Leela James may be a fresh-faced, young soul singer, but as she belts out on a track from her third album, “[Leela] Ain’t New To This.” On July 31, the Los Angeles-born powerhouse is releasing her fourth studio album, “Loving You More…In the Spirit of Etta James,” a soulful tribute to the legendary singer who passed away in January. With remakes of Etta’s classics like “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “At Last,” Leela is aiming to introduce Etta’s music to a new generation of listeners.
EBONY.com caught up with the doe-eyed songstress to talk her new album, the male-dominated music business, and how she stays true to her soul.
EBONY: When did you realize you had a gift for singing?
LEELA JAMES: Well, I was always singing in church as a child, but I don’t think it was until I was a little older and in high school that I realized that I was a little more than average. That’s also about the time I started performing and doing showcases and talent shows and being recognized.
EBONY: Did you also decide at that time that you would pursue music as a career?
LJ: Even before I had a record deal, I had a [college] degree. I never put all my eggs in one basket. But music was always one career I knew I could count on, [though] I was interested in going to law school and being an entertainment attorney. I worked in estate planning for a while and I tried out working in [entertainment law] and that was a little more exciting than estate planning, but ultimately, singing is definitely my dream job.
EBONY: And now, after you’ve sung with John Legend in South Africa, opened for the Black Eyed Peas, toured Japan and recorded a posthumous duet with Ray Charles, you’re on to your fourth studio album. What has this journey in the music industry been like for you?
LJ: South Africa was absolutely amazing. I really fell in love with the country and the people and to be able to perform there for them was just icing on the cake. It’s been a great journey and it’s not over yet. You know, in a business that’s male-dominated and driven by image, it’s easy to get caught up and go with what’s trendy, but that’s why I respect Etta James so much [and dedicated my latest album to her legacy] because she remained true to herself to the end and was focused on just being a true singer.
EBONY: You’ve also been able to maintain your own style throughout your career. How did you avoid getting “caught up” in the male-dominated, image-driven industry?
LJ: When I first came out, I had a lot of pressure, and my first label [Warner Music] didn’t really know what to do with me as a soul singer, but it’s not like that so much anymore. People are settling into who I am and how I sing and look, it’s my personal discretion. I’m not pressured, I don’t feel any pressure to do anything I don’t want to do. And I would just say that comes from my love of music and that I was raised in a supportive family that instilled in me at a young age to be myself. I’ve never been the one to fit into someone else’s idea of who I should be.
I was raised hearing blues, funk, soul, gospel – music you can feel — and I’m comfortable in my own skin and I’m definitely comfortable making music I can feel. I know if I can feel it, somebody else can, too. So I just focus on making that kind of music. And when you have that confidence in your voice, people have no choice but to accept it.
EBONY: Not only did you adopt the surname “James” because of the iconic singer, you’ve also recently changed the title of your album to “Loving You More – In the Spirit of Etta James.” What is it about Etta James that inspired you to channel her spirit on your latest album?
LJ: I just feel like she was such an incredible artist and her legacy should be kept alive. She was just a raw, raw, singer. I just admire so much her rawness and her sincerity and the fact that she — from what I understand of her — she didn’t take a whole lot of stuff off of anybody. You just feel so much of her soul when you hear her sing and that’s the same kind of energy I put into my singing — something that kind of cuts through you and you just feel it. I just really connected with that spirit. It’s rare that you have an artist like that.
[With this album,] I just want to introduce her music to a new generation of listeners. It’s a whole new face on the same old body, so to speak, and I think that she’s an artist that didn’t get all the respect, unfortunately, she deserved when she was living. But even though she’s not here, the legacy of her music will still be kept alive.
EBONY: Did you ever get a chance to meet her before she passed?
LJ: Unfortunately no. That would have been awesome, but I never had the opportunity.
EBONY: You’ve said that singing is your dream job. What more do you hope to achieve as you’re living out your dream?
LJ: I’m definitely living my dreams, or at least living a part of it. I’m not finished yet. I wouldn’t mind making more music, television, movies. I wouldn’t mind winning a Grammy. I wouldn’t mind working with Lauryn Hill, Prince, Gnarls Barkley, Al Green – just to name a few. I want to play Madison Square Garden — I could go on. I’m only just getting started.
EBONY: You’re honoring Etta James’ legacy with your album. What do you hope your own legacy will be?
LJ: I hope that whatever is said about me is all positive and good and people just truly embrace me for making real music, soul music, good music. I hope it will be said that I was a true artist that really, really loved music. But, in the meantime, I definitely appreciate the love and support I’ve been getting from all my fans. I just want everybody to go out and purchase the album, support the project to keep the legacy alive and the spirit of Etta James, come to my shows, buy all my albums and just take this journey with me and let’s just continue to make music!