Interview: LEELA JAMES

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Leela James: Small Change Rings Loud
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
Leela James is on a self-assigned mission to put “the blues back into R&B”; an acronym which has lost its own soul, if much of today’s music going under that title is anything to go by. This 27-year old fiery woman, with a distinctive quivering afro, hails from Los Angeles. Before rocking London’s Jazz Café with her monstrously refreshing raw soul, Leela talks to Soul Culture about modern soul, the widespread influence of black music, and her own journey from singing in the church and high school talent shows to bringing back Rhythm & Blues with debut album released earlier this year.
Leela began singing in the church as a little girl, and then in high school was part of a girl group which “didn’t last long, because everybody wasn’t on the same page”. She went from this to performing in showcases, and “got bitten by the singing bug”. What finally did it for her, was “hearing my voice on professional recording equipment and seeing and hearing people respond” to her. She cites her main musical influences as Al Green, BB King, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan (“you know, all the soul legends”). The emphasis on classic soul is evident all over her album, starting with its title; taken from the Sam Cooke song of the same name. She chose to record a cover version of this song to pay homage and to re-introduce him to a new audience: “My mother suggested that I record the song, and it basically personifies my album and who I am as an artist. It was also a way of re-introducing Sam Cooke to a new generation of people who aren’t familiar with who he is as a soul legend”.
No music enthusiast benefits from limiting themselves to one genre alone because, as Leela says, “Good music is for everyone, and when it’s good it crosses all genres regardless of what you normally listen to. I listen to Rock ‘n’ Roll, I like Rolling Stones, I like No Doubt”, which is why she covered their hit song Don’t Speak in an original adaptation. Is Leela creating the soul or exposing existing soulful elements? “Black music is the core of a lot of music, period. A lot of people gave Elvis Presley credit, when he wasn’t doing too much more than Little Richard was doing. Sometimes we, as black musicians, didn’t always receive (especially back then more so than now) credit for the work that was being done, the effort and creativity. But I feel that black music has always been an influence on a lot of styles of music”. Musical unity is an important theme for Leela, who recalls We Are The World (which featured a range of singers from Cyndi Lauper to Stevie Wonder) as a song that had an intense impact on her – “I thought it was amazing when I remember hearing We Are The World, with all those artists singing one song together, the idea of getting them all in the same place”.
According to Leela, her album ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ is “based on true experiences I’ve had, direct and indirectly, and I wrote and co-wrote all of it, apart from the two covers”. With a smile she describes Raphael Saadiq, Kanye West and Wyclef Jean, whom she worked with on the album, as “real down-to-earth people”, clearly pleased at the support she’s been getting. Impressive collaborations regardless, many music-buyers still don’t know who she is. How does she feel about being signed to a major label whilst being relatively under-promoted? “Sometimes it’s frustrating, but at the same time I understand that when you’re not trying to do a typical format which may not be as popular, your journey is slightly different.” A typical format being sexed-up poster girl personas with a few minutes regard for the music? “Well, there’s no gimmick associated with me and that’s probably why the route that I’ve taken is a little bit longer and the struggle’s a bit harder because I have no record mogul behind me pushing me down peoples’ throats and I don’t have a lot of marketing powers behind me. All I can stand on is my raw, earnest, sincere talent. And there’s no gimmick in that. I’m not standing behind a piano… I’m not doing anything other than singing”. So all things considered, in retrospect would she rather have signed to a smaller label with a bigger focus on soul music? Apparently not. “I don’t regret anything, it’s what it’s supposed to be and everything happens for a reason. I can’t look back.”
Back to the aforementioned sexed-up poster girl singers, Leela steers clear when questioned on her favourite contemporary soul artists and responds that she mainly listens to her “old school artists. I also listen to a lot of gospel singers like Yolanda Adams”. She would most like to collaborate with Prince, Andre 3000, and R Kelly – who has already expressed interest in working with her. Does she consider R Kelly to be one of the better modern soul artists, then? “When he’s creating stuff for somebody else, that’s him being completely different as a producer. He’s making money. But when he makes his own album you hear his soul. As an artist, he got soul, and that’s undeniable. He’s one of the few that can put out a whole R&B album – with R&B standing for Rhythm and Blues – and I can get an R Kelly album and hear the blues in his songs”. Well, there’s no debating R Kelly’s blues.
As for modern R&B, Leela complains “It’s funny when people say they’re R&B. R&B doesn’t even stand for R&B anymore. That’s what I’m about – putting the blues and the soul back into R&B. R&B lacks blues. It seems like our generation doesn’t care”. Perhaps this is because our generation live in a different social context to that in which the soul classics were written and released, but to counter this Leela asserts, “artists can keep that soulful element of their music alive by drawing on the past”.
Whether the change is coming because of her, or it has already been set in motion by today’s soul artists, Leela James is doing a good job of keeping soul in the present tense.

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