Leela James speaks the truth. Never mind hype or spectacle. The acclaimed recording artist appreciates the eternal qualities of an undeniable star — raw talent, musical substance and an authentic voice that’s timeless. All of which are embodied on Leela James’ upcoming fourth studio album and new single “Say That,” a sultry duet with Anthony Hamilton.
Ms. James first burst onto the scene with her 2006 debut album A Change is Gonna Come, introducing audiences to her considerable vocal chops and garnering nominations for Outstanding New Artist at the NAACP Image Awards and Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist of 2008 at the Soul Train Music Awards. James has gone on to record three subsequent albums including My Soul, which reached #7 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Albums Chart and #37 on the Billboard 200 chart, and earned acclaim from critics for her songwriting skills.
What sets Ms. James apart is her fearless approach to making music. She travels the gamut of emotions from self-doubt to self-confidence, and reminds her audience of what it is to be human – to love, to regret and to dream. “The best artists stay true to who they are, no matter the scale,” says James. “I think you can be relevant and still have substance, so I try to never stay in a box. My sound today may be different than where I was five years ago, but my core is always the same. My soul is intact.”
For Leela, it’s always been about the soul. So much so that she was nicknamed Baby Etta as a little girl growing up in Los Angeles. Along with Chaka Khan and Al Green, she counts Etta James among her vocal heroes and paid homage in 2012 by recording her album Loving You More…In the Spirit of Etta James. Leela’s influences run the gamut of vocalists from soul to funk, and jazz, and her interpretation of music touches on synesthetic. “It’s the feel of the colors in an artist’s voicing and their power. Some artists make the hairs rise on my arm when they hit a certain note. Anybody can hold a tune, but make me feel it. Now that’s a sanger. ”
James has that kind of a voice — that of a sanger. Her power is obvious when she takes on the soul classics, and what truly resonates is her ability to harness it in the context of her own writing style. “I freestyle in the moment,” she says. “I vibe with the music and whatever comes out, that’s what it’s going to be. I tend to fool around with melodies I’m hearing, and then I go back and fill in lyrics. If the music is making me feel good, that’s all I need.”
This newfound ease is apparent on her most recent work with tracks like “Say That” and “Fall For You.” A magical studio session with her contemporary Hamilton produced the infectious up-tempo single “Say That,” which captures James’ gutsy range and vocal abilities. The writing process was effortless when working with J Rilla (Jill Scott, Musiq
Soulchild) on “Fall For You.” Leela explains, “We knew we wanted to do something special. What it was, I wasn’t sure. He sat down at the piano and he said, ‘just sing.’ It was amazing how it came about. He’s playing chords, and me, I’m just opening up my mouth. It was so special.” The result is a tender, introspective, and poignant ballad that demonstrates James’ maturity, vulnerability and vocal command.
James expanded her musical horizons by procuring a talented cast of collaborators to capture her vision on her new project, including producers Tim and Bob, Shannon Sanders, and Joe Ryan III and writers Rex Rideout (Ledisi, Kem, Luther Vandross) and Francii Richards (Fergie) “I’m drawn to producers that are musicians first and foremost, producers who know how to produce vocals and who want to see a song from beginning to end. I’m drawn to artists who share a love for music.”
James is on a slow, steady burn towards musical success. As an artist who is devoted to her craft, she’s taken the past several years to cultivate her home life too. “I’ve become a mommy. I love being a mother. You think you know love, but you don’t understand true love until you have a child. I’m in a happy place personally.” On her new album she channels that happiness and new sense of self, giving her audience the sound of an artist who is in a truly good, profound space.