MOMENTOUS MONDAYS: INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS OF ALL TIME – WEEK 83: LEONA LEWIS

You know how you hear a song and then instantly you know that this artist, even if you don’t know them, is destined for greatness? That this artist will blow everyone out of the water, this artist will have a long career, and this artist will inspire many, and be influential to many? The other year I think, I heard a song on the radio, that was somehow buried deep in my psyche that was unearthed this year. But when I heard it, I immediately thought that this person was blessed, that they were going to change a generation, and impact the world at large. Any guesses as to who this artist is? Is the artist I’m going to be writing about today Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, Kylie Minogue or Robbie Williams? After all, they each have distinctive voices, am I right? Well, no, no, no, no, no, no and no again. This artist rather is rather underrated, has flown under the radar for a while, and is only really successful in their home country of Britain. Theirmost successful album remains their debut album back in 2007- and they’re an artist where at first glance may not fit into this blog series. But you know how God has surprised me over and over and shaken up my definition of who is influential and who isn’t? He’s done so again for this next artist. That’s right, it’s time to dive deep into the discography of British pop/gospel singer Leona Lewis. And yes, it was the song “Footprints In The Sand” that hit at my heart and emotions all those years ago in 2007.

If you haven’t heard of Leona Lewis… I guess I can say ‘never fear’. Because I doubt the wider world has heard of her as well. But one listen to a number of her songs, and I’m sure you’d agree with me- that her voice is so powerful and captivating, that even though it isn’t technically flawless, it’s still stirring and hard-hitting and emotional enough for me to place her in this list of influential artists. You know how some artists are influential for what they do outside of music first and foremost, and others are influential simply because of their songs, their lyrical content; and yet other artists are present because of the calibre of their voice most of all? The initial reason I included Leona Lewis here was because of her vocal chops… and then when I dived deep further into her lyrics, the stories behind the songs and what she does away from the spotlight; I decided that there were many other reasons, other valid reasons for Leona to be included on Jon’s and my subjective list. They say first impressions is everything- and that is certainly true with Leona, as “Footprints In The Sand” grabbed me from the get-go. But even if I hadn’t listened to “Footprints In the Sand” when I did; with a discography like this, even though she hasn’t recorded a full length album in 6 years, I’m positive that Leona would’ve been present in this blog series one way or another.

I know, it’s mad [how long ago X Factor was]. Someone said that the other day. It does feel like that because so much has happened, but it also feels like only a few years ago almost. It’s weird when you think about how much time has actually gone. When people are like ‘How long ago were you on the show?’ and I’m like ‘seven years?’ [laughs] Its double that. It’s kind of mad…

I mean…there’s always different pressures [to change my sound]. Whether its lots of opinions on what I was doing or lots of judgment on things that I was doing –  especially in the age that we live in where there are so many comments and there are so many opinions on what you’re doing. It’s hard not to feel that pressure and you’d have to be a very focused person not to. There were times I thought, ‘Is this what I should be doing? Should I be doing that?’. But I’m the kind of person who is quite stubborn so once I have my sight on something, I just go for it. Although there were certain pressures, and I did feel certain things at certain times, I had a good support system around me who believed in what I was doing and what I wanted to fulfil with whatever music endeavour that I chose to do.

When a smash hit single releases and takes over airwaves, like “Footprints In The Sand” did in 2007, and it’s one of the first few singles from a debut artist (don’t worry, we’ll get to the analysis of this song, because the lyrics are deeeeeeep!!!!); one has to wonder where said aforementioned artist came from, how they got to where they’re at in this very moment. And Leona has had quite the ride. Having left the Brit School for Performing Arts And Technology when she was 17 so that she could make it in music, it would be a long hard slog before Leona would be noticed. She was working as a receptionist and as a Pizza Hut waitress in those early days, and although she secured the lead role in a theatre show of The Lion King in Paris when she was 18, Leona had to withdraw because of a back injury sustained while ice skating. Having recorded two demo albums as well- Twilight and Best Kept Secret, which failed to secure an record label album deal and catapult her to stardom (and you cannot find these albums on the internet anywhere- trust me, I’ve tried!); Leona tried out for The X Factor in 2006, and subsequently won. Then people started to take notice of her and the rest is history. And as Leona herself has mentioned, all those years ago, even before she won, “…dreaming of performing on a stage in front of thousands of people kept me going. I just longed to be able to do my music every day and be recognised for it. I tried to secure a record deal by doing things my own way. I worked very hard but I never managed to land a contract. That’s why I decided to audition for The X Factor. It’s programmes like these which provide the best place to showcase fresh new talent. [but] the most important thing to me is to give something back to my parents, because they’ve done so much for me throughout my life. If I won, the first thing I’d do is buy my mum and dad a car…”. It goes to show you that hard work and determination and ‘blood, sweat and tears’ are all needed to succeed in a cutthroat industry like music. if you feel like it’s your calling to do music, then by all means go for it, and do it well. Perhaps go on a talent show and a music competition if you want to. But know that pop stardom takes time- and winning a show doesn’t immediately guarantee success.

So, now that I’ve got your attention as I briefly touch upon talent shows and music competitions in general, what are all your thoughts on music competitions? Do you think they’re a gimmick, a money grab, or are contestants really hoping to make it big in music from these shows? When people vote and decide who wins, how much do you reckon is a popularity contest, and how much is based on the actual singing ability of the performer? Do the judges really mean what they say when they deliver constructive criticisms, and do the coaches on The Voice really have the interests of the singers at heart? I’m sure the winner of competitions like The X Factor, The Voice, American, Australian or British Idol, ______’s Got Talent and other singing competitions; are deserving and theoretically could go on to very big things. But I think the number of successful winners that are still successful now, is not that many. Guy Sebastian, Damian Leith, Stan Walker (all from Australian Idol), Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Kris Allen, and Phillip Phillips (all from American Idol) were all winners who each had varying degrees of success; while artists like Anthony Callea, Katharine McPhee, Mandisa, Danny Gokey, Colton Dixon, Gabby Barrett, Adam Lambert, Jason Castro, Chris Daughtry (from the band Daughtry), Jennifer Hudson, Ricki-Lee Coulter, Shannon Noll and Jessica Mauboy all didn’t win, but each went on to have their share of the spotlight. The Voice… well the only artist I can think of that has made it big was Cassadee Pope, and she’s still a relative newcomer. And for The X Factor- there’s One Direction and Little Mix from the UK, and Dami Im from Australia… And so, if you think about the hundreds and hundreds of iterations of shows there are, and the number of aspiring singers who compete, and then when you look at the number of artists who go one to have satisfying careers, from having their start in a music competition; I’d say from first glance and an educated guess, the ratio of successful to ‘non-successful’ artists is quite low. The chances of going on a show and succeeding is remote. But why are shows like these very popular? It’s simple really. People want to watch a feel-good story, of seeing the ‘little guy’ succeed, and wanting to root for the underdog. Sure, the chances of a singing competition actually helping you succeed- well it’d say it’s pretty low, and you’d want to do the hard work yourself after winning and not rely totally on the fame from the show; but in a general sense, if you’ve struck out from doing music on your own and you want to break into the market- music competitions are a sure thing to get people at least talking about you. I mean, there’s reason why shows like these are still on TV after almost 20 years, right?

To be honest with you, I’m not really a fan of music competition shows. They go on for so long, and they take up a lot of your time, and they suck you in with clever advertising. I promised myself a while ago that I wasn’t going to watch another music competition show after Stan Walker won  Australian Idol in 2009- but I watched the X Factor Australia in 2013, and The Voice Australia in 2019 and 2020. And my two cents worth is this. That while these competitions are, competitive for lack of a better word, and over-glamorise the music industry; there’s no substitute for hard work in such a career as this. sure, these shows give exposure to artists- but would these artists have been famous and influential without these shows? Some would say no, but I say yes, that though it may take a little longer, I’m of no doubt that every single artist who is successful (and that term is subjective depending on your own morals and values!) from music competition shows, will be successful without them. Shows only highlight the vocal talent and the personality and demeanour of the artist which is already there… and so should we demonise music competition shows and these artists because we don’t like watching them? No, not my any means at all! Leona isn’t the first artist to create heartfelt melodies and personal anthems, from a music competition, and she won’t be the last. And now that you know my stance on these shows (in essence, indifferent, but I will watch them out of curiosity’s sake!), let’s dive deep into the music. after all, that’s what you want to know more about, right?

A lot of Leona’s success and popularity was due to the extremely BIG album Spirit in 2007. Crediting Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston as her major influences vocally, as well as Sia, Taylor Swift, Tegan and Sara, and Brittany Howard; Spirit is officially the best-selling debut album by a female artist in the 21st century. Leona’s debut single “Bleeding Love” spent seven weeks at number one in over 30 countries, inclusive of the UK where it became the best-selling single of 2007; and the US Billboard Hot 100, becoming the best-selling single of 2008. The follow-up single “Better in Time” was also successful; and as a result, Leona was proclaimed Top New Artist by Billboard in 2008. And if those stats aren’t enough to convince you of Leona’s prowess as a singer and as a songwriter, let me just say that as of 2015, Leona is the second best-selling act from The X Factor UK (behind One Direction); having sold over 30 million records worldwide. She has won two MOBO Awards, an MTV Europe Music Award, and two World Music Awards. She is also a six-time BRIT Award and three-time Grammy Award nominee. And just after her X-Factor win in 2006, Leona subsequently signed a £5 million (US$9.7 million) five-album contract in the United States with Clive Davis’s record label, J Records, and showcased for several American music executives. Simon Cowell avis would work together in a “first-of-its-kind” partnership on both the song and producer selection for Leona’s album Spirit. I could go on and on about all of the amazing things connected with this one-of-a-kind album, but perhaps writing about these songs would do it more justice?

I’ve listened to Leona’s albums for the better part of a week or so, and I always come back to the 2007 debut album Spirit. Is it because it’s the debut album or the strongest album to date, or is it because Leona wasn’t as experienced or ‘jaded’, and there’s something simplistic and inspirational about naivety? Perhaps, it’s a combination of all of these reasons. Regardless, Spirit is a near-flawless album, and all of these tracks prove it, and prove it well. It will live on in our hearts for many years to come… and if you dislike songs like these, well then you just don’t like music! Just kidding. But seriously, this album is timeless- take my word for it. Opening track and lead single “Bleeding Love” (technically the second single, if you discount a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This”!) is still the only song of Leona’s to go really big in the U.S.; and with the song debuting at number 1 on the UK singles charts, and becoming the best single of 2008 worldwide; this was the second song in history to reach #1 in 35 countries- the first was Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind”. “Bleeding Love” was nominated for two Grammys—one for Record of the Year and one for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She lost the latter to Adele though, who won for her breakout hit “Chasing Pavements.” Nonetheless, the impact of “Bleeding Love” cannot be denied, and lyrically, the track is a typical love song, about opening up to love after having your heart broken; and the song was critically acclaimed because of Leona’s voice for the most part. The song actually had some resistance when it was in its first stages of being recorded according to Leona: “Bleeding Love” came around through my friend Ryan Tedder who’s an amazing artist. Jesse McCartney was actually on the demo vocal when I first heard it in the studio. Nobody actually wanted to play it for me. They were like, “Ehhh it’s just weird, I don’t know. It’s not really for you.” But after I heard it, I loved it. I went in and we kind of tweaked it around a bit, but it was definitely an emotion I felt very close to. The organ is what captured my ear when I first heard it because the organ was already in the song. It was just something that was very catchy to me and it’s become so significant in the song. As soon as people hear the organ they’re like “Oh, that’s ‘Bleeding Love’”. That’s exactly how I felt when I first heard that instrument. I immediately knew that I wanted Bleeding Love to be my single. It’s funny because after we sent it to a bunch of different radio stations, a lot of people said it would never be played on the radio. But as we’ve seen God work through music time and time again, the adversity that “Bleeding Love” faced in the end resulted in it going further than the song could’ve gone without pushback. And as Leona sings out with passion that ‘…I don’t care what they say, I’m in love with you, they try to pull me away, but they don’t know the truth, my heart’s crippled by the vein that I keep on closing, you cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love…’, we are reminded that the love you feel for someone isn’t easily able to be rid of- when it’s there, it’ll stay there. We are reminded that love is a powerful emotion, and love for each other and love for our fellow man is why we’re here on this Earth. If there’s no love in our lives, what is I, really? Essentially, this song in a weird way reminds me of for KING & COUNTRY’s “Proof Of your Love”- and if a song can make us think about deep issues such as the meaning of life and what love really is; then I’d say Leona has done her job well, what do you think?

Aside from “Bleeding Love”, there are other songs on Spirit that showcase Leona’s prowess as a singer, songwriter and out-of-this-world vocal talent. “Better With Time”, Spirit’s second single, reached the top 20 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart like “Bleeding Love”, and is a pop song outlining the persona not really over their ex, but knowing that things well get ‘better with time’. Overall Leona’s second most successful song, this laid back ballad reminds us that our happiness and contentment need not be tied to a person, otherwise in some ways we will always be disappointed; while “Run” and “I will Be” are covers from Snow Patrol and Avril Lavigne respectively- with Leona making each her own. “I Will Be” is actually even more popular and respected here than with Avril’s original version- if you type in the song on Wikipedia, the article is all about Leona’s version. As for “Run”, well nothing can top my own love for Josh Groban and Sarah McLachlan’s stirring duet, but when Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody champions Leona’s version (“She obviously studied the song and thought long and hard about how to interpret it. She’s stripped it to its bare core. I think she sounds absolutely phenomenal.”), well that means you have to sit up and take notice right? Don’t you think Leona has officially ‘made it’ at this point?

“Whatever It Takes”, a piano prominent pop song, is sung about a relationship and how the persona in the song is going to prove the doubters and the haters wrong, as she relays that the relationship is going to succeed as they’re going to do whatever it takes. It’s a kind of firm way of thinking, but this positivity and optimism in this track can be translated to any area in life- success is doing whatever it takes, right? “Forgive Me” is Leona apologising to her ex, and letting him know that she’ll be moving on with someone else because she’s not fulfilled- and this song could be a wake up call for guys to appreciate all of them women in their life, and not take them for granted; while my personal favourite from Spirit is the underrated piano ballad “Here I Am”, where Leona relays to us all that she’ll be there for all of her friends and family, that they can always rely on her. The song can also be interpreted as sung from God’s point of view, as we hear Leona sing out that ‘…if you need a place where you can run, if you need a shoulder to cry on, well, I’ll always be your friend, when you need some shelter from the rain, when you need a healer for your pain, I will be there time and time again, when you need someone to love you, here I am…’, where we as Christians can and should realise God’s immense and unending love for each of us, that is as far as the east is from the west. He is the shoulder than we can cry out, and He is the place where we can run, and He is the shelter from the rain, and the healer for our pain. Jesus will be there time and time again, and He is someone who loves us unconditionally; and so even if Leona isn’t a Christian (it isn’t clear when I try to find out on the internet!), God is still using her to speak Truth into our lives. Isn’t that remarkable, don’t you reckon? And as Leona details what this song means to her, that “…I’m quite a family kind of girl. I love being around my family and my friends. I do a lot of traveling now, but I’m splitting my time so that I’m home. I get my energy boost from my family. [Being away from home] did put a lot of emotion into my songs. I wrote a song called ‘Here I Am’ which was about being there for someone, no matter what, and that’s what my family and friends were doing. No matter what, I come home and I’m still the same girl…”; we are met with an underrated song that no doubt needs to be listened to, needs to be experienced to be believed. The Holy Spirit is upon this song, so take a listen and be amazed!

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”

Yet for me the crowning moment from Spirit and from Leona Lewis in general was and will always be “Footprints In the Sand”- the official theme of the 2008 version of biennial charity programme Sport Relief, by BBC. Inspired by the unknown free verse poem above, of which the poem has etched its way into folklore and tradition, and has been referenced in song many, many times; this recording was cowritten with Per Magnusson, David Kreuger, Richard Page, and Simon Cowell, with lyrics that are pretty self-explanatory. Overtly Christian in nature, with the verses sung from our own point of view, and the chorus sung from God’s perspective, I’m not sure why such a song was ever recorded, given that the song was presented to the pop charts and not the Christian charts. Nonetheless, I’m glad it was, as we are witnessed to a melody that again will be significant as the months, years progress. While we are all at home during lockdowns because of COVID-19, a song like “Footprints” can heal and comfort, as we hear God speak to us and remind us that he’s always by our side. And as you all read these powerful and thought provoking lyrics below, let us remember that God is working in the unlikeliest places, and that whenever you feel lonely, you can talk to God and He’ll be there.

You walked with me, footprints in the sand
And helped me understand where I’m going
You walked with me when I was all alone
With so much unknown along the way
Then I heard you say…

“I promise you, I’m always there
When your heart is filled with sorrow and despair
I’ll carry you when you need a friend
You’ll find my footprints in the sand”

I see my life flash across the sky
So many times have I been so afraid
And just when I, I thought I’d lost my way
You gave me strength to carry on
That’s when I heard you say…

“I promise you, I’m always there
When your heart is filled with sorrow and despair
And I’ll carry you when you need a friend
You’ll find my footprints in the sand”

When I’m weary
Well, I know you’ll be there
And I can feel you when you say…

“I promise you
I’m always there
When your heart is filled with sadness and despair (and despair)
I’ll carry you when you need a friend (need a friend)
You’ll find my footprints in the sand
(I promise you, I’m always there)
When your heart is full of sadness and despair (and despair)
I’ll carry you when you need a friend
You’ll find my footprints in the sand”

A look at Leona’s discography reveals that none of her other albums even came close to topping Spirit in terms of impact and influence, and none of her subsequent albums charted in the U.S. But that doesn’t mean these songs aren’t impacting, honest, real and moving. “I Got You”, from the 2009 sophomore album Echo, is a pop anthem that basically relays that devotion and loyalty we feel to a significant other or a close friend. As Leona declares that we are to be faithful and committing to one person, not in the sense of marriage but in other ways like friendship and being able to be there for them in whatever capacity; we are met with a ‘vow’ type of song of sorts, and we decide whom in our life is our person, whom is the one person (or two, or three) who we’d be there for, no matter what. This song could weed out the fake friends and the superficial people only in our life because they want or need something; and so this song is beneficial for us to lean and fall back on when we’re in a bind. Knowing that there’s someone out there who we can count on makes all the difference, and this song, similar in theme to Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me” and Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up”, is a must listen as we figure out who is in our corner and who isn’t. “Happy”, Echo’s first single, is another standout on Echo, and was co-written by Ryan Tedder and Leona, where they depict the decision that we make in our lives that is against the norm but true for us, the decision that makes us happy. Relaying that we need to do the things that are right for us, this poppy but dark song reminds us that in order to get true happiness and the things we want, sacrifices and hard choices need to be made. This song is one where we look deep inside of us and see what our goals are and how we get there- and if a song this hopeful and inspirational can get us to self-examine ourselves, see our flaws, and figure out how we can do better with the least people getting hurt or offended; well then Leona has written a hit and done more than her job!

RYAN TEDDER- about “Happy”: I honestly feel it is the most beautiful song I’ve ever been a part of. My goal when I started working on Leona’s new album was to “NOT” chase or be influenced by any of her previous hits—or any songs I’ve ever done with anyone else—including ‘Bleeding Love.’ True artists do not look back to previous successes they look forward to creating new moments and songs the world can connect with in a different way. And that is what Leona has done with ‘Happy.’ I hope you like it as much as we do, and I hope the lyrics hit you as hard as they hit me.

LEONA LEWIS- about “Happy”: The vocal was totally spontaneous. I sang it as soon as we finished writing. Sometimes it’s better not to over-think things. It’s a contradiction of song because, yes, it’s named ‘Happy,’ but the song’s kind of dark, a bit sad, sombre. In my songs I want people to go on a journey, and (to get to) happiness, you go through a lot of pain and sadness to get there sometimes and that’s what we wanted to convey on the song.

“Brave”, a radio friendly song, beautifully juxtaposes Leona’s feelings of worthlessness and fear with someone she admires as brave and courageous (maybe a soldier from the army?), as we are met with a song that redefines bravery- which in my opinion is running in the face of certain danger when you are still afraid; while the epic power ballad anthem “Broken” showcases a feeling of heartache and pain after the end of a relationship. “Naked” speaks about presumably the same breakup, and is musically rock in nature (a departure from the power ballads Leona is famous for!); while the heartbreaking, yet ever-relatable emotional ballad “Alive”, outlines Leona’s feelings of desperation and hopelessness as she asks who does she turn to, to feel alive shortly after a breakup. Duets with One Republic and Justin Timberlake in “Lost Then Found” and “Don’t Let Me Down” round out the album quite nicely, and though Echo doesn’t quite capture the heights of Spirit, we are still met with a worthy follow-up album that is sure to impress and stack up with the albums of today… even now!

Glassheart, released in 2012, was the only album from Leona not to be released in the U.S., and the first album to not reach number 1 in the U.K. However, there are still gems to be mined here, as we are met with the forgotten album and by far the most underrated. The album’s first single was “Trouble”, which was re-recorded later on with Childish Gambino (Donald Glover’s alter ego!), and anchors the album musically, with the overall vibe of Glassheart being pop/dance and EDM. Could it be for this reason of musical experimentation that this album had mixed reviews from critics? Quite possibly. Whatever the case, “Trouble” reminds us that we all should run from toxic relationships, as Leona sings from the perspective of the abuser; while “Lovebird”, the second single from Glassheart, vividly depicts Leona’s struggles at Simon Cowell’s record label, and her wishes to break free from his grasp. This album I guess was the sign that she wasn’t happy with the way her songs was being marketed or maybe she wanted to write more about other relatable things other than superfluous things… either way, the song failed to chart in the top 200 of the UK’s singles chart- and is this the beginning of the end for Leona? Not as popular or inspiring now than before, does this mean we abandon the powerhouse vocalist? Well, sure Glasshouse and the next album I Am are no Spirit… but Leona still creates emotional melodies and heartfelt tracks that are relatable. If it doesn’t chart… then so be it! Like I said earlier, singing shows are a stepping-stone, and of course the debut album is always going to chart the highest with regards to these types of things. But if there’s still a love for music in your heart, then should you keep going? Do you make music for the dollars or for yourself regardless of who hears it? Well, Leona’s still here, so I’d say she’s in the second category, but others would be in the first, unfortunately.

With the rest of the songs from Glassheart all not marketed as singles…. I was at a quandary as to how to approach these songs. So I guess clicking random songs on iTunes should work? Musically busy mish-mash “Come Alive” is where Leona relays that she feels alive when she is with this other person; but the track would work better as a ballad and not as a dance/club song. “When It Hurts”, a captivating and haunting ballad about a break-up, reminds us all that pain is a part of life, and that we shouldn’t associate with people who want to bring us pain in any way, shape or form; and the title track, a ballad and a EDM track at the same time, is musically a bit much, but nonetheless an eye-opening look into what Leona could’ve been feeling at the time, going through a break up and on the edge of her rope, needing help. Or it could be based on someone else… I don’t know. “Fireflies”, a gospel/pop melody that is one of the songs from Leona that potentially transcends the physical realm, and seems as if God is speaking to us through this melody; we are met with Leona’s response to someone close to her dying, and her seeing them through fireflies. It’s an emotional song and one that is very personal to her- and such this song, though lyrically not connecting with maybe many of us, still remains one of the crowning achievements from Leona, not only from this album but from her career as well. “Collide”, a collaboration with Avicii, is also present on Glassheart (as the remix!), while the studio version is a stand alone single that inspires us to lean on and collide with each other, banding together with the human spirit to overcome adversity (pretty relevant for these times, don’t you think?). And though Leona’s songs on this project are pretty dark overall, they still serve a greater purpose and we do learn something from them- “I To You” is written by Emeli Sande, and depicts a toxic relationship (can be romantic or otherwise) where one person is sick of doing favours for the other and asks the question o ‘What am I to you?’. And like so many other songs here, we are met with a warning and a track meant to help focus our attention inwards- are we done being someone’s lackey, or is it a relationship that is ‘give and take’ as opposed to just ‘take’? Something to ponder over as we ruminate the words of one of the most confronting songs on one of the most underrated but necessary albums from Leona- or albums that I’ve heard period!

It has been quite the rollercoaster year. The emotions I’ve felt have been more powerful, in both a positive and negative way, than anytime I’ve ever felt in my life. At some points I felt extremely depressed and other times experienced amazing highs, but it got to a place where the downs were outweighing the ups. So I’m writing this letter for anyone who has ever felt the same way.”

After several years, I thought about leaving over and over again. I was terrified of walking away from a somewhat secure relationship, even though I knew that we were no longer right for each other and at times even bad for each other. However, I clung to the safety net I had grown so attached to.

One day everything changed. For my fifth album, I was asked to make a record that would not have been true to myself. By all means as an artist in this climate, I was thankful to even get the chance to make another record. But I cannot make music that does not speak to my soul, and as scary as it seemed, I could no longer compromise myself, and so I decided to leave.

I was threatened with the fact that if I left, it would come out that I had been dropped. That cut deep, but by this time nothing could stop me from walking away. The end of a relationship can really burn but underneath it all, there is still love there. Change is uncomfortable, it’s sticky and churning and can be painful. It can turn your world upside down and you either sink or swim.

I chose to swim, I chose to go through it and honestly I’m not sure where I’ll end up but one thing I am certain of is that I’ve stayed true to myself and I’ve followed what my heart says is right. So whatever the future may bring, I am ready. To know you are on this journey with me is so comforting. Thank you for being right here with me.

These words above- taken from Leona’s open letter to fans, need no explanation, but in essence, Leona left her label in 2014. She parted ways with Syco Music, and signed a new record deal with Universal Music’s Island Records UK; and Leona later revealed that her departure from Syco had come after “several years” of consideration. She also stated that when she expressed her desire to part with the label, she was threatened with the public being told that she had been dropped instead of parting amicably. However, further creative differences in relation to her fifth studio album finally caused Lewis to leave the label. In 2015, the album I Am finally released… and let me tell you, this album reminds us all why Leona is influential. No matter what she sings, her voice just carries us to another place, and just brightens up our day. If you’re down, listen to some Leona Lewis to put a smile on your face- but that sentiment is even more true with this hopeful, positive and optimistic album- a far cry from the depressive Glassheart

“Thunder”, the first single from I Am, reads like a relationship style song; yet this song could also be read as a breakup letter to Syco Music and a hello to Island Records. Energetic and grandiose, powerful and captivating, “Thunder” is all you could veer want in a first single, and remind us just how powerful Leona’s voice actually is. “I Am”, the title track, is another empowering track, and though it could be read as a break up song and saying that you don’t need this person anymore- the reality is that this song is also about Syco Music. in fact, let me let Leona say what these songs are about- why would I try to paraphrase her words for?

About Thunder:

When I wrote Thunder in LA with my producer Toby Gad, I was going through a really rough emotional patch. I was down on myself and wanted to write a song that was affirming for me. Toby and I wanted the production to embody the lyrics. With that being said, we went with big drums that almost have a marching undertone—kind of like if you’re marching into war. It’s saying, after you walk into battle, you come out the other side stronger.

I’ve been through a couple really hard breakups and each time after the breakup, I say that it’ll never happen to me again (ha!). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown stronger from each situation I’ve come out of. One thing that I’ve really begun to understand is that the greatest thing you can give to yourself and other people is independence. I’ve seen too many relationships that are extremely co-dependent. We all must learn to be independent and find our own purpose; rather than relying on other people for self-validation. It’s kind of like when you leave your parents house to carve out your own identity—you can’t expect them to be with you every step of the way.

Even when you go through any obstacles or hard times in life, you know that at the end of the day, it’s always a learning process. Through adversity, you become a much stronger person. Also, I’m from London, so when I’m in LA and it rains (which seems to never happen), I get all nostalgic. Thunder to me is such a powerful sentiment—it’s a kind of nice, dark brooding moment.

It’s hard to blame someone for holding you down; especially when you consider the fact that you’re the one that’s actually letting yourself go through the situation. This line is about being strong enough to make your own decisions and not allowing people to treat you below your worth. Obviously this is easier said than done. When you’re in a relationship for a while, it’s definitely hard to break away.

About I Am:

I wrote “I Am” in London with Toby Gad and a producer called Eg White. EG (who has worked with Adele) is a musical genius so I was so honored to be able to have him be part of the project. In the studio he had a melody idea consisting of strings that literally brought me to tears. The tone of the song reflects the lyrics. I am stronger. I am me. I am breathing without you. It all goes back, again, to not having to be dependent on someone else for validation. No one else can tell me my self worth.

I wrote an open letter to my fans a couple years ago just updating them on why there hadn’t been any new music released by me at that time. I was in a transition period from my previous record deal to Island Records. I always try to be transparent with my fans, so I told them about the different challenges that I’d been facing. Consequently, I got a bunch of letters back from people who were facing challenges in their own life. For example, this little girl sent me something about suffering from an eating disorder and another one about a girl that had lost some of her family members in an extremely tragic way. I guess these letters were just so moving to me and I realized that I had to do something with them. So I started putting these up on my Facebook and Instagram and people just responded warmly to it. This began the “I Am Empowered” campaign. It’s all about sharing the challenges you’ve been through and helping other people through the ways you have helped yourself.

[the joy of being vulnerable is] all about recognizing the fact that when you open yourself up, you find that so many people warmly embrace you. I’m kind of like an ensealer—I won’t tell anyone anything until it’s at a boiling point and I can’t control it. I find it extremely scary to let people know what’s going on inside. But I’ve learned over the past couple years that keeping things bottled up will just lead to inner turmoil. I want to urge people to speak out about whatever is bothering them or at least find an outlet. Writing music is my outlet. It’s my therapy. I don’t know where’d I’d be without it.

I Am is filled with explosive and energetic pop anthems, and feels like a rebirth of sorts for Leona. “Another Love Song” speaks about the love Leona has for her then-boyfriend now husband, while “You Knew Me When”, penned by Dianne Warren (famous for writing songs for Rascal Flatts, Cher, Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, NSYNC, LeAnn Rimes, Lionel Richie, Westlife, Chicago, Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston, Wynonna Judd, CeCe Winans, Gavin DeGraw and Faith Hill to name a few), is another song directed to Syco Music, and speaks about how they label knew her when she won the X Factor, but now they don’t know her. Leona relays that she has evolved as a person and as a musician, but the label wanted to keep her tied down. As Leona cries out that ‘…you knew me when I was on the edge, and my confidence was shattered, you knew me when I didn’t know my worth, didn’t know how much I mattered, you knew me when you thought you could keep me down, no, you knew me when, you knew me then, but you don’t know me now…’, we are glimpsed further into Leona’s pain and psyche, and this track can be read and interpreted in a number of ways- sung to an estranged friend or an ex. While the heartbeat of the entire album is “Fire Under My Feet”, a hand clapping, gospel infused pop tune that uplifts your soul and encourages us to actively move to where you want to go.

This song is all about the passion that you have to do what you do, even though there’s adversity or people trying to tell you that you can’t do something. That’s what I wrote the song about, and I feel like a lot of people in this video have things that they’ve had to overcome to be able to do what they’re passionate about. It’s just incredible seeing them in their element.

That was where it first began for me [fire under my feet being the first song I wrote for the album] and I thought I need to build energy into the record and I needed that encouragement and empowerment. If there’s one message throughout the album it’s to know your own power, that’s not in a way of strength but it’s OK to just be you, just be yourself and be authentic and that’s good enough

Leona’s vocals have always bene on display, but there are never more so than on the 2013 holiday album Christmas With Love. Sonically and vocally, this project touches all of the right notes… but as far as Christmas albums go I have heard better, sad to say. Last year, when all I knew of Leona was “Footprints In the Sand”, I still decided to take notice of this Christmas album when I was searching for ‘new’ Christmas music to listen to! But what is the result of me spinning Leona’s album though? It’s a pop album through and through, and a holiday album through and through (with a few worshipful tunes thrown in for variety!). Yet as it stands, Christmas With Love is a solid, but not ground-breaking album, and I’d say listen on Spotify and only buy if you’re a die-hard Leona fan or a fan of gospel/r&b music! Christmas With Love will bring a smile to your face no doubt, as the first half of the project is a myriad of jovial and happy melodies. There’s a few sombre and reflective melodies in the back end of the album- and for this musical diversity alone, Leona should be praised, and this album explored at least once. However sadly, I haven’t been convinced yet to buy this album. I’ve listened to this project a few times and each time the songs are inspiring, the flow is good… but the replay value is a bit low- it’s an ok project but there’s not a song that stands out to me unfortunately, save for the lead single and opening track “One More Sleep”! Gospel singers and r&b singers always sing with so much passion and enthusiasm. So it stands to reason that Leona will follow suit. And she does- yet whether her passion and heart is genuine remains anyone’s guess. I’d like to believe that she means what she’s singing, but because this album is only ‘so-so’ for me- quite possibly I reckon that I’d connect with these songs if Leona’s passion was more akin to her passion on like “Footprints In The Sand” and other songs on her debut album. As unique as Christmas albums from gospel/r&b singers go; I personally enjoyed Christmas albums from Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey much, much more though. “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night” proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ. Otherwise this is yet another Christmas album for the general public. That’s not to say that it’s a bad album. But rather strong believers in Jesus may not find that much in common with Christmas In Love. So, with that, I say spin on Spotify- buy if you want to. But if you don’t like the album- then I won’t be forcing you to listen to this, put it this way!

Though Leona has released only 4 albums and a Christmas album to date, there are still quite a number of stand alone singles and collaborations that are impactful and inspiring to listen to. “You Are The Reason” (Callum Scott), “I See You” (the theme song from Avatar), “Love Is Your Color” (Jennifer Hudson), “I Know Who I Am” (For Colored Girls soundtrack), “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Michael Bolton), “Solo Quiero (Somebody to Love)” (from Songland), “Your Song” (Elton John cover) and “Angels” (Robbie Williams cover) are all songs that inspired, comfort and remind us that the power of music can mend a broken heart, and that Leona is just a vessel for what God is doing in this world through song. “We Are All Looking For Home”, a charity single, was also written by Diane Warren, while in May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leona joined several performers during the One Humanity Live broadcast on social media, helping to raise funds for COVID-19 initiatives, performing a cover of “True Colors“. Leonna also sang alongside Smokey Robinson, Tori Kelly and Sam Fischer on a cover of “What The World Needs Now”, with all proceeds going to the American Red Cross. All of these songs and initiatives are quite remarkable for anyone to accomplish- and Leona just proves that she is a superwoman and God is working through her to spread the message of hope, faith, love, peace and joy.

I’ve mentioned plenty of times that the belief in the song and what the artist is trying to convey is extremely important- and whether someone is authentic, vulnerable and honest, goes a long way to determining whether an artist is popular, or popular and influential. However can you really tell someone’s intention from their voice. I believe you can for some artists- and Leona is one of them. But if you still aren’t sure of her undeniable prowess as a singer and songwriter- then these ‘extra’ activities will convince you! Leona tried her hand at acting (in the film Walking On Sunshine), and also nabbed the lead role in the theatre production of Cats. She was a music guest in the TV show Songland, a mentor on The Voice UK season 7, and a judge of The X Factor: The Band in 2019 (UK Version). Having also been named PETA’s person of the year in 2008 (Leona was a vegetarian since the age of 12, and now a vegan since 2012), and she is also a supporter of World Animal Protection, and the Patron of Hopefield Animal Sanctuary in Brentwood Essex. Leona also appears in the TV show The Oath, while she also developed her own perfume, launched in 2009. In March 2020, Leona hosted and performed at the youth empowerment event WE Day, at Wembley (stating that “I’m someone who knows how far a voice can take you. I won a little show called X Factor 14 years ago. And that never would have happened if I had not learnt to use my voice.”) Also an ambassador of MTV Staying Alive; Leona’s plight and her journey from stardom to influential songstress, is made all the more remarkable because of her diagnosis of Hashimotos Disease. And is this reason enough? Leona also stands up against racism in England; her experience in 2006 was harrowing and gut-wrenching, as we are made aware of the fact that racism is everywhere and can exist in our home country!

A few years ago, my dad and I were on a high street in London. At the time, my management company was in Fulham, so we were walking around the area after a meeting. I didn’t realise at the time that all of the other customers were white. Me and my dad were the only black people.

[the store owner was hovering]… Eventually, she came up to my dad and I and said, ‘You need to put that stuff down, you’re not allowed to touch it’. Every other person was picking stuff up, looking at it. [So] I immediately knew what was happening and I asked her, ‘Why? Everyone else is picking stuff up. Why do we have to put stuff down? We’re just looking at it, I’m probably going to buy it’ [but she threatened to call the police], It sparked a rage in me. I started saying, ‘No, I’m not going to put it down, I’m going to buy it. Why are you targeting us? (By now it was just) me, this woman, and my dad in the store. And… she became really defensive, really agitated, and ran behind the counter. She said she was going to call the police on us if we didn’t leave.

I couldn’t calm down because I was so angry. I knew what this woman was doing to us. But my dad has been in positions like this before and he knew that I needed to make myself smaller. And that just enraged me even more. He managed to get me to leave the store. And I sat in the car that was parked around the corner, and I just sobbed, absolutely sobbed. And my dad came out, grabbed something from the car, and went back into the shop.

[she apologised when she knew I was a singer], She said, ‘I’m so so sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know who you were. And my heart kind of sank. [So] I confronted her and said, ‘You are racist. You’re a racist. You targeted me and my dad, you wanted to throw us out of the store because we’re black. You’re racist.

This is the conditioning we have. This is racism. So when people in the UK are saying that racism isn’t a problem here, it is a problem. It’s a big problem. The white people in that store left in disgust because they knew it was wrong, but they didn’t say anything. And because they didn’t say anything, the situation escalated. For the people that are not speaking out now, you’re the people who just left.

Passionate about racism, as well as the use of fur and animals in many everyday clothing, Leona is making a name for herself away from music. It isn’t known what is next for her, and what the next album will sound like; but it is coming, and let me tell you, you all need to get on the bandwagon right now. Quickly becoming one of my favourite female vocalists at the moment, Leona Lewis’s vocal ability just keeps getting better and better- and the fact that she writes songs from the heart about real issues she is going through… well that’s just the icing on the cake, isn’t it? And now, there’s not much more to say about Leona. I will go back and keep on listening to her music- because frankly each time I listen to her music, I become even more impressed than before. “Footprints In the Sand” is a genius song, and with quite a number of songs being spiritual or religious in nature- I’ve often wondered as to how Leona would go in recording an album of hymns. If she doesn’t believe in God, could that be blasphemous? Dunno, perhaps. But let me say that God has given her a gift, and Leona is using it. And for as long as I’m alive, I’ll keep on recommending people to listen to Leona and her music. She truly is an artist who gets what music is all about- and that is to inspire people and to make them feel a little less alone. If artists can be a little bit more like Leona, then the world will be a better place, believe me! And what of music competitions shows, you ask? Well as I wind down, let me say that they have their place. But an artist is famous and influential based on their ability. Singing shows are just catalysts that bring to the forth what is already there. If you’re thinking about doing music and going on a talent show, just be careful not to place your identity in it. Leona Lewis can attest to that.

I’m always kind of been someone who wants to explore lots of different sides of myself, this one particular venture I wanted to do is like an Eco Cafe, so every 100 cups of coffee we sell, we plant a tree. We want to be apart of different organisations that want to help the environment with different environmental issues. Everything is recyclable, we’re all plant-based and there’s no dairy. We’re trying to be as sustainable and aware of the environment as possible. The whole motto of the cafe is based on that. We also sell plants because I’m such a plant lover, and the cafe is surrounded with plants, and plants that sustain us and clean our oxygen. I want people who come into the coffee shop to be met with a breath of fresh air and are surrounded by a healthy environment. I’ve always been interested in sustainability which is what interested me so much when we did our shoot, Pinko was using sustainability within their brand and repurposing and you know, just less waste which is something I’m very conscious of right now. I’m still learning definitely, there are still things where I’m like ‘Oh wow this is contributing to a lot of waste’, ‘This thing I’m buying is it gonna sit in a landfill somewhere?’. Like ‘Oh my god, what can I do to buy something different or support someone who’s created an alternative or support different initiatives’ you know? That really interested me, and I love that Pinko are thinking in that way as well.

I was lucky enough to have finances that I could plug into my business, so I am very blessed and fortunate in that way. I feel like for other young business owners, black business owners and young people of colour that are looking to get into their businesses, I would say look at the resources around, there are loads of funds for young black business owners and young people of colour now – especially in the time we are living in. Take full advantage of that now and just go for it! Use the resources around you, friends and family to help you. Use the community you’re also trying to serve. Mine was a plant-based community and eco-based community and I tapped into them in order to create this business.

I’ve always been anti-fur, I think it’s so cruel and outdated and I think anyone who can see a protest like that and not see the humanity of it all, has no compassion and I think it’s vile. I’ve been involved in a lot of campaigns and animal rights, but fur is the one thing that I think is the most horrendous side of the whole animal welfare issues. A long time ago, I got invited to one of the Harrods sale and sing, but they sell fur which is something I’m so against. So I refused to do it, and since then I’ve had a lot of people approach me and want me to come on board to help the campaign and end the sale of it. I was 100% on board! I wanted to know how this can be done. As I said, I’m just a singer I’m only just learning this whole other side of, you know how you can use your voice and platform to actually change things. It’s been years in the making and a long process, but we’ve been campaigning for a long time and we’ve called on Parliament to ban the sale of fur and be the first country to do it. I really think we can take a step in the right direction because that would be such a huge thing for animal welfare in the UK.

If you have a platform where you can speak out about wrongness in the world, I feel like it would be a waste not too. But I feel like also, each to their own. It depends what issues upset you or you feel need to be brought to light. With the platform I’ve earned, there are certain injustices that I see that moves me so to a point that I can’t keep quiet about it.

At the beginning of lockdown I was just watching Netflix all the time and then I was like “No! I need to do something!” So I have been finishing off these ideas that I’ve been toying around with for some time now, and getting it on some Zoom studio time. It’s been fun and it’s been creative and I’ve gotten to be experimental because there’s no pressure. I’m looking forward to finishing up all those ideas and obviously, I love Christmas so much so I’ve gotten the opportunity to re-promote the Christmas album! I’ve been really experimenting by going back to my roots, using some soundscapes and using different parts of my voice. I’m a classically trained singer so I definitely want to put some of those elements into. I’m mixing a bit of soul in there as well! I’ve been working with a very different pallet at the moment, which has been fun. I’m hoping next year possibly, obviously, this year has put a bit of a spanner in the works, but yeah time to have a reset!

I’ve been doing a lot of creative writing, and I have this TV concept which I’m developing right now that centres around where I grew up around Hackney, and different things that impacted me growing up, I’m really excited about that project. I’ve created a little music book for kids which I’m also really excited about. I was on a TV show a little while ago and I’ve really been getting acting and seeing what roles comes for me as well.[it’s] The year of like diversifying, life is too short. Why are we limiting ourselves and putting ourselves in a box? If I have learnt anything about myself this year, It’s just go for what you’re passionate about. The sky really is the limit, and if it doesn’t work oh well, you just move on and try something else. Life’s too short.

Does Leona Lewis make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Influential Artists of all Time’ list? Is there any song (other than “I Am”, “Footprints In the Sand”, “Better With Time”, “Bleeding Love”, “Happy”, “One More Sleep”, “I Will Be” and “Fire Under My Feet”) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far, or even your walk with God? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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