Houston Music

Inquiring Minds: Houston Soul Singer Leela James

They say they don't make 'em like they used to, but in one case they sure do: Leela James' new album Let's Do it Again (Shanachie) is a throwback to the gritty glory days of Ann Peebles and Betty Wright - whose "Clean Up Woman" leads off the record - James and her band cut live in four days.

Also featuring a script-flipping versions of James Brown's "This Is a Man's World," the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," it's the best pure soul record Rocks Off has heard in a long, long while. James' next album of original material is due early next year on Concord/Stax Records, the perfect label for this latter-day soul shouter.The South Central L.A. native, who moved to Houston a couple of years ago, visited the Press office earlier this week.

Rocks Off: How is your original material different from what's on this record?

Leela James: It's original, so in that sense it's different. A lot of it is written by myself and some of the other people I work with. It's still very soulful. I'm a soul singer, I'm a singer with soul, so you get the soul. I would say the main difference is it's original, because you're still going to get a lot of the same elements. Maybe not as much live instrumentation as on the Shanachie project, because that was just myself and my band. It was all live.

RO: The sound on the record is more of an old-school soul sound than people like Keyshia Cole or Keri Hilson. Where do you think you fit into the contemporary R&B landscape?

LJ: I'm not sure that I necessarily fit into any type of box. I march to the tune of my own beat. I'm a soul singer, so I tend to have a little more soul than what's considered soul these days from a commercial standpoint. But on my new CD I have some records that would be, I guess, radio-formatted or commercially formatted, but at the same time I have an old, throwback sound.

My voice in itself is a very old-school sound, so that combined with certain current sounds of what is considered more commercial makes me relevant, but I still don't know that I fit, because I'm very soulful (laughs).

RO: Tell me how you wound up in Houston.

LJ: I wound up in Houston a couple of years ago. I'm from L.A., and I had moved to New York for a minute because that's where a lot of musicians that I work with were based. I was just looking at what was going on currently with real estate at the time, and I was like, "It would be impossible to purchase anything in New York right now, or anything in L.A. because it's so expensive."

My family is originally from here, so a little bird dropped by and said, "Hey, you might want to look at some things down in Houston. You can really get your money's worth in terms of property. I just came down here one weekend and couldn't believe what you could get. I decided I might want to explore the option of purchasing a home out here, and that's what I did.

RO: Where did you get the idea to do some of these covers on the album?

LJ: All the songs on the Shanachie record are hand-picked. Basically, I picked songs that I felt like No. 1, we could execute in four days, myself and the band, and I wanted to pick songs that would show my diversity in musical tastes as well as my vocal range. And then these were also songs I felt I needed to introduce to a new generation of listeners, certain artists I felt in their day and time didn't really receive their props, so this was my way of reintroducing their music.

RO: I really like "Clean Up Woman." Is that an old favorite?

LJ: Absolutely. I'm a huge Betty Wright fan. She's another soul singer. That's one of my favorite Betty Wright songs. It was going to be either that song or "Tonight Is the Night," and the band said, "Let's just jam out on 'Clean Up Woman,' and actually the take that we were jamming, that's the one we ended up rolling and keeping. A lot of the records, when you listen to the album, literally it was live. Like, "Let's just keep that one" (laughs).

RO: On the other hand, "This Is a Man's World" - tell me about singing that from a female perspective.

LJ: You know what? That's one of the reasons why I did do it. James Brown, No. 1, is the Godfather of Soul, and I had the opportunity to perform and tour with him before he passed. I opened up for him a couple of times. We were over in Germany, and backstage he was like, "I'm passing on the torch, and I need artists like you to keep this soul music alive and keep it going."

This was my way of paying homage and tribute to him. That song, to me, it's so soulful, it was bluesy, it was right up my alley. I just thought it would be a twist on it to hear a female voice sing it, and do it my way.

RO: Tell me a few blues artists you like.

LJ: I like B.B. King, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland, Denise LaSalle. I like a lot of blues artists.

RO: The Foreigner cover seems especially brave. What's the story behind that?

LJ: Once again, I picked songs that I wanted to show people a different side of me, or show an in-depth side, that I'm a musician and an artist that loves music, and music crosses all genres, all shades, all colors when it's good music. Soul music in particular, you know, if you're a soul singer no matter what you touch is gonna come out soulful when you're finished with it.

The point that I was making in doing that record is that this is music, and this is a great song, and this is the result when a soul singer sings it. It doesn't matter what kind of record it's supposed to be, whether it's considered a rock record or not. It's a great record.

RO: You really brought out the gospel side of it. Do you have a church background?

LJ: Oh yeah, yeah. That's where I come from, so yeah, you hear that (laughs).

RO: And about "Miss You" - are there any other Stones songs you've thought about doing in the future?

LJ: That's the one that I do live, and that's one of my favorites, so I kind of stay around that area.

RO: Do you think your grittier sound has made it more difficult for you to get radio play?

LJ: I don't get a lot of radio play, and I definitely feel like, you know, my sound is a little older than the norm. I don't have a teeny-popper/baby-voice sound, and that's what people are used to hearing on radio formats. So maybe we can change that.

RO: Houston is still pretty much seen as a rap town. I know you spend a lot of time on the road, but as a soul singer, what's your assessment of the musical climate here?

LJ: Hmmm. It's interesting, because I'm not really here enough to really get a feel for Houston. But Houston is a little different. It's definitely a Southern rap city. Aside from that, I know you have your country, but there's a nice little blues/zydeco culture here that I like. In terms of soul artists, there's not many, but again, hopefully that can change. I'm here now, so we'll see.

RO: Are you into Southern rap at all?

LJ: Oh, I like all types of hip-hop. If it's good, it's good, you know what I mean? If it's good, I'm into it - I'll put it like that.

RO: So if Bun B, Trae or Chamillionaire approached you to sing a hook on one of their songs, would you?

LJ: Yeah. It depends on what they want me to sing, what they're talking about. But yeah. I'm not going to sing any old thing that's disrespectful or degrading to me as a woman.

James and Dwele perform Friday, June 26, at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, 888-402-5837 or www.hob.com/houston.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray