When we sat down with Leon Thomas at 5 Points Studio in Los Angeles, CA. he was in between wardrobe changes for his photo shoot with photographer Walid Azami, had just won a Grammy, and looking forward to his new music plans. Producer Fernando Ulloa sat with Leon and asked away...
Explain the process working with your good friend Ariana Grande for her debut album ‘Yours Truly’?
She is my sister. We have spent so much time backstage and in our dressing rooms talking about the world we wanted to live in where people accepted us as musicians, and we'd be able to say what we want and dress how we want. It is amazing to see that we are finally getting that opportunity to be the artists that we wanted to be. When we started doing the music, she was definitely focused on her own projects and I was focused on mine, but I had already started producing the writing for other artists like Toni Braxton and Rayvon. Ariana came by the studio one day and I played her a song and she fell in love. She also played a record she was working on with Mac Miller called “The Way” which turned into a huge smash for her. We figured out a nice little formula that would work for her album and I ended up producing half of it.
What was the process in creating the Grammy winning team The Rascals?
It happened so organically. One day I was just at home living my life when my boy hits me up and says “I am at the studio come over right now I need a hook”. So I pull up to the place and it was Babyface’s studio where I had already visited and did work when I was signed with Columbia records. I met Khris this young producer that really had his stuff together. We just hit it off and I literally did not leave that studio after that day for two and half to three years. I have been there almost everyday just creating. Through that we were able to do a number one record in Australia with Jessica Mauboy. We have more stuff coming out with some other artists that we cannot say who yet. I am excited to see that all of the hard work put in and all of the nights I stayed up without sleeping, and did t.v. shows makes sense. .
What was your reaction when you heard the news?
I was cooking spaghetti, and was just chilling. I did not expect on winning a Grammy that Sunday. I could have been at the at the awards but I hate sitting through award shows and the red carpets scare me. I was just chilling at the crib and I get a call from my production partner, he says “congrats!” So I’m like “did I really win a Grammy?” and he responded with “ at 21 years old you are a Grammy winner.” So I was super excited and I went to my balcony. I see two people on the street and I am like “hey I just won a Grammy!” I bet they thought I was crazy! I am blessed and I am on a natural high. I wake up smiling. I close my eyes just thinking of how blessed I am. On Saturday during our nomination party, I had a heart to heart with Khris Riddick. We had spent 18 hour days in the studio working for months. We were just trying to create sounds and trying to makes songs that Babyface would like, because if you think about it he has been around since the Jackson 5 and he continues to make hits. To make him happy with a song takes work and dedication. And for him to really think of us as creatives and as the same level as him it's a blessing. I never thought I would be in this space at 21. We always have those moments when you have to pinch yourself and ask if this is really happening.
How do you feel this win will change your future as a music producer?
I am blessed. But I feel that when your manager says “This is a Grammy award winning producer/artist” it will automatically have people check me out. I feel like the intro is now kinda hefty which is beautiful. God has been blessing me from the beginning and I am just excited to manifest exactly what I want in life. I have had the picture of the Grammys in my phone’s background for a while now and next thing you know I win a Grammy at twenty one. It feel surreal to me but I know the world and the vision that I see as an artist is slowly but surely materializing. It is a beautiful thing to watch.
You are an actor, a singer, a music producer and a song writer, which one do you relate to the most?
From the beginning of time I have been in love with music but got my foot in the door with acting. The ability to evoke emotion and to portray the everyday things that we live has been a blessing in its own. It is a gift that I will never neglect. What’s great is that I live in a world that I actually get to do everything. I get to be that swiss army knife. I can come into a room and say “ok you want me to produce this or write that? ok I can do that, you want me to act for you? ok I can do that.” But honestly I do not think anyone wants to be just a jack of all traits, you really want to be a master of one thing. But I feel like I have enough time to really spend the time to really get in there and get all of these talents that I have right.
Who do you draw inspiration from?
Its artists or creatives like Prince. Its people like Stevie Wonder who are able to make worlds for people to visit. When you listen to their album you enter into this alternate reality where they control everything and they are the center of attention. That is just such a beautiful thing to me. Michael Jackson has always been a huge inspiration for me, I know everybody says that but its real. I am really focused on being the first singing Denzel. I really want those dramatic opportunities. I really those meaty roles. I want to be able to really go there and touch people in more than one way. I think the world that we live in caters to that more so than ever before.
Do you ever get pushed to create something that you don’t believe in?
The way that I look at the world and the way I look at everything, I see things and pick up on trends usually two years before it happens. It annoys me as a producer knowing that I do something only because it is hot right now. What I really like to give is something that would be the next big thing. I have to meet every artist the way they are and understand that every creative has a vision. When you are a producer or a writer you are a tailor of sorts. You are taking something that is already existing like these cords, this melody, and those lyrics that have been said one thousand different ways and you are tailoring it to someone so that it feels like the perfect fit and brand new.
What is your style a music producer?
My style right now is inspired by people like Pharell. I am from New York which is to me one of the biggest melting pots on Earth. It’s where all cultures and esthetics meet and my music is a representation of that melting pot that I grew up in. I am using influences from indie rock bands, classics like Motown songs, and hip-hop. I am a huge fan of Kanye and what he is able to do. As my sound continues to develop it’s going to get even crazier.
Which artists are doing it right?
Well I think that the artist that don’t go nuts or crazy are transparent. You look at artists like Frank Ocean, a black man, a song writer, that was able to say that he was a gay man in the debut of his new album. In the world that we live in all the odds are against him but the fact that he was to stand for something is important. Kendrick lamar is out here speaking about the things that are happening in real time and he’s not afraid to be a little preachy and say “no fuck that! this is wrong!” That’s what attracts me as a fan and that is how I would like to be as an artist. I would like to be able to be like “Here I am, I am not perfect, I am not God, I am human just like you, I bleed just like you.” I want to be able to create a world of music where people can visit and hopefully relate.
What is the difference between Leon Thomas the child star to Leon Thomas the Grammy winner?
Leon the child lived in a fantasy world. I would do pretty much everything that I could get away with. I thought of any audition was a game and a very fun thing. But Leon the man understand that I have a family to take care of and a legacy that I want to create. So there is a difference of the passion within me as a man knowing how high the stakes are. But I feel that we are still the same person. I am still that dreamer that I was when I was ten years old. I feel like I will continue to have that spirit, which I feel it has help me reach this far.
What’s next for the Grammy winner?
For me right now I am focused on music. I feel like if I can solidify a nice brand within the music world I am officially within the hearts of everybody. I would be officially a part of pop-culture and then I can spread out to other mediums like production in the theatrical sense or creating movies. I would also like to switch out the formats on how music videos are seen. I would like to give a new meaning to musicals because I feel like I have such a vast knowledge on how to do that. I am ready to keep creating. I feel that the more I create the more I would be able to own at the end of the process and that’s what I want.
What would you like to tell your fans?
Anything is possible. I feel like many play with that sentence a lot and say it but don’t mean it. But I am saying it from the bottom of my heart that there is a world that you can have anything you want but you really have to believe in it and put in the work. People miss that part. They ask for it but don't work for it. You have to work for it.
PHOTOGRAPHER NOTES: When we inquired about photographing Leon for this project, I wanted to study his past work and then examine the space he wanted to travel to. Essentially, this is one of the transitional shoots, meaning he's looking for the bridge to gap the past and his future. We asked amazing stylist Eric Archibald (5th Harmony, Jennifer Hudson, Future, Ciara, etc) to help on this project. Eric brought some incredible pieces of established brands like Dolce & Gabbana but also mixed with new brands like ELA. I wanted him to look effortlessly cool and mature at the same time. Because of a few delays on publication side, this was actually photographed the Monday after Grammy weekend. Between sending out call sheets for Monday's shoot and the actual shoot day, Leon became an official Grammy winner! I feel confident that was present on our shoot with his new confidence and stature within the business of music. Though Leon accomplished already what most hope for throughout their career, this put him on a new level of greatness. I feel it showed on the shoot. By Monday the concept traveled from cool guy on a low rider bike doing a lifestyle shoot to something with more depth, and MAN ON TOP shoot was born. Once you win a Grammy, you're not like the others. You'll never be the same and I wanted to capture that special moment on this photo shoot.
Feverishly my assistant and I changed to a cooler (in terms of color temperature) shoot with isolated and reflective moments. More than ever the gap between child star to adult superstar needed a bridge. I recall telling Leon, "I want you to have a HOW DID I GET HERE? WHO AM I NOW? attitude". He delivered, naturally. For the bike-scene we used a soft box overhead with a blue gel. I just wanted an isolated, clinical feeling to this but still lighting coming from above, from a positive place as he's being watched over. Yeah Leon is here and looks great, but he's alone and okay being alone. I was actually inspired by the album packaging shoot for R&B star Joe (which I shot last year, and that was inspired heavily by Marvin Gaye). I feel Leon will lead that type of career, and perhaps with a greater crossover. To have great images, you have to follow the lead of great artists before them.
In addition to the cooler blue tones, I used an ethereal backlight. I believe lighting is everything, naturally as every photographer would agree. For the window scene I wanted that blowout light because white light is gorgeous, it's almost Godly. I wanted to symbolize a bright future for Leon while still reflecting on where he is now. It's not that deep, quite literal actually but these images are unlike what he's had in the past. With much respect to the influential city of Atlanta, I wanted to kill that Atlanta-look many urban artists get with their photoshoots. For this visual presentation he got rough, grainy, textured and weathered. Lets give him something new, and away from the vibrant Nickelodeon past. We relied heavily on natural light, bounce and Leon's own personality. The rest of the shoot is about Leon enjoying the new heights, looking back at where he's from and realizing it's lonely at the top.