You may not have heard of Leigh Jones just yet, but mentioning her in the same breath as those musical supernovas isn't as far-fetched as one might think. In the same way that Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. championed those performers, the legendary songwriter and producer (along with his son, manager Kerry Gordy) recognized the true talents of the California native and lent his Midas touch to her enchanting debut, Music in My Soul (click on title to see our review). It took about five years to assemble the powerhouse team surrounding her (Stax Records' Al Bell, proven producers Walter Afanaisieff and Clark Anderson, songwriter Bruce Fisher and even bassist Wayman Tisdale), but the fruit of their labor was well worth the wait. In the midst of a promotional tour for its Sep. 9 release, the 27-year-old singer and songwriter chatted from home about her vision, her influences, and what she hopes her debut accomplishes for anyone who cherishs true soul music.
How does it feel to have coaxed THE Berry Gordy Jr. out of retirement to work with you on your debut (he produced the track "Cold In L.A.")?
"It's been pretty amazing; needless to say that I'm a huge, huge fan of everything he's done and of the stars that he's helped to create along the way. Sometimes it's a little scary (laughs), since he's worked with the best of the best of the best, and you don't really see a lot of stars with the same level of musicality as they had back in the day. It's intimidating, but it makes me work a little bit harder so I don't, you know, make a fool out of him. To have someone behind you of that caliber, you don't want to make any mistakes, so if anything, it's been keeping me on my 'A game.'"
What's working with Kerry like?
"Kerry is a little old school, in the way that he's so adamant about songs making total and complete sense, as well as having a purpose for the lyric. A lot of songs these days, when you listen to them, you're like, 'they're not even saying anything.' Nothing like that will fly with Kerry, he's really into the songs telling a story, having them make you feel something, you know?"
Did you have to fight to be yourself, or were you supported in your vision from the jump?
"In the beginning, it's really about getting your foot in the door, so I had to record a few things in the very beginning that I wasn't so crazy about, but I made the decision early on to never do anything that made me feel like I was compromising myself or my musical integrity. Before I met Kerry, people were all over the place with their ideas about what they saw for me. They immediately thought pop, like Christinia Aguilera. I respect her, but it's just not me. I always just craved that real musciality, the kind of stuff I wanted to listen to. My friendship with Kerry has lasted this long because we've be very honest with each other from the beginning. I told him what exactly I was looking to do, and thankfully, he saw that for me. Some of the songs are more of a standard jazz style; some are more neo-soul and R&B, so it was really about finding the perfect mix. It takes finding the right person who will stand by you and listen to what you have to say."
Do you have any major influences, like Teena Marie?
"I love Teena Marie and I'm a fan of hers, but I don't isten to her to draw inspiration from because I wanted to remain true to myself and I really needed to create my own sound. My parents had a lot of jazz around the house, but I loved Chaka Khan and the Pointer Sisters, so growing up, it was never anything that anyone put on me to do."
Do you have any favorites on the CD?
"There's the title track---I start off in my low range, I'm not reaching for those big notes, I can just kinda cool out and let everybody know what I'm about. I also love 'Same Game'---that one has grown on me more and more as I sing it live, and it's just a straight-up shout out to the men out there (laughs). I can kinda go out there and be a voice for the women for this day and age with that song. It's coming from a young woman's point of view."
What do you think about the 'imported' blue-eyed soul? Do you feel like there's competition?
"Actually, I like Duffy, all the even-numbered tracks on her CD, and I really love to support other girls that are doing the same thing, because if you're in this industry, you know how hard it is to catch a break, and it's not an easy game. Had I made a record that was 40% of what I am and 60% of what the trends are, I might be a little more scared that someone could come and 'take my spot,' but I have confidence in what we're doing because it's all me, and no one can come do what I do."
What was it like to create Music....?
"I signed with Kerry's production company before singing to the label, so he's got this whole workshop going on with some of the most incredible writers. Bruce Fisher (who penned the classic "You Are So Beautiful") wrote about four or five songs on the record, and everyone was just a part of this big family that just pulled it all together to get what we got. Kerry's got his own studio, so we didn't have to worry about not finishing or going over budget. He really created a comfortable environment, so we could take the time to change things and do what we needed to do. It took about five years, and you just have to know for yourself that what you're doing is the right thing to do. If you're doing something for someone else and it doesn't take off right away, you're more likely to give up, but since this was something that I literally put so much of my blood, sweat and tears into, I had to see it through. There was no choice."
How did you avoid the common traps that young women find as newcomers in the music industry (over-sexualization, the practice of 'f***ing for tracks' and so on)?
"That's everywhere---out here in L.A., I'm seeing that stuff like you wouldn't believe. I've never been that kind of person, ever. I feel that you can f*** your way to the top if you don't plan on sticking around, but you'll be forgotten. People like that come and go, but you really need to plant your feet sturdy and allow them to get to know the real you. That's just ignorance on the other persons's part. They're probably pissed because they can't get any (laughs), so they take it out on some artist really looking for an opportunity and try to shut them down."
What do you ultimately hope listeners take away from Music in My Soul?
"What I'm most proud of is that it takes music to where it used to be---having real songs, live instruments, and real arrangements. It was thought out, premeditated to make the kind of quality of music of what we really wanted to present. Sometimes I get discouraged when I listen to the radio---I'm thinking, in my weakest moments ',wow---are people even going to be receptive to that again?' It was important to me as a vocalist and musician that other musicians would enjoy it. I really wanted to create something timeless, and I think that's what we did. I really hope and pray that we can just bring music back."
By Melody Charles