Black Music Month Interview Series: Soulful Leela James Speaks The Spirit of Etta James

Having collaborated with everyone from Ray Charles and BB King to Kanye West and John Legend. Leela James like Etta James was born in Los Angeles. Gospel music was a natural part of Leela’s church-going childhood as was the blues, funk and R&B that she heard in her home, thanks to her father’s vast record collection. Her performances on the indie live circuit as well as her appearance on hip hop legend Pete Rock’s Soul Survivor II album and stints as opening act on national tours by The Black Eyed Peas and Macy Gray generated a tremendous grassroots buzz. So while her critically acclaimed debut album, A Change Is Gonna Come, seemed to come out of nowhere in 2005, to those in the know, it was one of the most anticipated albums of the year. With production by Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq, Wyclef Jean, James Poyser and Chucky Thompson and Executive Produced by Commissioner Gordon, A Change Is Gonna Come boasted a striking slate of original songs co-written by Leela as well as impressive interpretations of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and bits of acoustic blues. Dubbing the raw, soulful sound of her music “back porch soul,” Leela was immediately compared to such luminaries as Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Mahalia Jackson. “Music,” the first single from the album, hit the Adult Urban Contemporary charts. VH-1 embraced Leela as their first “You Oughta Know” artist and played her videos in heavy rotation.

Over the years, critics, fans and musicians alike have recognized Leela James’ extraordinary gifts as a vocalist, storyteller and keeper of the great soul tradition. Leela had the distinction of being selected to duet with Ray Charles on a version of Les McCann’s “Compared To What” on the posthumously-released Ray Charles album Genius and Friends and was a guest vocalist on Robert Randolph And The Family Band’s 2006 album Color Blind, proving that her talent ranges across many musical genres. She also toured Japan and was invited to perform with singer/songwriter John Legend in South Africa. In 2009, Leela made her Shanachie Entertainment debut with the well received Let’s Do it Again, which is a celebration of the enduring power of soul music and assertion of its contemporary relevance for a new generation. It revealed new aspects of her artistry and range as a singer.

Leela James spoke to Tishelle of in support of our Black Music Month Interview Series. She spoke on her new tribute album “In The Spirit of Etta James, why she wanted to record this project, news on her next album, what other career path she may have taken if not music, her thoughts on the direction where R&B music is headed & much more!

————————– Let’s jump into it, what made you want to record an album in tribute to the late great Etta James?
Leela James: Well you know, she was such an incredible artist. I personally feel like, she along with many other artists didn’t get alot of respect and props during their time. This is my way of kind of doing that and paying homage to her and paying respect to her music. And keeping her legacy alive in terms of her contributions to blues music in general. How did you select what tracks you wanted to record for the album?
Leela James: What we did was because she has so much material, just went through her songs and picked out some familiar ones at first like “At Last.” And then we choose records that wasn’t too familiar to the masses but were good songs lyric wise. And songs we could take and make relevant today as well. That was pretty much the approach, songs that were interesting from a lyrical perspective back then that could still apply to situations now. So how did you, capture the spirit of Etta while making this album?
Leela James: From what I understand she was a very raw, in your face singer and person. That’s pretty much myself (laughs). As far as the approach with her music, it’s blues based and I’m a blues baby. So I think the spirit was easy to capture because it was just something that was already in me. Working on her music just brought it out even more because it was so many things that I could relate to. So I was just imagining myself in her shoes at a time when music was different and perhaps when she was singing some of the things she was singing. Like what might have been going through her mind, alot of the music she recorded was during a time when racism was a serious issue, not that it’s not an issue today. It was just alot more they were dealing with from a social perspective that I feel like we have to deal with now. So I was trying to capture alot of those emotions, I wondered what that might have felt like. Then brought it to today and the things that I’ve been going through. What do you want your fans to get from this album and what is important to you that Etta James fans get from this album?
Leela James: With me, for her music what I want people to understand and take away is this is her music; but we took her music and re-did it and gave it a fresh face as if it was being recorded today by her. The songs that we recorded sound nothing like the original songs, that was to give a fresh new take on it. What else I want people to understand is it’s her music, but my perspective of her music! So you’re getting a little bit of me as well. So my fans are still going to get a Leela James vibe but it’s done in the spirit of Etta James because it’s her songs. And I want her fans to recognize and appreciate it because it’s still keeping her music alive. It’s not letting it die, her spirit is alive and well by putting her music out there. You have such an amazing catalog of work yourself, when do you plan to go back into the studio to work on your next album & have you been brainstorming ideas already?
Leela James: Absolutely, I’ve been working on it simultaneously as I was working on this project. In fact I did a couple of original songs on this album. The music and working on the music never stops, I’m always working on music. So very soon you will get another record (laughs). Real good that’s what we like to hear. You mentioned in your last interview with UB that your biggest obstacle in the business has been trying to crossover, but be accepted for who you are. Do you still find that to be one of your biggest obstacles in the business?
Leela James: Now, I wouldn’t say one of the biggest. I will say though, being excepted is no longer a real issue for me because it is what it is. You’re going to like me, you’re not, you’re going to love me, you’re not. It’s more of an issue of support as far as the label, management and everything, just that solid team. That has always been something where I’ve never really had a strong base in. Since the minute you appeared on Pete Rock’s “Soul Survivor II,” there has been a demand for more of that voice, when did you first discover you could sing, actually sing?
Leela James: You know I was always singing at a very young age but I didn’t take it very serious or think much of it till maybe Jr. High/High school something like that. When people were saying hey you sound like somebody grown (laughs). Like you have something a little more than average, you might want to consider doing something with that. That’s around the time I started getting bit by the bug. If you wasn’t a recording artist, what career path do you think you would have taken?
Leela James: Ummm, I like so many things it’s hard to say. Because I have my hands in a lot of pots even now. I love interior decorating, I love real estate, it’s just hard to say. At one point I thought I was going to be an Attorney, but hey I was like you ain’t going to stress me out in those courts (both laugh). For Black Music Month: What is something you would like to see change as far as the direction urban music has been headed in recent years?
Leela James: Well I’ve always said since the beginning of entering this business and game that I’ve always taken a stand for real music & singers. I would just love for it to be variety and balance. Versus the same one or two artists shown love and advertised. I know at the end of the day it’s more bigger than that, it’s all politics, money & budgets. But it would be nice if media, radio and everyone just took a stand for all artists and open up the platform for other options. Instead of just the same thing…like I was telling someone earlier. You get conditioned into thinking that what is mediocre and bad is good. Bad isn’t good, but bad becomes good if that’s all you hear and have nothing to compare it to. Like if all you’ve been fed is McDonald’s all your life, when you get a real solid home cooked meal you might be like what is this foreign food (laughs). Right!
Leela James: And it’s like no this is the truth right here with this food. But you haven’t been getting any truth, so you don’t even know what it sounds like or taste like because you’ve been eating some fake processed food that’s being marketed as the real deal. You feel me? Oh I feel you! You just used the term real music and real artists, would you consider yourself a real artist & what is real vs fake?
Leela James: I definitely consider myself a real artist (both laugh). Yeah I do feel like I make real music, I don’t need alot of buzz, equipment over my voice in terms of you don’t have to do doctor me up I can sing. Like pro tools and all that, I mean I use them like everybody else, but not auto-tune to fix my voice or anything and make me sound decent. I like real instruments in my music, I like using real authentic sounds and I write…I know music (laughs)! Tell fans when they can expect to see you live this summer?
Leela James: In July I will be up and down the east coast, I’ll be in Virginia, I’ll be in New York, maybe Atlanta. More cities will be announced, the album is dropping July 31st, so I’ll be doing some dates around then as well. I’m doing the Long Beach Jazz Festival in August in Cali. So I’ll be moving around, I’ll be on the road. Before we go is there anything else, you would like to share with your fans?
Leela James: Yes, the record is coming out July 31st again and I just want everybody to go out and purchase it. Whether you go into a retail and buy it or download it, I would prefer you get a retail version because of the packaging. Support the project, keep her legacy alive by doing so and paying homage to her. Also by supporting the artist like me, because it’s me involved in it as well. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook as well. Go out and get this music man and be looking out for my next album as well!

  1. I’m a big fan of Leela so I will check this out I’m not that familiar with Etta outside of the movie and At last I’m sure Leela gon put some stank on it with that crazy voice she got.

Leave a Reply