In these frenzied modern times, there are few people who can seemingly slow time and capture a nation’s attention for the duration of a song. But look back to the end of 2006 and Leona Lewis provided those moments every single week.
The X Factor’s clear favourite from beginning to end, she transcended the show, receiving rave reviews way beyond the usual confines of the TV talent contest.
Blessed with a voice of power and restraint, capable of heart stopping intensity and a playful light touch, the 22 year old from Hackney, East London was never going to be an ordinary talent show winner. Six months ago, her massive Christmas Number 1 A Moment Like This smashed the world record for downloads by selling 50,000 in the first half an hour. The single sold 600,000 copies in its first week, making Leona the fastest selling debut female artist of all time.
But the world has seen no more rush releases since then, no gimmicky TV tie-in. Leona has been away earning her superstar status.
Who else has been recording her debut album in London, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles with the cream of international producing talent?
The unassuming manner that millions of fans immediately fell for makes Leona’s mentions of some of the world’s coolest music minds sound like a roll call of old mates.
“We started in London with Steve Mac”, she says of the British pop supremo who has had everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Mariah Carey in his care, “Then Dallas Austin in Atlanta, Soulshock and Carlin, Jam and Lewis in Los Angeles. Walter Afanasieff too and also Salaam Remi in Miami. I love his studio, unlike most it’s on the roof of his house next to the pool. I got quite burned from sunbathing between takes.”
Those producers boast credits for work with the likes Aretha Franklin, Michael and Janet Jackson, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Fugees, Usher, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. Leona visited Diane Warren, the queen of American songwriters to work on further material.
With Simon Cowell and the legendary Clive Davis executively producing, she has been afforded the luxury of time and control over her destiny.
“I’ve been treated as my own person”, insists Leona, “I’ve not been given a formula to follow. I had the time to find my feet I’ve learned a lot and Simon and Clive really listen to me.
“It’s rare that anyone is given the opportunity to develop these days, let alone anyone from a talent show contest. I got lucky, I’m well aware of that.
Seemingly down to earth and disarmingly shy when not exercising her startling voice, Leona has stepped forward as an artist. With that support has come a new confidence in the passion she has pursued all her life.
“Simon always said to follow my instincts and be true to myself. Clive said exactly the same thing. I wanted to sing great songs and we have loads that I feel a connection with.
“The album is classic songs with a contemporary edge. There’s a few ballads and there’s some uptempo stuff too. I’ve been experimenting, we used up and coming producers like Fernando who have added some really cool electronic 80s sounds. But it’s important to me that they’re all proper songs. They’re not just beat driven or following the latest sound.
“For me, songs need to work acoustically. I used to go out and gig acoustically, I like songs that work even when they’re broken down.”
Catch Leona Lewis for a chat these days and it is clear that she now has a debut album filled with exactly what she wanted. Recent collaborations have added Ne-Yo and Billy Steinberg (‘Like A Virgin’, ‘Eternal Flame’ anyone?) to her list of dazzling musical partners.
“I did my last recording the other weekend in New York”, she beams, her voice quivering with a mixture of pride and excitement, “We’ve got so many songs, the hardest part is deciding what exactly goes on this album. That’s between Clive, Simon and I. The album has become all about the songs, the time I’ve had has been fundamental to making a great album. There’s a definite sound there and at the same time the songs are the sort you can get your airbrush out for and belt out in front of the bathroom mirror.”
In between the hard musical work, Leona Lewis, that supposed shy, retiring flower, has taken to pop star extras with aplomb. A new shoot featuring Leona looking stylish and stunning on a Californian beach has effortlessly captured this new spirit.
“Oh, that’s fun”, she giggles, “I get to be a princess and play around with great clothes. I’m really looking forward to doing the video, then we’re shooting the album artwork. I want another beach and great frocks!”
It seems that her impressive musical confidence is spilling into the other areas of her life. But let’s just assume that once Leona realised that she had a radio-melting lead single like ‘Bleeding Love’ ready to unleash, it must have been easy for everything else to fall into place. Think back to when 1980’s Prince was morphing pop music into another dimension, then add a cooler Mariah Carey on vocals and you might have some idea of what the world is waiting for.
“That’s written with Ryan Tedder from One Republic”, she explains, ever eager to trace the roots of her music, “They’re a rock band but it’s got elements of Prince, Ryan’s worked with Timbaland and he has so many avenues to pursue.
“It’s a love song, but it can be sung to a boyfriend, a friend, it’s about always being there for someone.”
“This album is from an honest, genuine place”, she enthuses, “I know some people are asking, ‘where has she gone?’ But I wanted everyone who has supported and worked with me to have an album they’re proud of, one that is credible and one with songs that people can connect to.
“I’m working hard to make sure that I’m around for a long time to come. It’s going to surprise people. I’ve surprised myself!
Set for a November return, subject to enormous anticipation and scrutiny, Leona Lewis is more than ready to stop the nation in its tracks once again.