Friday, 16 September 2011
It was over five years ago that a shy Leona Lewis first appeared on our television screens as part of the third season of The X Factor. Back before the production values were grossly inflated, hopefuls auditioned in an enclosed room in front of judges Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Sharon Osbourne, and Lewis’s breathtaking rendition of “Over the Rainbow” made a seemingly uninterested Cowell snap to attention and declare, “That’s what it’s all about!” In the following weeks, the transformation between the timid girl backstage at the live shows and the powerful vocalist in front of the microphone had the nation falling in love, and on December 16, 2006, Lewis triumphed over runner-up Ray Quinn to become the first female winner of the competition.
As the photographer clicks today, the shy girl that was first on our screens is hardly visible. Appearing confident, relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera, Lewis laughs and jokes with the crew over the course of the day and is sure to thank everyone before we leave to talk at a nearby café. It has been almost two years since the release of her second album, Echo, and Lewis has been spending the last several months in recording studios in London, Sweden and LA as she works on the third.
“I can’t wait for people to hear it,” she says over cappuccinos. “There is a real trip-hop feel to some of it and then there is a real dance feel,” she explains. Although fans of the ballads of her first two efforts need not worry as there are still enough of those to keep everybody satisfied. “You’ve still got to get those in there,” she smiles. It was during the course of her sell-out 2010 UK arena tour, titled The Labyrinth, that Lewis decided it was time to shift gears with her music, and her forthcoming album is, in part, a result of the tour’s success. “We remixed a lot of ballads into uptempo, energy-driven songs [to perform live],” she recounts. “And a lot of my fans were on Twitter saying, ‘We want to hear you do something uptempo like on tour’. I really wanted that to spill over into the album, which is why we did ‘Collide’.”
Released last week, “Collide” is the first single to be drawn from the new album and reveals the more dancefloor-friendly beats fans can expect to accompany Lewis’s signature vocals. The single was intended to be a stomping return for Lewis following months out of the charts and, although well received by critics and fans alike when it was first played on air back in July, online commentators quickly claimed the song “ripped off” the track “Penguin” from musician Avicii. This accusation was swiftly rebuffed by the record label and Lewis herself, and she explains as we talk that she and Avicii were to release “Collide” together. “It’s just not in my morals,” she tells us, mortified by the plagiarism accusations. “Why would I do that when it would blatantly get found out? Everything I have done is clean cut and above board and I’ve never done anything dodgy, so the one thing that people can turn into a negative, they will. I think it’s only a handful of people who want to ramble on about it, but it doesn’t bother me,” she states, adding defiantly, “Most people know it’s not the truth. And I know it’s not the truth.”
Putting the situation behind her, the single nonetheless serves as a great precursor to the forthcoming album for which Lewis has worked with talents like Emeli Sandé, Sia, and long time collaborator Ryan Tedder. “He’s a cool guy to work with,” she breathes, still impressed by his song writing abilities. “He can do Adele and then he does One Republic, and then the couple he has [for me] are properly dancy – I love that diversity.” It would seem obvious that Lewis and Tedder would reunite having worked together on her biggest hit, 2007s “Bleeding Love”, which rocketed to the top of music charts the world over and has sold in excess of 4.6 million copies. However, Lewis isn’t pressuring herself under the success of her biggest hit. “I was so happy that it was a success and I definitely wanna have records that are as big because I want to keep going. But when ‘Bleeding Love’ came out there were five people who tried to make ‘Bleeding Love’ again. And when ‘I Gotta Feeling’ by Black Eyed Peas came out, ten people tried to recreate that. And it never works. Unless you do something completely different or progressive, then you are just selling yourself short – and I wouldn’t want to do that.” It must also be encouraging that Simon Cowell trusts her enough to allow her to create the album without him breathing down her neck. “It’s been amazing to have him and he has given me free reign on this to say when it’s finished. Otherwise I would have had to have released the album by the end of last year – which would have been really crazy,” she says with a sigh of relief. “He is really good to have on side and I guess he really believed in me since the beginning and has always backed me up.” Cowell remains the most famous person in Lewis’s phone book (“No one tops that”) and they speak on the phone “a couple of times a month – especially when the album is wrapping.” Would he answer if she were to call him now? “His PA might pick up. He is crazy busy.” And what would he say if he did answer? “Have you finished the album yet?” she laughs.
Although more self-assured than when she first came to the nation’s attention, one of the attributes that makes Lewis so likeable is that she hasn’t let her incredible fame go to her head. She still lives in Hackney, spends her allocated holiday time catching up with her family and manages to avoid desperate tabloid-grabbing behaviour. She reveals a story about one of her tattoos that demonstrates her wicked sense of humour (we nearly choke on our coffee as she offers to “get me tatts out”), but then shows her compassionate side when she explains the small heart-shaped tattoo on her chest started to fade the day her tattooist died. It is not the supernatural edge of this story that strikes us, but the heartfelt empathy she expresses for the wife and young child the tattooist left behind. Aren’t celebrities of her calibre only meant to care about themselves? Aren’t they supposed to make outlandish statements and attend events looking like they dressed in the dark? Doesn’t she worry that some people may consider her personality a bit… boring?
“I’ve read it,” she says. “Especially from one journalist who has never actually met me. But it doesn’t bother me. I’d rather be seen like that than a harsh, brash person. If my friends said that, then I’d have something to worry about.”
With a hectic work schedule, Lewis doesn’t always have much time to spend with her friends but relishes every minute when she does. For fun she enjoys nights out at bars and clubs, hosting games nights at her house in Hackney or hanging out in parks – and hints that she may enjoy a night on the sauce more often than the press would be aware “I don’t drink at events or when I know that I’m going to be photographed. I’m smart like that,” she smiles, before bashfully revealing she last got drunk two days previously during a night out at London restaurant Nobu (“I had the white wine to myself and it must have been really strong…”). Exiting the dining venue, Lewis successfully concealed her intoxication when confronted by an audience of awaiting paparazzi at the establishment’s doors – something she wasn’t expecting. “I’ve never had that many paparazzi standing outside anywhere,” she gasps. “I guess I’ve never been to Nobu before. Maybe they called them?”
Furthermore, she wasn’t expecting all the positive press she received from fashion gossips about her “on trend” attire the following morning. “That was nice!” she beams. “Normally they’re like, ‘She looks like shit!’”
Also present in the resulting paparazzi shots is German boyfriend, Dennis Jauch. The pair met while Leona was on her 2010 UK tour and Jauch (pronounced “Yow”) performed as her backing dancer. Lewis roars with laughter when we point out that dating your backing dancer is a very Madonna thing to do, but appears reserved when asked if she will give more details about their relationship. “I try to not talk about it too much or give anything away. It’s really important to have that as part of your private life,” she states flatly, and seems pleased when we concede that we had been unsure whether she was even seeing anyone before the Nobu photographs, as her conversations about or appearances with Jauch are almost nil. “It is a definite worry that the press would want to expose anything from romantic relationships to life with your family. I don’t want my brothers or nephews or anyone to be in the media because they haven’t chosen to be there. They don’t have a voice in it, so it’s not fair on them.”
Our shoot today is the first part of weeks of promotional work for Lewis and our time to talk is running out, so we quickly ask a final question while we have her in the flesh – does she keep in touch with X Factor runner-up, Ray Quinn? Her entire face lights up at the mere mention of his name. “Oh Ray!” she exclaims. “Little Ray! [A pause] No. I haven’t spoken to him in ages.” And yet she seems to know exactly what he has been doing for the last year and a half, suggesting she keeps up to date with her fellow X Factor finalist’s progress. We said she was compassionate.
Little over a week later and Leona Lewis is back in LA putting the final touches to her album. In the time since our shoot, London has descended into anarchy with riots raging across the capital over a three-day period. Lewis’s home area, Hackney, became engulfed in the street fighting and the star was at home when trouble started. Two cars were torched near her front door and her dad came close to being swept up in the carnage while travelling to her house to deliver a CD. “He saw this guy smash in a Mini’s window and throw a petrol bomb in there, so he called me and was like, “Erm, how badly do you need this CD?” and I was like, “You need to run home right now!” It was insane.” She describes the violence as both “disgusting” and “traumatising” but insists Hackney will remain her home. “You have to remember it is a very poor area and they’re taking away funding for youth programmes but I just think [the rioting] was literally some hood rats that jumped on the bandwagon to go a bit insane. There are actually some really lovely areas in Hackney.”
Staying in LA for ten days, Leiws is “keeping on top of things” by remaining on British time. Her resulting early mornings followed by hours in the studio and then heading to bed while the sun is still blazing show an incredibly hardworking attitude. But hard work is the nature of the business and there are a number of busy months ahead with scheduled television appearances, album promotion, performance dates in Japan and a mini tour of America – the last of which she is especially looking forward to, having initially been scheduled to support Christina Aguilera last year on her North American tour, which was cancelled at the final hour by the American following a number of personal issues (“How very dare she!” she jokes).
When she thinks back to the person she was on The X Factor, Lewis feels she has changed exponentially, but naturally. “I’ve come a long way since then and I’ve grown as a performer, as a singer, everything. I was in that weird teenage-adult stage for a long time – making decisions that perhaps weren’t right, but I’ve realised in the last couple of years that I have grown up and I know myself so much more.”
And in the time that we spoke has she got back in touch with Ray Quinn?
“No!” she wails apologetically. “I just haven’t had any time. I’m sure we’ll bump into each other at some point. I need to... because he’s so cute!”
[Origianally published in Rollacoaster Magazine, Issue 3, Setpember 2011. Photography: Thomas Giddings]