Since she was first propelled into the spotlight after winning The X Factor in 2006, Leona Lewis has become a master of reinvention. Her successful debut Spirit, best known for its ubiquitous single “Bleeding Love,” showed her balladeer side. Her next album, Echo, partially co-written with Justin Timberlake, was decidedly more upbeat, straightforward pop. Then Lewis went full-on electronic, bringing in famed producer Avicii for “Collide” and Afrojack for its Grammy-nominated remix, which appeared on her most recent album, Glassheart.
Now the singer has emerged with yet another sound: a Phil Spector-style Motown holiday album titled Christmas, With Love, out December 3rd. Lewis has also recently expanded her résumé to include acting. She’ll make her big screen debut in Holiday!, a new film from the team behind the StreetDance films and Les Miserables’ Academy Award-winning composer and producer Anne Dudley. While preparing for her role, Lewis took some time to talk to Rolling Stone about covering Cyndi Lauper in Holiday!, her love of Haim and the weirdest fan video for her new single, “One More Sleep.”
Motown has a long tradition of classic Christmas music. Do you think Phil Spector would dig it?
I hope so. His Christmas album plays in my house every year – that’s why I decided to go down this route for my record. When we were making the record, I immediately knew that I wanted that Motown “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” vibe, because that’s what reminds me of Christmas.
When did you discover A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector?
When I was really young my mom would play “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” [by Darlene Love], and I didn’t even realize that was a Christmas record when I was younger. I didn’t connect it until when I got older.
“Your Hallelujah,” one of the original songs on your record, has a similar season-less feel. It’s more of a ballad like your earlier songs.
The intention wasn’t a Christmas song for that. We were writing Christmas songs at the time, but that came about and we knew that it wasn’t really a Christmas song. I just loved it so much that I wanted it to be on the album. We gave it more of that feel in the production rather than the lyrics. It’s not about Christmas.
What’s the story behind the song?
We wanted a prayer kind of song that had a gospel vibe. I wrote it with my man in mind. I had lost my man a few years ago and was going through a struggle of “Where is she now? I can’t feel her anymore,” and that feeling stuck with me. The song was a comforting song for myself because it’s about knowing that she’s OK. That was what I wanted to get through in the song.
Did you write it for another release in mind?
Yeah, it was around April, and I was just getting into the studio, writing and recording a lot of different things. Not for anything in particular, really – just to see what would come out, and that’s what came out.
Were there any tracks that you made during that period that will be on your next album?
There are some tracks that have a lot of potential. I’m still working on it. I released an album last year and then I went on tour, and I really wanted to get out of the headspace of anything I had done before – be reinspired and refocused. I did a film earlier in the year [Holiday!] where I recorded a bunch of songs for that. For this album, we went totally Motown, and I touched on a bit of gospel as well. I’ve been so inspired by different genres and able to get out of the headspace I felt locked into.
What releases this year have you been excited about?
I really love Haim. I like their vibe – Fleetwood Mac-y with a little bit of R&B. I really love the Neighborhood, another California band. They’ve got a song called “Sweater Weather,” which I really love.
What are your thoughts on U.K. pop? There haven’t been as many big albums from across the pond this year.
I feel the same. I really love the Emeli Sande album. I worked with her a while ago and she’s so talented. But there have been a lot of people trying to follow suit, and I think that’s a bad thing. Everything sounds the same – genres kind of start to mold into one – so I wanted to do something different and throw it back a bit.
I used to listen to records for such a long time, and now I think they’re thrown away easily. I don’t like that. I like classic songs that will be around for a long time. I put a lot of work into it, and I hope people will cherish it for a long time.
Have you and Emeli Sande worked on a followup to “Trouble?”
We worked on a few other songs as well when we made “Trouble,” which didn’t get on the album but were still really strong. We also wrote a song called “Sugar.” They may get released, depending on where I decide to go on my next album.
You mentioned your acting debut in Holiday!. Anne Dudley worked on Les Miserables. Aside from being Eighties-themed, how does the music compare?
I haven’t heard final mixes. From what I’ve heard, the songs are all covers and we’re interpreting them in our own way. Although I did record a lot of songs for this, and backgrounds and lines here and there – I don’t have one song that I sing on my own. The kinds of songs that we sing are, like, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” We do “The Power of Love,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” – classic Eighties tunes.
Growing up, were you a fan of those songs?
Yeah. I’m an Eighties baby, so I listened to a lot of them. Although some people feel like the Eighties wasn’t the greatest time for music, I actually love it – especially the Cyndi Lauper stuff. She just blows me away. It was so fun doing it.
Is the filming over, or did you do the music first?
We did the music first, which is so strange. I know in Les Miserables they recorded the music live, but we couldn’t do that with this film. The studio recorded everything first and we have a few re-records that we’re working on, but everything is pretty much done.
How have you been preparing for the acting portion?
I’ve been training for a while, and I did a lot of theater when I was younger. I hadn’t done anything in a couple of years. This role came up when I was available, so I went in and auditioned, not really expecting to get it, but they offered me the part. I took a really intense course to prepare for it, but nothing can really prepare you to do film. It’s so technical, and I didn’t realize that, so I’ve learned a lot.
What was the most surprising aspect of the process?
The amount of time it takes – it takes such a long time! – and the amount of focus you need. If you’re trying to do a really short scene, it could take a whole day or three days to do a thing that’s going to be on screen for 30 seconds. The focus that it takes to always be in the zone when all of this craziness is going on around you . . . I didn’t realize how much is going on behind the camera.
You’ve talked about keeping your privacy since your early X Factor days. Are you nervous that you’ll have to struggle harder to keep your private life private after you’ve moved into acting?
Yeah, it is quite difficult. I’m very guarded about my friends and people around me and, obviously, the more you get involved in, people are looking at you more and wanting to know more about your life. And that’s fine, but when it gets intrusive, I don’t like it and want to step away from it. I think I’ve pretty much figured out the balance between trying to be private but let people know what I’m doing.
How did the dance come about for the “One More Sleep” video?
I wanted to start learning the dance moves a while before, because I don’t call myself a dancer by any means. The performances that I’ve been doing for the song are very Supremes-inspired. People have been sending in videos of them doing the moves, and I’ve had such a laugh watching them. Some of them are amazing and some of them are crazy.
What’s been the craziest one?
A nurse did it in the hospital, and the moves were all wrong, and it was just a weird environment to be doing the song. I was like, “Shouldn’t you be helping the patients?”