Interview: Leela James – Singer and Songwriter

Posted: April 3, 2009 in interview, music
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Leela James

Date of Interview: 04/03/2009

© 2009 Clayton Perry

Leela James is one of those singers whose voice will stop someone dead in their tracks.  You know the kind: a voice so powerful and unique that even the casual listener must give it a cursory listen—at the very least—before going about their day.

No matter one’s musical preference, it would be hard to deny that Leela’s got soul.  Raw emotion exudes from her gritty vocals, all of which are underpinned by passionate lyrics.  And while such realness may not find a welcome place on mainstream radio, millions have stumbled upon her music online and through her memorable live performances.

Leela James’ debut album, A Change is Gonna Come, features several fan favorites, like “Music” and “My Joy,” which showcase the depth and breadth of her musical abilities.  And in 2009, James covered some of her favorite singers on Let’s Do It Again, a specialty album released by Shanachie Records.

Upon review of her sophomore release, Leela James managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Betty Wright, her passion for music and the grueling, four-day recording experience for Let’s Do It Again.

Clayton Perry: “Leela James isn’t doing things again; she’s doing them right.” These are the words of Ken Capobianco of the Boston Globe.  How do you feel about the warm response that you received with your sophomore release, Let’s Do It Again?

Leela James: You know, I’m very, very, very happy and relieved that it’s being well-received. I worked really hard on this particular record, and I only had one week to record it. My band and I went into the studio and we basically knocked it out. It’s just a blessing that the hard work paid off in that short amount of time. People have really welcomed the project with open arms. And I am currently working on my next project, I’m really, really excited about that.

Clayton Perry: When I first heard about Let’s Do It Again, I was really excited. I must admit, however, that I was a bit surprised, since it wasn’t an album of original material. What made you decide to record a cover album for your sophomore release, instead of an album full of original material?

Leela James: I was already working on my album of original tunes when Shanachie Entertainment approached me with this project as a one-off – just to do it for fun, basically. I love the music and it’s no-strings-attached, so I said, “Well, yeah!” We recorded it and they wanted to put it out right away. Let’s Do It Again is setting the stage for my upcoming record of original tunes that we’re dropping off this year. So it’s just music. At the end of the day, this is what I do, and if I have the opportunity to do it as much as possible, then that’s what I’m going to do. It just so happened that Let’s Do It Again came out before my second original album.

Clayton Perry: Since this cover album stands as a bridge to your second original album, what are your expectations for Let’s Do It Again, since it’s a one-off project?

Leela James: I would love to see it do really well. That would be a blessing. I guess you expect the unexpected – that’s the best way to go about life.

Clayton Perry: From the early reviews and positive buzz, I think the album will fare very well.  You and I know that a new artist’s take on classic material can be risky business, but you did a great job across-the-board.  Did you have any fear of touching some of the better-known tracks?

Leela James: Not necessarily fear. I wanted to pay homage to a lot of artists that I felt like deserved it. It’s a way of reintroducing their music to a new generation of listeners. My whole thing was to make sure that we did it tastefully and that it will be received in a manner that people will say, “Well, I can respect that,” and not, “What are you doing? You wrecked the record.” I really wanted to do the Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofill records, because I felt that both of those artists were really underrated in their day. This is my way of paying homage to them and keeping them around and alive. I can kind of relate, being an artist and a singer. Sometimes you feel like people don’t give you credit – I feel like Phyllis is one of those artists, and Angela as well. I wanted to say, “I know who you are and I respect what you did so here’s your music. It’s out again.”

Clayton Perry: Well, your fans are extremely loyal, and they love you to death.

Leela James: I love them right back, honestly, I do.

Clayton Perry: How did you go about picking the tracks for this particular album?

Leela James: I just picked songs that I had heard growing up. These were the songs that I was a fan of, songs by artists that I felt I and the band can execute well and would be good for the new audience of listeners to hear. I also picked songs that would not be expected of me to do – like there’s a track on there by Foreigner, “I Want To Know What Love Is.” I felt like no one would probably expect me to do a record like that. Even the likes of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” I’m a lover of music, all kinds of music, whether its rock ’n roll, country, blues, whatever. I kind of wanted to show that. I want to put out there the diversity in my vocal range and musical taste. I picked records that open people up to who I am.

Clayton Perry: You are well-known for your live performances, and luckily, in this day and age, many people can view your sets on YouTube. What steps did you take with this particular album to ensure you maintained the energy and intimacy of your live performances?

Leela James: Even though we recorded this album in the studio, the band and I  treated this album as if we were doing a show, so we were performing like we had a live audience. We just went back-to-back-to-back doing the songs and a lot of the songs, the takes that made the record were a little bit like the live takes; I was singing right along and the band was playing. It just really worked out. It worked out really, really well. I’m happy.  We basically went in the studio, spent four days recording and another couple of days of just tracking.

Clayton Perry: The album definitely has a raw feel and the band was tight. How did you go about selecting the band members?

Leela James: This is my band that’s been with me for some time now. It was just right up my alley to do what we normally do during shows. So it was really fun.

Clayton Perry: My favorite track off of Let’s Do It Again is the Phyllis Hyman track, “You Know How to Love Me.” Do you have any particular memories attached to this song, from your personal life or the recording process?

Leela James: The Phyllis Hyman track sticks out because it was one of the songs that I recorded towards the end of the project. And right towards the end, I began to lose my voice and I was extremely hoarse.  I was like, “How am I going to execute this song?” and “She was such an excellent singer with a lot of jazz inflections in her voice. Oh my goodness, I hardly have anything to give.” I said, “We should have recorded this song first!” [laughing] It was interesting, because it was like 2:30-3:00 in the morning and we were in the studio. I was like, “I got to knock it out,” because that was the last day that we had to do it. I just had to dig down deep and I was tired and not feeling well. So that song really stands out in my mind, because It was only by the grace of God that I was able to get the vocals out! [laughing]

Clayton Perry: How do you feel about your take on the songs that you covered by male artists? As you prepared for the album, did you approach those songs differently?

Leela James: No, not really.  The first single off of Let’s Do It Again is “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown. It was really fun to record, because it’s right up my alley to do the bluesier, raw kind of music. It was pretty much a one-take. Basically, I just told the band, “It’s late. Let’s go deep down in the backwoods somewhere and get real stank blues-y on it.” I let my vocals come out as wild as it needed to be. I didn’t want to make it sound too polished. It is what it is with that song. That was pretty much the approach. I feel like what made the Godfather of Soul what he is was just pure soul. That’s something that’s just in you. You don’t try to curl it up. You really can’t learn it; it’s just there. That’s what he was about. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, so this is just another way of me continuing his legacy of keeping his music out there.

Clayton Perry: You open the album with “Clean Up Woman” – it’s a classic. What is it about that song that you appreciate the most? Over the years, a lot of artists have covered this song or used elements of the song in their tracks.  So what is it about that song that made you want to start your album with it?

Leela James: Well, I’m a Betty Wright fan, number one. I love Betty Wright; I love her voice. I love her contribution to the R&B music. She’s another great artist and that’s one of my favorite Betty Wright songs. To do the record, it was so fitting for myself and the band because it’s soul, it’s funky, it’s amazing. It’s a fun way to kick off the album. It had a lot of energy and it’s one of the first songs we recorded so it just made sense to put it at the top and set the tone for what we were going to do with the rest of the record – which was basically to bring funk and soul and have a good time. And to make people feel good as they’re listening to it and say, “Hey, I remember that record.”

Clayton Perry: Is there another song that you performed on the album that you feel like you gave your all that had an interesting story attached to it?

Leela James: Yeah, the Angela Bofill record – “I Try” – the second to the last song in the album. I had to reach down deep because it’s such a strong ballad, you know. It was a little difficult right there towards the end because fatigue had kicked in and I was recording all these songs back-to-back-to-back. That’s a lot of singing.

Clayton Perry: Earlier on, you were saying how you felt you relate to Angela and Phyllis in terms of them being overlooked. If you don’t really measure success in terms of sales, how would you define success?

Leela James: No matter what happens, I would say that I’m quite successful. I have a loving family. I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, food to go in my mouth, and adoring fans all throughout the world. I’m blessed; that’s just what it is.

Clayton Perry: At this point in your career, what do you consider to be your ultimate contribution to the music industry?

Leela James: I just bring my thing, the Leela James thing. I just try to do me. I’m a soul singer; that’s what I do. That’s my contribution to music. Maybe I bring a little bit of hot soul.

Clayton Perry: You also bring a unique style.  I am a bit curious about your new look.  Comparing the photos of A Change is Gonna Come and Let’s Do It Again, I want to know what happened to your afro! [laughing] You’re still fine and all.  But…

Leela James: Oh, wow!  That’s so funny. The afro’s still here. If you wet my hair, it will frizz right back up. It’s very nappy. Don’t get it twisted! [laughing]

Clayton Perry: Oh, ok! I just wanted to check! [laughing] For the new fans that  are being introduced to you for the first time, what do you want them to know about Leela James and what she has to offer?

Leela James: I’m doing this for the love of music and nothing else.

Clayton Perry: When you look back on these past few years, what do you think has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned, either on the personal level or professional level?

Leela James: The biggest lesson I learned these past couple of years is that the people closest to you will let you down. So you don’t put your faith in people; you put your faith in God.

Clayton Perry: After the success of A Change is Gonna Come, did you get a lot of pressure from record companies to become more mainstream along the way?

Leela James: In a sense, I did but it’s a different world. It’s the Obama age right now. Change comes.

For more information on Leela James, visit her official website: http://www.leelajames.com/

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