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Issue 1084

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Feature

Leona Lewis: A different glass

Leona Lewis @bluesandsoul.com
Leona Lewis @bluesandsoul.com

Having become a global singing sensation after winning Britainâs âThe X Factorâ in 2006, 20-million-selling East London-raised diva Leona Lewis returns this month with her much-anticipated third album âGlassheartâ. Which is in turn currently being pioneered across the airwaves with the piano chords and heavy beats of its hauntingly-anguished lead-off single âTroubleâ featuring the guest rhymes of rising US hip hop star (and successful TV actor) Childish Gambino.

Indeed, with production credits ranging from its British executive-producer Fraser T Smith (Adele/Florence + The Machine) and US R&B/pop don Rodney Jerkins (Whitney Houston/Michael Jackson) to such lesser-known names as Craigie Dodds and Ammo & Josh Abraham (in addition to songwriting input from Leona herself, plus the likes of chart-topping Scottish soulstress Emeli Sande and her producer Naughty Boy), musical moods on âGlassheartâ vary from the dramatic power-balladry of âLovebirdâ and emotionally-building âFirefliesâ to the more electronic UK-bassline vibe of âCome Aliveâ and upbeat, springy groove of âShake You Upâ.

Born Leona Louise Lewis in April 1985 in Islington, London to an Afro-Guyanese father and Welsh/Irish/Italian mother, Leona grew up attending three of the capitalâs premier stage/performing arts schools - the Sylvia Young Theatre School, the Italia Conti Academy and the BRIT School. Where, in the hope of eventually becoming a successful singer/songwriter, she learnt to play several instruments while also writing her first full-length song at the tender age of 12! Following which vocally she would go on to train in opera before moving into jazz and blues and eventually popular music, citing world-conquering divas Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey as her main influences.

Meanwhile, after leaving the BRIT School at 17, a teenage Ms. Lewis immediately found herself a number of odd jobs to fund studio time before going on to record numerous demos. Nevertheless, it was not until she auditioned for the third series of the UKâs high-profile reality-TV singing contest âThe X Factorâ in 2006 that major chart success would ensue. When, following her being announced the winner on December 16, her debut single - her cover of Kelly Clarksonâs US-chart-topping ballad âA Moment Like Thisâ - would become Britainâs much-coveted Christmas Number One, impressively breaking sales records along the way.

However, it wasnât until the November 2007 release of her debut album âSpiritâ that bona fide international superstardom would ensue - its transatlantic chart-topping success (also repeated across much of the rest of the globe) seeing it become the UKâs fastest-selling debut album of all time, while also making Leona the first-ever British artist to hit Number One Stateside with a debut album. Meanwhile, its transatlantic Number One lead-off single - the haunting, Ryan Tedder-penned/produced âBleeding Loveâ - would also go on to break numerous records internationally - topping the charts in 34 countries and becoming the best-selling single worldwide of 2008. Which in turn (with follow-up singles âBetter In Timeâ, âForgive Meâ and âRunâ also attaining significant chart success) would ultimately lead to âSpiritâ selling over 6.5 million copies globally while earning Leona three prestigious Grammy nominations along the way!

All of which obviously paved the way nicely for the November 2009 worldwide release of Leonaâs UK-chart-topping second album âSpiritâ. Which would again go on to score considerable Top 10 international success, largely pioneered by the pan-European and Japanese Top 10 status of its power-ballad single âHappyâ. Since which time - with the vegetarian and animal-loving Ms. Lewis on a personal note going on to receive two high-profile awards from noted American animal rights organisation PeTA (she famously in 2008 turned down a seven-figure sum to open a Harrods sale due to them stocking clothes made from animal fur) - she has gone on to perform her first live tour (2010âs The Labyrinth) while briefly returning to the UK Top Five in September 2011 with dance/pop single âCollideâ, which also topped the US Dance chart.

⦠Which conveniently brings us back to this monthâs release of âGlassheartâ. As a warm-mannered and humble Ms. Lewis calls up âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss her aforementioned new album; her experiences on âThe X Factorâ; plus the global success of her first two multi-Platinum albums, whose combined worldwide sales now exceed a massive nine million.

Her new single âTroubleâ

âWell, âTroubleâ basically tells the story of love going bad and becoming destructive, which is something a lot of us can relate to. And the song itself actually first came to me through Tinie Tempah. You know, he sent it to me and, even though it was just a chorus at the time, I immediately fell in LOVE with it. To where, when I met Emeli (Sande) and Sha (aka UK urban hit-producer Naughty Boy), because it already had such a great foundation, we straightaway decided to work on it together to kind of PROGRESS it... And then, once Fraser (T Smith) came on board as executive-producer, he got involved in it TOO, and basically brought it up to where it is NOW⦠So yeah, the song itself has had quite a JOURNEY! But having said that, I did know from the very first time I started working on it that it was gonna be the one to kinda kick off the whole ALBUM. Because it is very SPECIAL to me. You know, to me itâs a deeply emotional and poignant song that I do genuinely feel a really strong CONNECTION to.â

How rising US hip hop star Childish Gambino came to guest on it

âIâd kind of been watching him for a while. You know, Iâd always been listening to his mixtapes and basically been a huge FAN. Because to me heâs such a great poet, as WELL as being a great actor. So when I decided I wanted to make âTroubleâ into a collaboration, I asked him if heâd listen to the track and tell me what he THOUGHT of it. And because he too fell in love with it, he basically just kinda jumped on it STRAIGHTAWAY - and Iâm really glad he DID! Because I just find him really interesting, and the things that he says really do INSPIRE me. I mean, I basically wanted someone on there who was creative and poetic and witty. And because he ticks all those boxes, to me he compliments the record PERFECTLY.â

The story behind titling her new, third album âGlassheartâ

âI was actually in Denver with (chart-topping US songwriter/producer and One Republic frontman) Ryan Tedder, whoâs like one of my friends and was one of the first people I started WORKING with on this album. You know, Iâve worked with him on EVERY album (Tedder was responsible for Leonaâs global chart-topper âBleeding Loveâ), and so he and I were basically just talking about MY relationships and HIS relationships and the different things weâve BEEN through. And because at that point I was going through quite a rough time, I was like âI always wear my heart on my sleeve - I think I just need to harden UPâ - and he was like âNo, itâs good to BE true and transparent and show your emotions in a relationshipâ. So from that we kinda got into talking about the concept of writing a song called âGlassheartâ. And then from there it suddenly occurred to us that it might even be appropriate to name the whole ALBUM that - because a lot of the songs on it are actually INSPIRED by that concept⦠And I guess the name just STUCK!â

What Leona feels executive-producer Fraser T Smith (of Adele/Florence + The Machine fame) has brought to her new album musically

âWell, I originally met Fraser about 12 years ago when we did a song together. And the reason I got him involved as executive-producer this time was because I wanted a musical thread that would run throughout the album and make it all sound like ONE. You know, because we get along as friends and we both like to try new things, I think with this record we just kind wanted to go on a JOURNEY together. So, though Fraser is quite eclectic in his taste, he definitely did cater to what I was kinda FEELING. You know, we kinda messed around with different sounds, did things in different ways - and just kinda went with whatever I picked UP on. Which was basically like a real mix of some electronic sounds with some LIVE stuff⦠So yeah, I think Fraser did combine both styles really WELL - in a way that was still musical, still contemporary - while at the same time allowing room for the songs to BREATHE. You know, it wasnât OVERPOWERING.â

How she now looks back on her time competing - and winning! - on âThe X Factorâ

âOh, it was kinda crazy at the time! Because obviously all Iâd wanted was to just do my music, record an album, get a deal - and then kinda go from THERE. Whereas entering onto the show just thrust me into a whole different world that I wasnât kind of EXPECTING! And then obviously with me winning I recorded âA Moment Like Thisâ, put it out- and then all of a sudden I was on âTop Of The Popsâ and everything just became INSANE! You know, it just went CRAZY! It was just this whirlwind that went super-super quickly! So whereas for most artists I think itâs a gradual growth, for me it was like great from the GET-go! Which was AWESOME!... So yeah, I definitely learnt a lot from my âX Factorâ experience, and I totally enjoyed my time DOING it!â

Her feelings about having been mentored on her first album (2007âs 6.5-million-selling âSpiritâ) by two of the worldâs biggest music moguls - Americaâs Clive Davis (of Whitney Houston/Alicia Keys/Aretha Franklin repute) and Britainâs Simon Cowell

âWell obviously, with Clive being in New York heâs very American-music-industry-savvy. And so, because I do genuinely like to learn about the industry, it was AMAZING to listen to him and what he could teach me. Then of course Simon in turn has taught me a lot about the industry HERE. Which, with me being a British artist who lives here and whose family are here, I feel was ESSENTIAL... So yeah, to have these two really great mentors to kinda teach me and guide me has been truly INCREDIBLE! I couldnât ask for two better people.â

Her ideas on the âlack-of-credibilityâ stigma generally attached to many former âX Factorâ contestants

âI think it depends where youâre COMING from really, and what kind of artist you ARE. Like with me from the get-go Simon (Cowell) knew Iâd already had the production deal, I was already a writer that had done lots before⦠You know, it wasnât just a case of me entering the show and that was IT. I already knew the type of music I wanted to DO, I already knew the kind of artist that I wanted to BE⦠And so while yes, there IS a stigma attached to a lot of the people who enter the show - because itâs reality TV, I guess - I personally didnât really FEEL that too much, to be honest. Probably because with my first (international) single âBleeding Loveâ doing so well - it went to Number One in like 30 different countries - I guess I pretty much proved myself from the OFF.
The album âGlassheartâ is out now through Syco Music/Sony Music

You can read more from our interview with Leona Lewis, including Leona's thoughts on her years as an aspiring vocalist/her experiences pre-X Factor and why her new album Glass Heart has been described as "dark" by some in the know - all in our print issue out November 16 - get your copy below...
Words PETE LEWIS

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