In a ‘Restrictive’ World, Leela James Sings Whatever She Wants
Leela James is one of the few southern soul singers who can still achieve a hit today. Her most recent example, “Don’t Want You Back,” is an exercise in classic form — a handsome, raspy “good riddance” with a guitar that studiously recreates the sound of Hi Records. But the window-shaking drums updated that style enough to make it a Number One radio record.
James harnesses her vocal firepower for something more gnarled and abrasive on the Are You Ready EP, due April 12. Lead single “That Woman” is a vicious, extended crescendo: The singer and a three-piece rock group buck and crash and then retreat, only to return a moment later with redoubled vigor.
“I’m known particularly for my straight-up R&B, but people don’t know the other sides of me exist as well — the rock, the funk, all of it,” James says. “This allows for me to be a little more open in showing that.” “She has that Tina Turner, that Bettye Lavette in her,” adds Rex Rideout, a veteran songwriter-producer-A&R-manager with extensive experience in every nook and cranny of R&B, from Luther Vandross to Ledisi.
James released her major label debut album in 2005, at the tail end of an era when southern soul singers could still enjoy widespread success. (See: Anthony Hamilton). But after James’ first release, she was effectively shelved by Warner Brothers. She’s been an independent act ever since, gradually building up a following among R&B fans with singles like “Set Me Free” and “Don’t Want You Back.”
Are You Ready is the first installment in a wave of new content from James. She is beginning work on another R&B album, the follow-up to 2017’s Did It for Love. She also plans to make a second EP with the Truth, the group of crack musicians backing her on this release.
While pop and rock bands are rewarded for style-switching, R&B singers who engage in similar explorations today are often punished commercially. “Streaming is where the money is, and R&B isn’t connecting the way it used to,” says Alan Grunblatt, president of urban music at Entertainment One (eOne), which is releasing Are You Ready. “It’s restrictive out there for R&B artists — you can’t go anywhere anymore.”
James views those restrictions with blithe indifference. “You got people who like apples; you got people who don’t like apples,” she says. “You can’t really worry too much.” Pointing to the example set by Turner and Aretha Franklin, she adds, “there are some voices that are undeniable. It doesn’t matter what they sing.” In that spirit, James continues, “I can sing whatever I want.”
To add oomph to Are You Ready, James entered the studio with the Truth, which is made up of guitarist Jairus Mozee, bassist Eric Ingram and drummer David Haddon. Rideout calls Mozee “probably the most unsung guitarist in the business;” he’s played on recordings by Anthony Hamilton, Jill Scott and Christina Aguilera. Ingram tours with Ariana Grande; Haddon backs up Gwen Stefani.
The fifth member of the team was Ray Bardani, who has served as a mixer and engineer for Teddy Pendergrass, Chaka Khan and many, many more. Rideout gave Bardani specific instructions. “He explained, ‘it’s going to be really basic, really loud, really aggressive,'” the engineer recalls. “I said, ‘cool!'”
The six songs on Are You Ready were put together in just a few days. “It was easy breezy; [the Truth] were so easy to work with,” James says. “We went in the studio with fresh heads and just wrote while we were there. We recorded everything live.”
Bardani envisioned “Jimi Hendrix with the Band of Gypsies [also a three-piece], but Leela in the middle of that.” To achieve that vision, the engineer relied on vintage equipment — “tube microphones, the great compressors, a classic console with great studio monitors.” But he tried not to do too much. With “great musicians and Leela singing, if you mess that up, you’re really bad [at your job],” Bardani says. “She has an amazing character in her voice, even when it’s rough and aggressive.”
Now that the first EP is ready, Rideout and eOne will test a different promotional approach. Traditionally modern R&B singers above the age of 30 are heard primarily in the radio format known as Urban Adult Contemporary. But this time, James’ music will also be serviced to the format known as Adult Album Alternative.
There is not a single black singer in the Top 25 on the most recent AAA chart reported by Nielsen BDS — white indie rock acts like Vampire Weekend and Sharon Van Etten dominate. But Grunblatt thinks James’ vocals and the gnashing guitars might get Are You Ready a look. “When I was a kid growing up, you didn’t have a differentiation between black and white rock,” Grunblatt says. “You had the Chambers Brothers; you had Janis Joplin. It was all one.”
When the label-head heard Are You Ready for the first time, he says, “it reminded me of where I had hoped music would go.”
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