Leela James: Soul purpose
With her deep, gritty vocals having been acclaimed for capturing the emotion-drenched essence of classic artists like Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, contemporary soulstress Leela James this month releases her appropriately-titled third album ‘My Soul’, which also marks her debut for the iconic Stax label - the legendary home of some of the greatest soul and R&B singers of the past half-century.
Pioneered by the old skool vibe of its melodically-lilting forthcoming single ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ (which effectively borrows from The Manhattans’ 1978 ballad ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’), ‘My Soul’ boasts production input from the likes of Carl ‘Chucky’ Thompson, Carvin ‘Ransum’ Haggins & Ivan ‘Orthodox’ Barias, plus Gerrard Baker; while also featuring the guest vocals of chart-topping neo-soul man Raheem DeVaughn on the romantically-swaying ‘Mr. Incredible Ms. Unforgettable’. While elsewhere moods range from the bluesily swinging ‘Party All Night’ and funky, driving ‘I Want It All’; to the surging downtempo balladry of ‘The Fact Is’.
Born in Los Angeles, California in June 1983, Leela grew up listening to her father’s huge collection of Sixties and Seventies soul records before eventually setting her sights on a singing career in the late Nineties. Initially signed to RuffNation Records, her contract nevertheless became absorbed by the Warner Bros. label upon RuffNation going under. All of which ultimately led to her project languishing for nearly four years before the eventual 1995 release of her debut album ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which boasted big-name production input from the likes of Kanye West, Wyclef Jean and Raphael Saadiq.
Despite being a critical success, said debut LP nevertheless only sold around 200,000 copies Stateside; resulting in James’ second album - the all-covers, old skool soul tribute set ‘Let’s Do It Again’ - being released through the independent Shanachie Records in 2009.
Meanwhile, with her aforementioned new Stax Records’ debut ‘My Soul’ having this month already provided Leela with her highest US chart position yet (debuting at an impressive Number Seven on the R&B listings), a laid-back sounding Ms. James (whose CV also boasts a Business degree from California State University) hooks up with Pete Lewis from her New York hotel room to discuss such interesting topics as the set’s musical direction; her reasons for signing with Stax; plus her memories of growing up amidst the sunshine and palm trees of LA.
PETE: What did you want to achieve musically and lyrically with ‘My Soul’?
LEELA: “With this album I wanted to make sure that I showed all sides of me - in terms of variety in the music and in my vocal range - while at the same time making it clear that every song deeply came from my soul. Plus I also wanted to incorporate a little more hip hop this time and infuse it with my traditional R&B - because I felt that, by making my beats edgier and harder-hitting, I’d show there was more to me than just doing ballads and things of that sort. Then lyrically - while I wanted some of it to be about love and some of it about social issues - whether I was talking about good things or bad things, I still wanted to make sure I was singing about REAL things.”
PETE: What was the concept behind the striking video to the album’s forthcoming first single ‘Tell Me You Love Me’?
LEELA: “Number one, with the song having a classic soul vibe, I wanted to do a classic black-and-white video. Then, with the title of the song being ‘Tell Me You Love Me’, what I was saying with all the different hairstyles and costume changes is ‘Tell me you love ALL of me - all of my sides, and every PART of me. Whether I have my hair this way or that way; whether I’m dressed like this or like that - tell me you love the whole idea of who I AM’.”
PETE: Do you want to expand on any of the other tracks?
LEELA: “‘I Want It All’ deals with various social issues and was a freestyle record. So to me it stands out because I just went in and started singing whatever came to mind - and that’s what came OUT! You know, it was pretty much a one-take. While ‘Party All Night’ has a very soul/swing/juke-joint vibe. And I purposely wanted to do a feel-good record like that to show people that side of me, and remind them of how those party records used to feel and sound. Then the opening track - ‘I Ain’t New To This’ - is pretty self-explanatory. In that I was basically just letting it be known that I’m not new to this business, that I’m not new to this game, and that I’m a SURVIVOR!”
PETE: Can you fill me in on your early background?
LEELA: “All I can basically say is that I had a very good childhood, great parenting... You know, my neighbourhood was very soulful. And, as a result, it just moulded me and shaped me into the individual I am NOW - which is a very soulful PERSON. Because, while I do enjoy music of all kinds, I do especially enjoy SOUL music. And as a city, LA itself was GREAT! I mean, we’ve got beaches and palm trees, great weather… OK, you may have gang violence and things of that sort. But overall there’s a lotta good things TOO… So yeah, my childhood was FINE!”
PETE: So how and when did you decide on a career in music?
LEELA: “I decided to pursue music professionally when I got to High School. You know, though I’d actually been singing for most of my life, it wasn’t until then that I actually got SERIOUS about it. So that’s when I put a group together and started performing all around LA in whatever clubs and venues I could. And from that I developed an underground following, word-of-mouth spread, I started circulating my demo tape… And finally I got DISCOVERED!”
PETE: How do you now look back on the whole experience of having your first album project (2005’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’) basically languishing for almost four years before its eventual release, due to record-label politics at Warner Bros?
LEELA: “That was a VERY difficult experience, because they kept changing the regime and the direction of the company. So I was constantly being put on hold, and it was just very frustrating dealing with your hands being tied in the system like that. But, you know, I held on… And in time it actually turned out to be a BLESSING to be able to work with a lotta those producers under the circumstances of what I was dealing with back then. You know, I genuinely look on it as testament that you’ve just gotta believe in yourself, stand tall, stand for something… And eventually change will COME - because it DID come! I mean, I worked with Kanye (West) before he released HIS first album - and we had a great time together, because he’s a really talented guy. Then Raphael Saadiq too is a very talented producer, who can also play a lotta instruments… And the same goes for Wyclef! They were all great musicians who each brought their individual flavours to the table, but still were able to cater to - and understand - my OWN flavour.”
PETE: So why are you now signed with the Stax label, and what difference has it made to you as an artist?
LEELA: “I’m a soul singer, Stax is a legendary soul label... So it made sense for me to BE there, and to now have a label-home that understands me a little better than some of my past labels, in terms of the direction I wanna go in with soul music. You know, it’s a better fit, a better marriage - because they understand the music and kinda SUPPORT it a bit more. Plus I’ve definitely had more creative control on this album, in that I wrote every song but three. You know, I was heavily involved in both the production and the writing process. I basically just had the opportunity to do things that I’ve always had in me to do, but never gotten the CHANCE to do before. Which made a big difference.”
PETE: The diverse list of artists whose albums you’ve appeared on range from iconic soul/rhythm & blues genius Ray Charles (the 2005 posthumously-released duets compilation ‘Genius & Friends’) to hip hop legend Pete Rock (the 2004 LP ‘Soul Survivor 11’), plus chart-topping dance producer Moby (the 2009 album ‘Wait For Me’)…
LEELA: “Yeah, and they were all great experiences. I mean, clearly working on the Ray Charles project stood out. Because, even though at the time he was already deceased, I was still able to go in the studio and sing against his vocals. And there were moments where I could just really feel some of his energy. I guess it was his spirit coming through the track, and it was just very deep. So to hear my voice next to his was - and still is - amazing to me, and I’m grateful to have had that experience... You know, being a musician and a real singer, I make music for EVERYBODY - and I guess working with Moby was definitely a testament to that, because no-one probably would have expected it! And the same thing goes for Pete Rock. You know, I just love music PERIOD, and it really doesn’t matter to me about the genre!”
Leela James' album ‘My Soul’ is out now through Stax.... Plus you can catch Leela at the Bloomsbury Ballroom for her only date in the capital this year. To book your tickets ticketweb
Words PETE LEWIS