Leela James’ bluesy voice dubbed her as the “God Daughter of Soul,” originally coined by the legendary Etta James. Though the two don’t actually have familial ties, Leela is carrying the torch for soul music, and bridging the gap between generations infusing the heart of her ancestors into the soul music of today.
In late October, James released her latest project, Though You Knew, a nine song progression through her own personal diary. Her velvety vocals smoothly transition from song to song, and she tapped her longtime collaborator Rex Rideout, Camper (noted for work with H.E.R., Coco Jones, and Brandy), Amadeus (recognized for work with Trey Songz and Chris Brown), Cornelio Austin (associated with BJ The Chicago Kid), and Jairus “JMo” Mozee (known for collaborations with Anderson Paak and Anthony Hamilton). Altogether, the album only has one feature, where Jones recruited the legendary Yo Yo, for “I Was Your Woman.”
The project is on the heels of a four month nationwide tour, and engaging in thought provoking conversations with students on HBCU campuses. In the midst of it all, the Houston-based artist bared her soul in more ways than one, entering a new era as a single mom, opening up about caring for her mom who was diagnosed with breast cancer, and managing the ebbs and flows of life. James has been transforming her pain into a sense of purpose, channeling it into her music.
She spoke with ESSENCE about introducing the world to her new music, and how she’s turning her pain into purpose with her latest endeavors.
ESSENCE: Leela, your journey in the music industry has been remarkable. How have you managed to maintain your status as the God-Daughter of Soul, a title given to you by the legendary Etta James, and continue to thrive in a changing industry?
Leela James: I think I’ve maintained my status as the goddaughter of soul by being soulful, and being true to myself. I came into the door as a soul artist, a soul singer, and artists with soul, so it has never changed from day one. I’ve never tried to switch up or be anything or anybody else I was in myself. I’ve always stayed in my lane, and I am soul, so that shouldn’t be denied. I didn’t come in the door naming myself the goddaughter of soul, that was given to me, because the soul was recognized and I continued to maintain that again by just being my authentic, true self.
ESSENCE: Can you share some insights into what inspires you to create timeless, classic music that resonates with the soul?
James: I’m inspired to just create quality music, good music that I enjoy to listen to, and hopefully that translates to others. I was blessed to be raised by parents and surrounded by a family that was really musically inclined, and I was exposed to good music, so it set me up for who I am as an artist. I truly appreciate the greats that have come before me, and that is the standard that I kind of judge good music on. I try my best to continue in that path of making quality, soulful, real classic music.
ESSENCE: How do you find that balance between commercial success and staying true to your artistic vision?
James: It’s an interesting dynamic because what is considered commercial sometimes is considered pop, and what is considered pop is considered popular, and that’s not necessarily, classic or soulful, but it can be popular, good music. Even still, and I think that if you just make good music, you can find that happy medium in some kind of way.
ESSENCE: Your personal journey through a divorce and becoming a single mother is something many can relate to. How has this experience influenced your music and your approach to life?
James: I’m human just like the next person, I love. I’m a mother, a single mother at that, and I live life like everyone else, and I go through real issues and experience ups and downs. I think I just happen to sing about some of mine. Life inspires me.
ESSENCE: What message would you like to convey to others who may be going through a similar situation?
James: I would tell any woman you have to maintain who you are as a woman. Always stay true to who you are.
ESSENCE: “Fall For You” has become an iconic wedding song of the decade, and even gymnast Simone Biles walked down the aisle to it. How does it feel to have your music play such a significant role in people’s lives and special moments?
James: It has been such an overwhelming, humbling feeling. It’s a blessing to know that people receive you, receive your music, and actually seeing, you. Music for me is therapy. I’m inspired by real life experiences, and so when you see some of your experiences translating with others in the form of music and how they are affected by it, it’s a wonderful feeling, it’s an overwhelming feeling of wow, somebody is listening and on their level. I would also say that, when it comes to women and going through certain things, especially if you are a mother, I’m always inspired by my children.
ESSENCE: Your HBCU girl talk series has been making an impact in the lives of many young people. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this initiative and the significance of addressing love, life, mental health, and self-love in today’s world?
James: It’s something I’m extremely excited and extremely passionate about. I have had the opportunity so far to start up the Girl Talk HBCU Initiative series with HBCUs. I’ve been to Morris Brown College, as well as Prairie View, and it has just been a blessing to sit and talk with young girls and really build and connect with them on different levels. I’m a former college student myself. I know what it’s like during those formative years, and to meet women of all walks of life. It was just an exciting opportunity to be able to really connect with ladies of you know, different spirits in building and then having a common ground of being and the goal of really, being able to be your best self.
ESSENCE: Thought U Knew just came out. Can you share with us the creative process behind the album and the themes and messages you wanted to convey through this project?
James: It’s my ninth album. Thought U Knew takes on so many moods throughout the album. I’m a Gemini, I give you different sides, the different ups and downs in relationships, in womanhood, and your feelings. One day you may be up and the next day may be down, but you’re still in it, you’re pushing through, and so, I’m excited. Oftentimes we even question ourselves by the circumstances around us and my song, Thought U Knew, the title is basically making a statement. You may have doubted it, but I always knew, and so welcome.
ESSENCE: Your discussions on self-love and mental health are crucial in today’s world. How has your own journey impacted your perspective on these issues, and what message do you hope to convey to young women through these intimate conversations during your HBCU girl talk series?
James: My journey of being in this industry all comes with being not just an artist, being a mother, a single mother, there’s so much that comes with that. Trying to balance it all, if you don’t have proper mental self care, it could drive you crazy. So I think it’s important to make sure you are invested in your mental health and I encourage everyone to do the same thing.
ESSENCE: In a world that is increasingly diverse and inclusive, how do you view your role in promoting and celebrating soul music, particularly as an African American woman in the music industry?
James: I definitely view myself as a torchbearer carrier. I’m carrying the torch of soul music proudly and I will continue to do so to the best of my ability. And I see that clearly as my role. I definitely love all kinds of music, but I am committed to the idea of the legacy of true soul music and the legacy of real rhythm and blues, and I think it’s important that we keep that going. So I do my best in my artistry to make sure that we don’t lose sight of that, and it’s always present. I know at one point, there was a lot of talk about R&B being dead, but it is alive and soul music has never gone anywhere. So again, I feel my role in the game is the soul torch carrier, and it should be celebrated by everyone.