The Soul Music Movement: Leela James

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Who doesn’t love a good soul song? The heart of a great song is about what emotion it strikes within you — the emotional chord it hits. Soul music is not about color, age or gender; it’s often defined by how the song is delivered. A young singer from South Central Los Angeles found a way to deliver her style of soul in a way that makes music lovers remember her voice.

Leela James has been compared to some of the greatest singers of our time from sultry Etta James to the raspy deep tones of Mavis Staples – but in her own style. She was first introduced to us in 2005 with the debut album of A Change is Gonna Come and since then has released a sophomore album My Soul and the recent indie release Fall For You. During the last few years, she’s gone from having a major record label home to the creative freedom of being on her company label, Shesangz Music.

Coming off of a 20-city tour and finishing the third season of R&B Divas: LA, Leela James is never bored by the energy of her audience. Chicago is one of her favorite cities to visit and we talked with her during her latest tour with Ledisi and Raheem DeVaughn.

CD: What is it about Chicago that draws you in?

LJ: It’s so soulful, it’s so black, it’s so me. The only thing that it doesn’t have is a palm tree. From day one when I came to Chicago a few years ago, this city has always shown me love. I truly appreciate it. I just love seeing the beautiful black faces here. Even the beautiful architecture of the city – it’s soulful.

CD: Why do people compare you to some of the legendary women of soul music — Etta James, Mavis Staples and even Betty Wright?

LJ: I think it came about because I’m a little, petite size lady with a big voice. Some of these women you mentioned were perceived as having these big, strong voices and small bodies which hadn’t been seen for a while. So, when I came onto the scene, it was reminiscent of a different time and these types of artists. I think it truly stood out and it wasn’t a lot of artists with that kind of huskiness in their voice.

CD: What makes Los Angeles different from the rest of the country in regards to the soul music scene?

LJ: It’s a matter of who you talk to. For me, we have the best weather but when you live in an environment where your weather and your seasons are all the same – your perception on life is pretty much ‘everything is everything.’ When you hear the soul in a song, it may be a little different in the ways someone may hear the soul in the Midwest and it’s snowing outside. They may think, ‘This sounds bluesy and I’m sad’ versus if the sun is shining and you’re feeling good. That same soul song could be a bluesy song, but it doesn’t sound so sad. So, it’s a ‘funked up’ type of soul versus a blues type of soul.

CD: Tell us about your current project, Fall For You and your collaborations?

The album Fall For You, I believe to be my best work to date. The title song was a song that I wrote simply because I wanted the listener to be open to my voice and nothing else. A stripped down version of the song and all of the vulnerabilities that I have in my vocals as an artist. I thought it would be a great project. The first single I released, Say That, was with Anthony Hamilton and that was a long time coming because people had always wanted us to work together. They would say, ‘Oh, she’s a female version of Anthony Hamilton.’ To finally come together to do a song was exciting and for our fans it was very soulful.

Now, we’re releasing the third song on the album which is one of my favorite songs, Set Me Free. I’m just so ecstatic because I wrote and produced it. It’s self-explanatory, but it’s such a powerful record because I think both males and females can relate to it.

CD: You’re still in that young demographic coming up, any advice to share with younger people?

LJ: I don’t know if I have all of the answers. As Kayne would say, ‘You don’t have the answers!’ (She laughs.) I don’t have all of the answers because I’m still figuring things out to this date. What I have learned thus far is it’s not all about the music. It’s one thing to have the talent, but now you have to also have the pieces in place — the business, the team around you, doing your homework and having the whole package.

Follow Leela James on twitter: @leelajames and 

Follow Mary L. Datcher on twitter: @globalmixx


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