Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1084

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Feature

Leela James: James by name...

Leela James @bluesandsoul.com
Leela James @bluesandsoul.com

With her deep-and-gritty vocals, high-energy performances and wild-child image having in some quarters earned her a reputation as âthis generationâs embodiment of Etta Jamesâ, contemporary soulstress Leela James this month releases her homage to the recently-deceased soul and blues icon with her new, fourth album âLoving You More... In The Spirit Of Etta Jamesâ - which also marks her second release for independent US soul/R&B label Shanachie.

Produced in Nashville, Tennessee by the Grammy-winning Shannon Sanders and Drew Ramsey (India.Aire/Anthony David), âLoving You More⦠In The Spirit Of Etta Jamesâ finds Leela (who actually acquired her professional name âJamesâ due to her childhood performances in church having at the time reminded adult onlookers of Etta!) delivering her own, often-quite-contemporary take on nine songs associated with her heroine, in addition to a couple of originals in turn âinspiredâ by the legendary Rock & Roll and Blues Hall Of Famer.

All of which results in two of Ettaâs best-known signature songs - âAt Lastâ and âIâd Rather Go Blindâ - now surfacing as unexpected duets (between Leela and producer Sanders); while more obscure compositions like the sultry blues-funker âI Want To Ta-Ta You Babyâ (taken from a 2009 recording) and searingly-impassioned âIt Hurts Me So Muchâ (a song originally featured on Ettaâs Muscle Shoals-recorded LP âTell Mamaâ) sit comfortably alongside Leelaâs fresh, uptempo reading of the joyous âSomethingâs Got A Hold On Meâ and driving, neo-disco update of âIâm Loving You More Every Dayâ, the setâs current single.

Born in Los Angeles, California in June 1983, Leela grew up listening to her fatherâs 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 âA Change Is Gonna Comeâ, 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; leaving it up to Jamesâ second album - the all-covers, old skool soul tribute set âLetâs Do It Againâ (her first release for the aforementioned Shanachie Records) to, in 2009, provide her with her first taste of US R&B chart success. Its Number 11 peak in turn paving the way two years later for the impressive Number Seven debut position of Leelaâs more contemporary 2010 set ââMy Soulâ, which interestingly also marked her first release for the iconic, revitalised Stax label.

⦠Fast-forward to late-summer 2012, meanwhile, and itâs a laid-back sounding Ms. James (whose CV also boasts a Business degree from California State University) who hooks up with âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis from her West Coast home to discuss such interesting topics as her reasons for recording an homage to Etta at this time and her criteria for deciding which of the legendary soul-and-blues sirenâs songs to cover.

PETE: What were your personal reasons for releasing an album of mostly Etta James covers at this time?

LEELA: âTo me Etta James is the best female blues artist there ever WAS. You know, Iâve definitely always been, and still AM, a fan. But though she was such an incredible singer and very few artists are able to convey that sincere pain in their music, during her life and her career I personally donât feel she got her proper RESPECT. So for me this is a way of acknowledging her and keeping her music and legacy alive, while also hopefully reintroducing her, her sound and her music to a new generation of listeners... Obviously itâs unfortunate that sheâs not here with us to enjoy it, but at the same time I know sheâs still with us in SPIRIT.â

PETE: So how did the project first actually come together?

LEELA: âWhat happened was, we were originally working on what was gonna be a new Leela James album of mostly original marerial while maybe covering one Etta James song as a dedication to her after she passed. But then, as it evolved, one of the label-heads suggested we should perhaps explore the idea of doing an entire ALBUM project of hers and just really taking her music and putting a new face on it - you know, basically making it a really huge tribute as opposed to just one SONG.â

PETE: Can you fill me in on your early background?

LEELA: âAll 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, weâve got beaches and palm trees, great weather⦠OK, you may have gang violence and things of that sort. But overall thereâs a lotta good things TOO⦠So yeah, my childhood was FINE!â

PETE: So how and when did you decide on a career in music?

LEELA: âI decided to pursue music professionally when I got to High School. You know, though Iâd actually been singing for most of my life, it wasnât until then that I actually got SERIOUS about it. So thatâs 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!â

PETE: The diverse list of artists whose albums youâve appeared on over the years range from iconic soul/rhythm & blues genius Ray Charles (the 2005 posthumously-released duets compilation âGenius & Friendsâ) to hip hop legend Pete Rock (the 2004 LP âSoul Survivor IIâ), plus chart-topping dance/electronica producer Moby (the 2009 album âWait For Meâ)â¦

LEELA: âYeah, 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 Iâm grateful to have had that experience... And then I guess working with Moby was definitely a testament to the fact that, being a musician and a real singer, I do make music for EVERYBODY - because probably no-one would have EXPECTED that particular collaboration! And the same thing goes for Pete ROCK!... You know, I just love music PERIOD! And so it really doesnât matter to me about the GENRE!â

The album âLoving You More⦠In The Spirit Of Etta Jamesâ and single âIâm Loving You More Every Dayâ are both out now through Shanachie

You can read more form this fascinating interview with Leela James, including James' process in covering the material of all time great Etta James' in such fine detail, in our print issue - click below to order your copy now.
Words PETE LEWIS

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