By Sam Bleazard
It’s a hot night in London. Outside, the inconspicuous entrance to the 229 club near Great Portland Street tube, an expectant throng of journalists, PRs and industry types funnel downstairs to the sounds of Leonn – a young man bearing more than a passing resemblance to Anderson Paak – who is sitting with a cajon drum box, accompanied by a bass player and a rhythmic acoustic guitarist. It’s all smiles – and dancing – as he encourages audience participation.
At around twenty past eight, with the crowd warm and all of the VIP guests inside, in bounces the main event in the form of the Afro and the smile of Decosta Boyce – a ray of positivity, it’s immediately clear he’s here to put on a good show.
Currently on tour with ’70s disco funkateers Heatwave (talent spotted for it while performing at an Al Green tribute at London’s Jazz Cafe), he’s playing songs from his new Electrick Soul album, and his 10 piece band blast the crowd with a distinctly Curtis Mayfield vibe during their intro.
Place I’ve Made is a song that’s been available on SoundCloud recently and is a great introduction to his sound: fuzz pedal guitars lead into sunny vocals and a head nodding rhythm, which when fully amplified sounds even better.
Given it’s a showcase to impress, he’s very generous with bandmates allowing everyone who’s played on the album to have their moment in the spotlight, from horns, bass, drums, guitar and backing vocals – everyone is an integral part of the sound. His Sly and the Family Stone-esque calls out to “Rico!” are not just for show, they also appear on the album, which gives the whole sound a live and organic feel. He’s not beyond humour either, having to toss his sunglasses to the ground shortly after appearing, joking that he can’t see the strings of his guitar. His lead guitarist obliges by wearing them for the rest of the set. He also fluffs the intro to one song on the set list – a story about singing Otis Redding songs to his Grandad – when it’s reeled out a bit too early, but it all just seems to add to the charm.
The sound is steeped in the best soul music, and nowhere is that more on display than the shimmering sound of Don’t go (Across the river), while on songs like No Holding Back and Givi2me (check out the Timmy Thomas nod in the intro) both he and the band update it with their own flavour.
You wonder if you hear Prince on I can already tell, or is it Marvin Gaye? When it’s this good it barely seems to matter. The quest to find a UK equivalent to the sounds of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu et al has been on for a while, with artists such as Omar and previously Lynden David Hall admirably filling those sizeable shoes. The man from Stevenage has a message for those with early access to his sound: “There is no greater love than music, music is the food that feeds my soul…”
When we meet to talk – there’s a consistent theme throughout the conversation – that real music is the key to happiness.
What’s the toughest thing is about being a musician right now?
Honestly, I can’t think of one. I’m just so thankful I can do music full-time, as I’ve put in the hard yards in other jobs, like being a construction worker in my youth.
Were your parents’ musical?
Not really. Although I was brought up by my Mum and what she was listening to was a big influence on me, I would hear Prince’s Emancipation CD or Sly Stone, Luther Vandross, Stevie, Otis Redding, Shuggie Otis, there was always music in my life.
What are your early musical experiences?
I’m from Stevenage originally, and I lived in London for a while, that’s still where I call home. I came to London when I was 18 and I used to play 4-5 nights a week, sometimes playing to no-one in all kinds of places. In the early days I lacked belief in myself, I also used to rap. But singing got me out of a lot of situations. The issues I used to have as a kid, were due to quite a hard upbringing. If you grow up around a lot of negative people, there’s always a danger you’ll start looking up to the older bad boys.”
What would your advice be for young musicians?
Well firstly don’t stop, keep at it and know your goals – everyone gets there in the end if they’re committed to it. Smart phone use is a concern for me. I see a lot of kids who are de-sensitised to so many things. As a parent with a young child myself now I think we need to keep tabs on it. Too many parents I see leave kids unattended on devices. To learn an instrument needs a distraction free environment. Before instruments were all we had. Spend more time doing that would be my advice, 2 hours on a phone is 2 hours you’re not playing. It’s quite telling to me that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids have iPads at home!”
And what have been the main challenges getting to this point?
Various managers were so close to signing me in recent years, but at the very last minute the conversation is always about money. When you put so much trust in other people, and they’re trying to change you and make you into something you’re not, you lose a piece of yourself. I wasted too many years struggling with people who insisted my music had to be a certain way. There is a problem in the business right now, which is that people don’t trust, but when they do exciting things can happen. Look at Michael Kiwanuka he backed his own music all the way and he was right. To me more freedom will ultimately equal more money, but you have to be able to see it. There’s so much good music out there, but don’t sit at home watching The X-Factor expecting it to come to you, go out there and find it.”
Tell us about your band?
Well basically I admire them all, as they give me the inspiration a lot of the time, and they’re all considerable talents in their own right. We’re also like family as we always help each other out. When I think about artists I’ve enjoyed listening to in recent years, Questlove, Bilal, Outkast and Erykah Badu – the glue that held them together and gave them strength was their collective, the Soulquarians. Some of the artists you’d have heard at 229 like Leonn and Steph on vocals, we’re our own little collective, we like to think of it as ‘the new funk era’.”
Given you wear your influences on your sleeve would it bother you being compared to other artists of the past?
No, I see that as a good thing really. Why wouldn’t you want to be compared to your heroes? I’m just playing the music I love, because it comes from inside. Am not trying to sound like everyone else, what you hear is just what comes out when I’m inspired.”
And what’s next?
The album, Electrick Soul is coming out on 18 August and I’ll continue to run my label, Vintedge, from Hertfordshire. I am also shooting four videos for various songs on the album, and we’ve got a tour planned for next year, so it’s a really exciting time.
And where do you think you’ll draw inspiration from in the future?
Do you ever get that feeling when you hear a new song, it’s like a love feeling? Well I get that all the time.
Electrick Soul is out on August 18 on Vintedge