In House With Leah LaBelle: Singer Talks New Album With Pharrell Williams, Jermaine Dupri
Attentive “American Idol” viewers may remember Leah LaBelle from season three of the hit reality series. While she bowed out at a respectable 12th position, it was her YouTube videos — shot after she’d graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music — that really got her noticed. On the strength of those clips, the Canadian-born daughter of Bulgarian refugees landed gigs singing backup for such artists as Keri Hilson, honing a set of skills that would eventually catch the eyes and ears of L.A. Reid, Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri, who signed her to a joint deal.
When LaBelle stopped by The BoomBox’s New York City offices, the rising songstress was still at work on her debut album — due out later this year — but she was happy to chat about the sessions and even sing a live version of “Sexify,” her flirty, surefire summer jam of a lead single. Before leaving for the day, LaBelle also chatted about her influences, dished on recording with Pharrell and J.D., posed for some photos and generally charmed the hell out of our staff. Check out our interview and have a look at our exclusive photos.
Talk about your first single, “Sexify.” Who produced it, and how did it come about in the studio?
“Sexify” was produced by Pharrell. We recorded it in Miami. It was a really nice vibe. It was actually the first song we ever did together. We wrote it based off of magazine cover titles, Cosmopolitan magazine. We had this big white board, and we went through all the issues, writing the ones that stood out the most and picking and choosing which ones stood out and wrote the song based off of that. But in the way of the Cosmopolitan girl, the young cosmopolitan woman of today, how she lives. “Sexify” was that phrase, so we built the song around that.
What was it like working with Pharrell? He’s known as being very hands-on in the studio. Was there anything he pushed you to do?
I learned a lot working with him. I learned a lot from J.D. [Jermaine Dupri] as well, but Pharrell, he’s a visionary, so he sees things you might not see in yourself, because it’s hard sometimes to look at yourself sometimes and see the things other people see. He helped me pull out the side of me where “Sexify” came from — more fun and flirty and sexy. I’m a lot of different people, so in that moment, I was in a phase where I was maybe not so in that space. But he saw it in me and was like, “No, this is where you are. Let’s pull it out.” He challenged me vocally as well — just different elements I didn’t know I had or could touch and reach. It was really awesome. I learned a lot about myself working with him and finding parts of me I hadn’t tried before.
Does the album have a title yet?
Are there any collaborations we can look forward to?
Pharrell and J.D. are on there, but as of now, nobody else we can speak about.
Is the five-song sampler fairly indicative of the album on the whole, or will the other songs go in different directions?
That’s a pretty good overall feeling of what the album is going to be like. It’s just that feel-good-texture music, that throwback-but-new feel. That was kind of what we were going for.
Watch Leah LaBelle’s “Sexify” Video
You were signed by L.A. Reid to Epic, but you’re working with Pharrell and J.D. How does it work with all of these creative forces coming together?
I’m signed directly to Epic, but I’m under Pharrell and JD’s imprint. L.A. Reid is the executive who oversees everything, but he’s a creative mind as well. If he loves it, or if he doesn’t, he puts his input on it as well. Creatively, the process was really me and Pharrell and J.D.
You talked about working with Pharrell; what’s it like with J.D.? He has a reputation for being more laid back and jovial, maybe.
It’s a different vibe. They’re both hilarious people. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of jokes on both sides. I had a lot of fun working with both. With Pharrell, it’s like focused work. That’s a great thing. With JD, it’s still focused, but he’ll take breaks and play video games and do things like that. So the vibe is a little different. But it’s still fun. I get excited working with both, because it’s different parts of my brain that I focus on with each person.
Are there any crazy or memorable moments in the studio that stand out with J.D.?
Not in the studio. We work pretty hard in the studio, but being in Atlanta — he’s very Atlanta. I’d never actually been to Atlanta, like out and about. He showed me the nightlife of Atlanta. The first weekend we ever worked together, I was thrown into this Atlanta pool. I’m hanging around with Young Jeezy and T.I. It’s my first weekend and I’m thrown in with the kings of Atlanta, hanging out.
Is there any place they took you that stands out as particularly crazy?
Yeah, but I won’t talk about that [laughs].
[One of Leah's assistant's interjects: "It's in a song."]
It is in a song. “Mr. Scissors” is a little peek inside.
I was going to ask about the inspiration behind that song…
“Mr. Scissors” was inspired by a situation that I was going through with somebody who felt like he could make the decisions for things that I wanted to do with my life and then when I didn’t do it that way, he felt like he could say, “Well, I don’t need to be with you.” So we kind of flipped it and just made it, “Well, fine, then you’re gonna be cut off,” you know what I mean?
Know what you mean!
You have a very soulful voice. Who were some of the singers you grew up loving?
My favorite singer is Lauryn Hill — all time, hands down. She was my biggest inspiration growing up. I think when I was about 7, I discovered her. Through my growth, I studied her. She’s amazing. But I love a lot of gospel music. Kim Burrell is one of my all-time favorites. I love Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Brandi, Sade, Nat King Cole. I like the Beatles. I listen to a lot of that. But my main influence was Lauryn.
Can you talk about some of your tattoos?
This one [points to arm] is from [the 1888 William Ernest Henley poem] “Invictus”: “I’m the master of my fate. I’m the captain of my soul.” I was sitting with my friend JoJo, the singer, and she started reading me the poem. We were eating lunch, and I was like, “Oh my goodness, I love those lines.” It’s very true to yourself: You decide your fate. You decide the things that ultimately you do. You have choices in this world, and that’s how I live. That really stuck out to me. This one “creatively and wonderfully made” is from a bible verse. I enjoyed that because I feel like I was created for a special purpose. “Product of blessings” is just that: a product of blessings. My life has been a blessing. I’m grateful for everything I do have and the places I’m going and the things I’ve seen. I feel very blessed and grateful. I have 16 or 17 [tattoos].
Do you want to get more?
There’s one idea I have. On my back, I want to do like an old-school mic at the top and have the cord going down my spine, saying “believe.” I think it would be really dope. I did have a phase where I wanted to do a whole piece on my back, but my mom would kill me. She already feels that way about these ones.
We’re coming up on the summer — what is your favorite summer record?
Honestly, the whole Fugees The Score album is one of my all-time favorite summer ones. I cruise around, windows down. It’s such a feel-good album. I think every summer I wear that CD out.
Listen to Leah LaBelle’s Five-Song Sampler