We first heard of the soulful Leela James back in 2005 when the singer hit us with her debut album A Change Is Going To Come. With a unique voice and talent that very few artists can grasp, Leela James has shown that she is a true R&B and soul singer and will forever leave a legendary mark in music.
Leela has worked with some of the greatest artists in music today such as Kanye West and John Legend, along with the legends such as BB King and even the late Ray Charles. The beautiful Leela James is back with her latest album Loving You More…In the Spirit of Etta James (due out July 31st), which pays tribute and homage to the soul legend. Soultrain.com had the opportunity to speak with Leela about her upcoming album, what inspired her to dedicate this project to the late Etta James, her inspirations, and how she feels about R&B today.
Soul Train: So what have you been up to lately? We know you took a short break and you’re coming out with a new album Loving You More…In the Spirit of Etta James. Can you tell us some more about the album?
Leela James: Yes. The album is coming out July 31st, Loving You More… In the Spirit of Etta James. It’s eleven of her songs and a couple of my original songs. Basically we went in and took some of her standout records like “At Last,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” and then a few others. We put a fresh face on them to give them a more 2012 twist and a bit of a Leela James twist, but it’s still Etta James so that’s where the whole “spirit of Etta James” comes from. It was just a way of showing tribute and paying homage to a great artist, Etta James, and keeping her musical legacy alive.
Soul Train: And are there going to be any features on this album or just strictly you?
Leela James: No this is strictly me–me and Etta, her music and my voice [laughs]. I did do a couple of records and made them into duets. I have Shannon Sanders as one of the producers, but other than that no other features, just all a James thing.
Soul Train: What inspired you to dedicate this album to Etta James? Had this been planned prior to her passing?
Leela James: Well, it’s a little of all the above. When she was alive I thought she was a great artist and I still think she is a great artist. I saw her musical contribution–[she] didn’t get as much accolade as [she] deserved. This is a way, like I said, of paying homage and tribute to her. In the wake of her passing it all definitely made sense, as I would have liked to have done something with her while she was alive and I didn’t get a chance to. So when she passed, the label suggested we do a song or two and then it just developed into, “Let’s just dedicate this whole project.” It all just made sense and all just flowed and here we are.
Soul Train: Having heard people compare you to legends like Chaka Khan and Tina Turner–especially because you each have unique voices–at the end of the day, what type of impression would you want to leave your fans through your music?
Leela James: Well I think with my music, the sole impression, with some of those people that you mentioned, the legends haven’t left today. True artists, real singers, performers–I would just like people to view me as a real solid artist, not just some so so, blah blah, bubblegum moment type of artist.
Soul Train: And how do you feel you’ve grown since your last album in 2010?
Leela James: I think with each project you grow because there is something new that comes with each one and you take that on to your next project. So with this one for example, I am always very involved with the producing aspect of it, but this one I was even more so involved with production and any creative aspect of how the music came about. So with each project you just grow as a writer slash producer, just the whole nine when it comes together, you just keep growing and evolving.
Soul Train: In the music industry, the whole focus right now has been more so hip-hop, but we have a lot of R&B artists really making that leeway back to mainstream. The statement “R&B is Dead” has been popping up a lot lately. Where do you feel R&B is right now; do you feel it’s in a good place, it’s coming back, what are your thoughts on that?
Leela James: Well, that’s a tricky question. For me, I really feel what is considered R&B today is not really R&B in a lot of aspects. I mean R&B stands for rhythm and blues, and a lot of what you hear in “R&B” you hear no blues and very little rhythm. I don’t even know if it’s R&B [laughs], so that’s a slightly tricky one for me. But I will say rhythm and blues music has never gone anywhere. You still have great artists out there–Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan–these artists are still in the game making music, you just don’t hear their music on mainstream radio for whatever reason. They may be considered too old and I just think it’s ridiculous because your voice is golden when it’s an authentic style like Chaka Khan or Gladys Knight, so it never ages. I just don’t feel true rhythm and blues has ever gone anywhere, you just don’t hear rhythm and blues on the radio and mainstream media but it hasn’t gone anywhere. What’s considered R&B, not so much.
Soul Train: So you’re considered indie right now, correct? At one time you were signed to Warner Bros. How has that crossover been for you, the pros and cons of being indie compared to once being signed to a major label?
Leela James: It’s really hard to say there’s a whole lot of difference because I was on Warner Bros. for several years before my project even came out. It was pretty much just sitting on the shelf and I went through several regime changes like A&Rs of the sort, so by the time the record came out it was old to me, I was on to something else. You know I’ve got some support but not nearly enough as I could have used, so we did that and I don’t know if since then I have felt that much of a difference in terms of the support because it was pulling tooth and nails to get money, support, and marketing. That’s when I was on a major label and it’s not a lot of money when you’re doing things independently, so it’s all kind of been about the same to me [laughs].
Soul Train: So as an R&B/soul artist, we’re not going to see you crossing over to pop music anytime soon are we?
Leela James: If I feel like it you might. Yeah, I’m one of those artists that likes to be put into a box, I like all kinds of music. I’m a singer, a soul singer, so whatever I sing it’s going to be soulful because of my delivery, my voice. And if that’s a rock n roll song, then yeah it’s still going to sound soulful with a rock n roll twist. Like Tina Turner sounds soulful singing over rock n roll beats as well, and then she sings some blues and you know it’s home. If I choose to sometime in my career go whatever direction that’s just my choice. I don’t feel as an artist you should be limited to doing just one thing because when you’re an artist and you’re true to this thing called music, music is all kind of genres. Now what is really pop? Pop is popular music. Now bubblegum, that pop, that’s just something that’s real superficial and here today gone tomorrow. But popular music is just something that everybody likes, and if you’re making music that everybody likes then so be it. I’ll do that, too. I want everybody to like my music.
Soul Train: In the past, you’ve worked with a lot of different people like Kanye West, John legend, Ray Charles, BB King. Are there any artists right now that you would like to work with in the future or that you could see yourself working with in the future?
Leela James: There’s a few artists I wouldn’t mind working with: Andre 3000, Gnarls Barkley, yeah there’s a few people. I wouldn’t even mind working with Lauryn Hill. We’re all Geminis [laughs].
Soul Train: Being a songwriter as well, what do you use as inspiration when you write?
Leela James: Everyday life experiences definitely inspire you and how you see things, how you deal with things. It’s no different when you’re working on music and you’re creative; you could have just experienced a beautiful situation or a bad situation and you write about it. So definitely experiences are inspiration for me.
Soul Train: After your upcoming album next month,what will be next for you? Do you have any more projects we can look forward to, anything else in the works for you?
Leela James: Yes, just to continue to work on music and expect another album. But more than likely this album will be out next year and will be my original music.
Soul Train: A lot of people are going into reality TV. Do you ever see yourself going into that realm?
Leela James: I’m open to a lot of different things as long as it’s not going to compromise me as an artist. If the opportunity presented itself in the form of a reality television show then I would be open to it; I’m not against it. But I’m noticing that some of what is considered reality TV doesn’t really show reality; when it’s scripted and people are performing for the camera, that’s not reality. If I was to do something, you would get reality–you wouldn’t get a mask.
Soul Train: Are there any reality shows that you do like right now where you see yourself glued to the TV?
Leela James: One show I find really entertaining is Bridezillas. You know sometimes I just think they are so ridiculous. There are some that are very entertaining, some are getting to the point where it’s like, “This isn’t reality” and it’s just made to make you say “really, ok…” [laughs].
Soul Train: Pretty much everyone grew up with Soul Train, but do you have any Soul Train memories or favorite Soul Train memories at all?
Leela James: Yeah, I do have a couple. I was actually able to perform on Soul Train with my first album a few years ago and and when I taped it I had a chance to meet Don Cornelius. And when I taped it, I sang live and what was crazy about it was at the time he had gotten to the point where he wouldn’t come out during the tapings; he was kind of over that part and they had a different host by that time. He came out during my taping and my performance, and he greeted me and shook my hand and did a mini interview the way he use to. They said he hadn’t done that in a long time, but he was so impressed with me performing live, not off a track. And I just thought that was so cool and I was humbled by that, something for me to feel good about because he had gotten to a point where he wasn’t known for doing that anymore and wouldn’t take the time to come out because a lot of artists were just performing to their tracks. So it was cool vibing and having that conversation with him and to actually meet a legend.
Be sure to grab your copy of Leela James’ upcoming album Loving You More…In the Spirit of Etta James on July 31st, and keep up with Leela on Twitter @LeelaJames and on Facebook.com/LeelaJames.
Danielle Turner is a Southern California-based music writer with a passion for sharing new and upcoming artists through R&B and Hip Hop to the everyday music junkie. As a contributing writer for Soultrain.com and a columnist at TheWellVersed.com she has always combined her love of writing and music to create a formula for doing what she loves and loving what she does. You can always find Danielle via Twitter @thisisdanielle.