It’s the day of Leela James’ release in more ways than one. Not only has the Los Angeles native’s debut album A Change Is Gonna Come finally hit stores after receiving rave reviews, but her long, hard work is paying off at last. It’s high time for a little exuberance.
Just hours before hitting up S#####s in New York City for a performance, James’ high-pitched giggle pierces through the phone like a squealing dolphin—evidence enough that this R&B newcomer is plenty overjoyed. What lies beneath the laugh, and the mass of hair that instantly distinguishes Ms. James from others, however, is relatively unknown for now. The one thing she does wish to divulge—and rather clearly—is that change is on its way.
“It’s a change that will perish the current form of R&B considered popular music, so to speak,” predicts James. With artists like Alicia Keys and John Legend gaining national notoriety, Mariah Carey crafting a fierce comeback, and fans holding their collective breaths for Lauryn Hill’s return [sigh], Rhythm & Blues seems to already be witnessing a revival. How do we know it’s for real this time? “It’s hard to tell if you go judging [by] what you hear on the radio,” says James. “But I do believe there are other artists out there that are just not being heard.”
With vocals that garner comparisons to one-name soul legends like Chaka and Aretha, James seems determined to revitalize the old school sound that has often been missing from R&B. That’s a task many have undertaken and failed at. But even if James lacks sufficient evidence to back her claims, at least she’s got the beginnings of what looks like a lasting career. If not for a knee injury that halted her track profession, though, she’d likely be jumping different hurdles than the obstructive industry barriers set in place.
Growing up in a home where soul spewed from the speakers, James soaked in plenty of lessons and came out with a genuine love of music. Artists like Al Green, and Marvin Gaye provided daily inspiration and cultivated her appreciation for the art. “That’s what I heard on the record player. That’s what we listened to, and that’s what we jammed to,” says James. “My father had the biggest record collection that I could even imagine, so I heard it all.”
Following a fleeting gig in an all-girl trio, the professed soul pupil regrouped to coordinate the aforementioned change, as manifested in her solo debut. “I didn’t just get on the scene last month. I was always doing [me] in terms of music. That’s why it took me a little bit longer,” she declares. “But I believe in doing certain things, and doing it with integrity.”
Serving as co-writer for her album, James aligned with Commissioner Gordon [who worked with the indelible Lauryn Hill] to executive produce her joint. Add to that, production credits from Raphael Saadiq, Wyclef Jean, and Chucky Thompson. Before Kanye became a poster child for the sped-up soul and Hip-Hop blends, James even got to savor some of his revolutionary production flair.
The result is a record that defies the music that is usually force fed to the public for mass consumption. “Music” is a plea for artistic variety, while “Rain” exhibits the funk that separates James from the pack. “I sing about real stuff, like the good and the bad in terms of relationships,” she says. “It’s really an open autobiography about my life.” Then there’s the title track taken from one of James’ mentors.
“It was a way of paying homage to a legend that was so great, as well as reintroducing him to a generation of people that may not be familiar with him and keeping his legacy alive,” says James, referring to Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit. “[It also] personifies my personal journey in the industry and trying to get discovered, and once being discovered, then just trying to be out there and put the music out there the way that I believe it should have been presented, without having to compromise my beliefs.”
After touring around Europe in the coming months, James returns to the States to continue altering the face and voice of R&B, one note at a time. It’s a hefty mission, but James has come equipped – and, like Diddy, she won’t stop. “As long as I’m making music, representing and doing what’s real and true to me,” she says. “I have a responsibility first and foremost to myself, and then to the music that I believe in.”