompanied the (specially put together) band. It was a fun gig because there was a brass section and we were singing Latin songs in Hitchin Town Square, where there were around one thousand people watching our set and seeing many people in the audience dancing salsa and samba whilst we were performing on stage. It was a pure party atmosphere and a gig that I will always look on fondly. (By the way, I don’t dance samba anymore – I danced samba as part of my music and songwriting ‘hiatus’ and instead went back to performing and writing songs – my first love and always will be.)
What’s your worst gig experience?
The worst one was when I was in a band many years ago. We were the last act on stage midweek in a bar in the City of London. The crowd left after the previous band had packed up. The band roster was well behind schedule (by about an hour), and we were falling asleep from having waited for so long to get on the stage. There were more of us on stage than the actual audience (our band were seven in total). Even the bar staff felt sorry for us for having been kept so for so (we were the first band to arrive) and yet waiting to play at nearly midnight!
You bring in a lot of session players. What instruments do you play, and how do you find your players?
I wouldn’t say I bring in a lot as such but I do believe in quality with all the songs I produce. Experience has taught me that in order for people to take you seriously as a songwriter and artist, you do need to ensure that everything released is quality each and every time.
I put my hand up by saying that I’m not that good in terms of instruments. My main instrument is the Ukulele because it is that very instrument I use in recording the basic song structures and it is that and my guide vocals which form the first stage of the songwriting journey for each and every ‘Lethia’s Natorium’ before it’s sent up the session musician chain.
Regarding the session musicians, I got to know them through fellow musicians, friends of friends and recommendations. The Covid lockdown, for instance, meant that I was able to gain contacts with other musicians online and it was through working with them on previous work, that I kept working with them up to this present day. I’ve been fortunate that the musicians I work with are happy to work with me and in the case of ‘The Lethia’s Natorium “band” (the stage version of Lethia’s Natorium), the musicians recommend me other session musicians who are available whenever they are booked on other projects.
What advice would you give your younger self?
“Be true to yourself and don’t be forced into a pigeonhole because society requires you to.”
Please tell us more about ‘The Angry Ukulele Lady’!!
Ooh, The Angry Ukulele Lady (‘TAUL’) was actually Lethia’s Natorium’s predecessor. TAUL was strictly a studio project and came about through my frustrations of the whole pigeonhole process of the music industry. From a very young age (when I used to go to these ‘so-called’ group vocal classes in London which turned out to be a scam exercise. You went there and they would say: “Right, we’ve got songs by X, Y and Z. You, you have this for your homework and I want you to sing e-x-a-c-t-l-y like Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey [fill in the blanks]”. So, the following week, we all had to get up and sound like those artists because “…it was what was expected of us if we were to succeed in the music industry.”
I’ve always been a bit of a rebel and always found post-punk enjoyable with artists such as Toyah and Blondie sounding as if they were having so much fun in their songs, their energy became infectious.
However, as a black woman producing rock and post-punk would be a bit of a challenge because before anyone plays any of my songs, they automatically assume that I am an RnB or a rap artist and when they hear my songs, don’t want to know because of who I am.
Prior to the start of TAUL, I had already graced the Open Mic circuits of various venues in Surrey and West London and found, some of my aggressive-sounding songs played on my Ukulele, were generating a keen interest amongst the punters. Mention Ukulele and people think of George Formby but played aggressively and with attitude provided a mini niche for me.
With TAUL, I wanted to create a bit of mystique and what added to the enjoyment to this project was that I could really indulge on my rock side incorporating the Ukulele, heavy guitars and vocal harmonies but under the cloak of anonymity.
Realising that there was an interest in TAUL, I decided to be brave enough to create a successor and that being: Lethia’s Natorium, with the main difference being that instead of the Ukulele taking centre stage, it would be guitar-driven songs.
What first got you into music?
I always saw music as my security blanket whenever life got too challenging. I found it much easier to express myself through lyrics and music plus I find creating songs to be very therapeutic.
Do you have any upcoming shows to tell our readers about?
As I mentioned on one of my blogs recently, gigs are not top priority at the moment as I am still putting a lot of effort in cultivating Lethia’s Natorium. Having said that, Lethia’s Natorium will be performing at the Bushey Festival in the Park (Hertfordshire) in the Summer and prior to that, I will shortly be working with the session musicians on a forthcoming video shoot to showcase a small section of songs that will be featured on the follow-up album.
Thank you Pena for chatting with us today. Readers can find out more about Lethia’s Natorium on any of the links below;