News & Press
Mar 19

The Intimate Truth of Leela James

The small-in-stature yet powerhouse vocalist ended up being impressed by her own voice after being exposed to the studio:

“I got bit by the bug when I heard my vocals professionally on wax and I was like, ‘oh, I want to do this!’  He said, ‘you can sing and you can make money’ and I was like ‘whaaaaat, I can make money singing?’ So, I started getting serious, put a group together, put a band together and I would perform wherever I could. I was grinding for many many years, various clubs, wherever, local … I went to college, but I would still go to the studio and do gigs whenever I could after school, at nights and on the weekends, whenever I could and just perform.

Leela likely didn’t realize that her willingness to put in the work of grinding in the underground clubs and such was not only giving her valuable performance experience, but was also earning her that coveted designation as a “real” artist, separating her from some of the “microwave” artists of today.  Real isn’t something you “wake up” as; you’ve gotta roll your sleeves up and earn it.  Fellow artists even respect their peers for it:

“I’m definitely an artist’s artist, first and foremost. I appreciate true artistry, real musicianship … that’s where I come from,” she said.

“It’s a lot of good music out today, but it was a lot of good music out back in the day, and I think the difference is the integrity that some people put into the craft and I just sometimes refer to that quality of musicianship and that quality of music and just making sure as we can’t control time and we’re gonna go on and get older and stuff we still keep in mind from whence we came and try not to lose that substance.”

Being a real artist, though, sometimes comes with less mainstream success and hardships for the sake of the craft that can challenge even the sturdiest individuals.  I asked Leela to speak to that fact:

“It’s been a journey, it has not been easy, you have peaks and valleys, you go through periods where you’re like ‘OK, maybe I should do something else …’ I’ve had those moments you know,” she reflected.

“[But what keeps me going is] the love for the music and the energy I would get from other people, and encouragement when I would do shows and tours, like, ‘oh, you saved my life with this lyric,’ and somebody comes up to you in tears, and you’re like ‘ok, this is bigger than me.’ And after that point you realize it’s not about me, somebody is hearing it and somebody does appreciate it,’ and so you keep making music that you love and have genuine passion for.”

Leela isn’t really concerned with labels, however, and relishes where she is with her music:

“I’m just an artist that I can walk on the streets, on the main street or I can go on the doggoned side street, too. People will try to define you per their opinions or per their opinion of what mainstream is … I guess I wouldn’t be considered mainstream, but technically in my mind, I’m in whatever stream, street I wanna be.”

“You’re gonna have people support you and like what you’re doing and you’re gonna have people that don’t. I mean, you certainly want as much support as possible, but I can’t change the core of who I am trying to achieve that.”

Real has taken on another meaning today, though.  The real lives of entertainers are being exposed – of course of their own volition – to their fans in a way that some of our cherished entertainers of old never experienced.  The need for more exposure and to create new revenue streams has given rise to reality shows and Leela decided to join the fray.  She’s one of the cast members of the R&B Divas franchise and has exposed more of herself to her fans than she ever had before.  But she’s fully aware of what that entails and rolls with the good and the bad of it:

“I think its definitely been a great platform to expand my audience and that’s what it’s all about, to bring more people into the musical world of Leela James, but in the process you can’t help but get a peak on who I am personally and i’m just hoping that people will continue to support, the ones who’ve already been supporting, and the one who weren’t will get on board and support too,” she said.

But is she embarrassed by anything she’s done or revealed as she’s watched back some of the footage?

 “It’s a lot of moments, cause I don’t like wearing makeup, so when I see myself back i’m like oh my gosh, she looks terrible and “ooooh, look at my hair …’ but then i’m like ‘whatever …’ Sometimes it is what it is and I feel like I’m human and I think that you can’t just pretend everything is always rosey. Everything ain’t always peachy keen, and it ain’t all bad. I’m goofy when I wanna be, I’m serious, I can be happy, I’m a human being with real emotions and feelings and I don’t know why people think that just because you’re on camera or are a celebrity that you are void from normal human behavior. Everybody has their moments, if somebody rubs you the wrong way, you might cuss them out too.”

If she had formed any true friendships with any of her cast mates and she nodded in the affirmative.  But when I asked her who, she smiled wryly and declined to answer.  I took my cue and moved on to asking how she feels about blogs and social media, given that it can support or devastate a celebrity’s career.

She answered:

“I mean, yeah, it works hand in hand.  You got good and you got bad, you know, everything good that comes, you have a little bit of bad that comes with it, too, but hopefully we’ll get to a place where it’s more balanced.  I don’t do that kind of stuff [twitter beefs and such]; I barely be on twitter. I’m not a big social [networker]; I’m trying to get better, but I’m very much a Flinstones type … I JUST got my iphone together.  Listen, I’m just so … I’m just boring. I don’t go to clubs, I’m not the turn up heifer, I ain’t doing all of that.  I’m like the black Laura Ingalls, you know … I’m boring as heck, but I can sang.”

I went on to ask her if she feels we’ve been fully exposed to the depth of artistry of Leela James?

“Absolutely not.  It’s only so much you can put on an album and each song is like three minutes or so or a little over, you aren’t gonna completely know an artist from one record or even several … some artists it takes their entire career for people to actually appreciate and get them. A lot of times, it takes artists to die for people to appreciate them and people be like, ‘Oh, they were amazing!’ No, they were amazing when they were alive, y’all late. That why you have to support the artists when they’re alive, buying their music, requesting that radio play the stuff … just support the artist,” she responded.

On her recently released album, Fall For You, and what makes this album different from others she’s released, she said:

“I’m older and I’ve been through even more stuff. I just think the music is better and that’s a good thing because it’s supposed to get better. as you grow, it’s supposed to get better,” she said.

“I just hope they feel good and if they liked the music before, they like it even more and if they weren’t familiar with it they say, ‘well shoot, let me go get it!’”

But Leela isn’t just a singer.  There are a few things that aren’t commonly known about her:

“I’m a great interior decorator, a great doggoned cook and I’m a homebody. I like watching black exploitation films because they’re funny and soulful. It was happening. I like dolomite and Foxy Brown, but my favorite of all times is Claudine. It’s my VERY favorite. I just love how they captured the love between Claudine and the garbage man. It was so soulful, the soundtrack, the back drop, man it was just … Gladys Knight sounded amazing and made the movie even better.”

And speaking of Gladys Knight, Leela’s vocals – which isn’t uncommon for voices like hers – were heavily influenced by artists of that period and ilk:

“Yeah, I listened to a lot of that music growing up, because that was what my parents would play … and they still play that music.  So, I guess you can say that influenced me and I’m grateful because they didn’t deviate from, I feel, what is real, real content, real music and what sounds good, so when that’s your soundtrack in your environment, yeah, it molds you.”

And with it having been said that “real begets real,” her experiences with the music of our beloved artists from back in the day have helped to make her one of those “real” artist that I started out speaking about.

A self-proclaimed “black Laura Ingalls,” Leela James has the off-stage temperament to live life in a “little house on the prairie” but the windows are likely be blown out should she ever decide to sing in the shower.  Later that evening during her set, I saw a “real” singer – make up and all – walking in her gifting, commanding LA’s Club Nokia stage and singing her fans into a down-home style frenzy with one of the biggest and most distinct voices you’ll hear today.



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