Leona Lewis, despite her 9m album sales, three Grammy nominations and audience of 2 billion at the Olympic closing ceremony in Beijing in 2008 (with Jimmy Page on guitar and David Beckham on balls), still lives in Hackney. We meet four days after the London riots and the hitherto mild-mannered, some-might-say drearily namby-pamby, Leona Lewis has turned into a high-pitched version of walking-stick-wielding Hackney Heroine Pauline Pearce.
“It was just hoodrats getting totally out of control,” she froths, with an indignant swish of her newly dark, single-plaited hair. “I don’t think there was any motivation behind it other than to cause trouble cos they’re bored and want free stuff. Total, total hoodrats. Little shits!”
We’re perched on a golden velvet sofa in an upstairs lounge of the Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles, 26-year-old Leona demurely elegant in a black lace vintage frock and considerably more strident than the 21-year-old X Factor winner of 2006 whose most-heard pronouncement was the hand-wringing squeak, “fanks very much … I can’t believe it!” A lifelong Hackney resident with a Welsh social worker mum and Afro-Guyanese youth offending officer dad, she’s a liberal soul at heart, bemoaning youth-work cutbacks – “Kids need somewhere to go, so they’re not bored on the street” – but this was beyond her political pale.
“I don’t care how poor you are,” she scoffs, “there’s no excuse for setting fire to people’s property. I was, ‘This is our community and you’re setting fire to your neighbour’s house? You could kill someone!’ They weren’t even thinking about it.”
She blames Ver System: “My dad was saying, ‘It’s been a long time coming,'” she notes. “He was, ‘We have so many laws and regulations against us that we can’t discipline the kids. There is no discipline.‘ It’s a lack of discipline and respect. Yeah, some were opportunists just taking stuff but the ones setting light to stuff? When I was young there were always troublemakers but it’s changed so much.”
‘Simon and I mostly agree but there have been arguments definitely … sometimes I say: nooo thanks!’
If she’s become unexpectedly opinionated, she remains, simultaneously, a supernaturally gentle soul, the barefoot vegetarian who recently rescued “a bunny in peril!” from a homeless drunk in LA. “I felt so sad for both of them,” she laments. She couldn’t help the bum, but she could help the bunny – “She was about this big (circles fingers), she would’ve died” – offering him $20 to take her home. “But he wouldn’t take it,” she balks, “so I gave him a hundred dollars. He saw me coming a mile off, probably does it all the time! But I love her soooo much …”
Leona’s as-yet-unfinished third album (out November, featuring a production spectrum from UK grime whizz Naughty Boy to US balladeer Ryan Tedder and Emeli Sandé) is called Glass Heart “because it’s about being fragile, but also open and honest”. We hear a few songs other than the current corking dancefloor single Collide, its backing track now credited to Swedish DJ Avicii after a copyright rumpus (“I don’t get involved in record label politics,” notes Leona, adding that monetary/legal wrangling generally “actually hurts my soul”). There’s the orchestral soundscape of Sugar, the eastern-tinged 80s electro of Fire Flies. Most intriguingly, there’s the stunning trip-hop of Trouble (“It’s very London,”), as if Kate Bush in 1979 was transported through a pop Tardis to front Massive Attack in 1991. Her spectral vocal imploring “I’m a whole lot of trouble.”
“It’s definitely true,” she smiles. “I am a whole lot of trouble.”
This is tremendous news, the lyrics centring on the relationship transition between her childhood sweetheart, electrician-turned-talent-scout Lou Al-Chamaa, from whom she split in 2010 (she never discusses her “sacred” private life) and her new beau, the incandescently handsome, Timberlake-esque German dancer Dennis Jauch, 22. “It’s about getting into a new relationship knowing there’s a past and it can be trouble for you, so don’t be a fool,” she demurs. She and Dennis have much in common, he the winner of Germany’s So You Think You Can Dance? and backing dancer on Leona’s debut 2010 Labyrinth tour. The only German he’s taught her so far is for “how are you?” (“Wie geht es dir,” she splutters none-too-convincingly), even if he is, as she cackles gamely, “a hot teacher … definitely!”
Leona Lewis’s singing voice is a world-class sonic phenomenon which causes involuntary tears on contact (and it isn’t just me), a profoundly emotive gift which her almighty label bosses, Syco’s Simon Cowell and Sony Music Entertainment’s chief creative officer Clive Davis do no favours in their persistent comparisons to the tri-headed hydra of yodelsome 90s balladeering: Whitney, Mariah and Celine. If Leona hasn’t, miraculously, released 15 albums of weedy Westlife B-sides already, we only have her to thank. If she hadn’t persistently said no, she “would’ve had a gazillion albums by now!” Instead she’s slowly found her niche, which we might call epic spook-pop. The bigwigs, certainly, balked at Bleeding Love, Leona’s choice for her debut single proper in 2007: “Everyone said, ‘It’s weird, it won’t work on the radio'” (it went to No 1 in 34 countries). No wonder Simon Cowell “really trusts my instincts”, allowing her “any amount of time I want” to complete her albums unlike, say, every other artist in the history of Simon Cowell’s roster. Sometimes, though, he’ll still send weedy songs “and I’ll be, ‘Nooooo thanks!’ Simon and I mostly agree but there have been arguments definitely.”
Do the top brass understand the new album?
“Um, they’re slightly scared!” [Giggles head off.]
‘I need my privacy and I know where not to go … plus in Hackney there’s no photographers’
The world knows little, still, about the enigmatic Leona Lewis. She has homes in both Hackney and LA (where she keeps a horse, alongside the bunny) and is almost never in the public eye, her almost wizardly between-albums disappearing act leading us to think: what has he done with her? “He’s put her in a tower!” she hoots, which is exactly what we think, as if Simon Cowell has locked her, Rapunzel-like, in a showbiz castle turret until the songs are complete and a voice booms upwards to the prison balcony: “Come, my pretty, it is time.” In truth, she says, she’s absent from showbiz by wilful design: “I need my privacy and I know where not to go”; plus “in Hackney there’s no photographers”. She eschews The Game. “I’ve seen people, with my own eyes, call photographers when they’re here,” she blinks. “Americans and British. That’s not what I’m about at all“. This year, she discovered “friends” had sold stories to the tabloids: “People I’ve trusted who’ve betrayed me, just … evil people”.
When she disappears she’s usually campaigning against cruelty to animals; now an ambassador for WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) she visits bear and horse sanctuaries worldwide. She is also a militant vegetarian to the extent of controlling the catering on her photo shoots, video shoots and tours. “Some people are really funny about it,” she notes. “But I’m like, ‘If you’re gonna have that attitude, don’t do the job.’ Seriously, it really annoys me. I’m just not gonna pay for cruelty!” Was she always this robust, underneath all that fluttering confetti? “On the X Factor, a lot of people perceived I was really shy, a little flower,” she decides. “But really I was young. It’s all about finding your voice. I’m very sensitive but I’m also ambitious and very hard. You have to be, to do this.”
We adjourn downstairs to the recording studio where assembled “people” (PR, A&R man, vocal engineer) make jokes, much to Leona’s mirth, about tiny LA dogs wearing dinosaur-shaped coats. Suddenly, a voice shimmers throughout the room. Leona, as if beamed through a Star Trek transporter, is now barely visible behind a charcoal vocal booth curtain, singing a song no one has mentioned, a soaring reverie over mournful piano and strings, called Blank Page. “I am a blaaaaaank page,” she serenades, a soul-bending power lilt somewhere between Sinéad O’Connor and Barbra Streisand, “waiting for life to start.” It might just do for Leona what Someone Like You has done for Adele. Confronted by the force of this year’s other Hackney Heroine there’s no talk here, any more, of Hollywood hounds in jerkins. Instead: total silence. Other than the sound of a reporter’s ruined mascara descending towards the floor.
Sylvia Patterson, The Guardian