In the first of a series of interviews and articles focusing on UK artists, running throughout 2018 – we kicked off the New Year in conversation with Leonn, an exciting talent with the inside track on the new funk collective.
By Sam Bleazard
NEW Funk generation
“Everyone loves a bit of funk…” – these are the first words I hear on meeting Leonn. And who am I to argue with this emerging artist, songwriter, drummer, singer, performer – not to mention band leader, session musician and chorister?
‘Discovered’ by BBC Introducing a couple of years ago – when ‘my wife heard on the radio they were looking for new material’ – he supported his good friend and musical collaborator Decosta Boyce at the 229 Club last year at the former’s album launch. Basically a high energy showcase, with drummer as front man, Leonn was calling the shots.
However it wasn’t always this straight forward, as he explains to The Cocoa Diaries.
A did a lot of visualising when I was young, which stemmed from having to overcome the fact that I’m partially deaf. Rather than be beaten, I found a number of ways to rise above it and I now do what I do within certain limitations. I actually spent a lot of time as a teenager in silence. A lot of time in my own thoughts. My confidence came when I started playing basketball because I could visualise what I was going to do. I’m calm on stage because I know how to speak to the audience.
Where did it all start for you?
I’ve been playing drums as a session musician since I was 17, which took me from here to Japan, to the US and back again, playing with people like Natasha Bedingfield, Westlife, and various pop bands. During that time I also appeared Jay Leno, various TV shows and at lots of festivals with Graffiti 6. I was never really in the front…but I was always the loudest!
So how did you finally find your niche?
I had a great upbringing hearing funk, soul and gospel as first-hand formative musical experiences, I’ve been onstage since I was 18months effectively. I watched my father – the Reverend Basil Meade – in so many different countries and venues, and certain places stick in my mind. One of which would be the crowds in Eastern Europe, in terms of the different reactions I witnessed in my early years. I saw him turn venues and audiences into massive parties which had a massive influence on my approach. I mention Eastern Europe as an example because promoters would always be very impressed that his funky style of gospel could communicate with people on and off the stage. I hope, and believe that I’ve been able to translate some of that. In terms of my own style – some of the things that have happened to me feel like fate in many ways. I got booked for a gig 2 years ago and my drummer on the day didn’t turn out, so I had to just jump on the kit and cover both the rhythm and the melody. I did it instinctively without thinking too much about it at the time, but people hadn’t seen that for a while on the music scene. Anderson Paak does similar things if you’ve seen his live show.
Given the challenging nature of the industry did he ever think of doing another job?
Music is my heartbeat, it’s my hobby, it’s my job, and the place I go where I can feel happy and hopefully make other people feel good. I did once have a very brief stint in telesales, well when I say brief, I actually left on the same day I started as my heart simply wasn’t in it!
What is the new funk era?
Everyone loves a bit of funk, but there was nothing fresh being done, nobody was bringing the funk back to the popular market, at least not until people heard Bruno Marrs and Mark Ronson bringing it. We want to give it a little twist, and create some different sounds. Back in the day, back in the 1970s it was music that was both quite sexual and quite political. It’s time to give people the green light – funk is back, make it fresh and make it our own thing.
Decosta Boyce mentioned you when we met last year, what’s the connection?
We met through music also, at a bar in Hoxton or Shoreditch. He was there doing a couple of songs one night, and from memory had a really loud extrovert girlfriend at the time, whereas he’s actually very quiet. I noticed him through her, and then onstage I thought he had a wicked voice. We did a couple of things together following that show and exchanged numbers, we’ve since become great friends and our kids even play together now.
You seem very at ease onstage, where did you gain confidence as a performer?
I got it from Church, but in recent years I feel like I really found my own voice.
How do you see the link between funk and gospel?
Well it’s more of a spirit, a vibe…a way of understanding the audience and being able to read them, then adapt what you’re doing. In funk you’re playing a certain hook or drum pattern. You see that change and reaction, then call to the band. It’s the same in gospel it’s about feel and expression, a certain chord or hook. If it feels good you stay on that moment before you move on to the next section. You get high energy from both. The message of hope or togetherness, and just having a good time.
It can be like hypnosis, yeah – a funky hypnosis. I saw D’Angelo three years ago at the Roundhouse. He was late and flew in from Amsterdam. Everyone forgot they’d waited for him to come on once he appeared. That experience was like being in a trance, because he brings funk and gospel, with great musicians around him. It was just phenomenal as a show, sometimes they would sit on a groove for 15mins. The band in perfect unison.
What projects are in the pipeline next?
At the moment I’m working on my first album which will consist of 10-12 songs, with singles and videos coming soon. This in itself would be motivation enough but the new funk era encapsulates art too. I continue to be inspired by others. One of the concepts for the album is that I’m working with a visual artist called Nedim Nezarali who is a photographer and creative director. We’re going to be using empowering images and art work in the live show. It’s a wonderful thing because it changes the whole show experience. I’m also looking at mini pop up gigs, the concept is to take gigs into places like barber shops, training shoe retailers, clothes shops, pop up kitchens and play a 30-45min set. We’re planning to make it an online series, kicking off on February 16 in Walthamstow from 6.30pm with a gig between 8-9pm. We’re also looking at tattoo parlours and other quirky venues to hold these sessions in.”
So many great artists from back in the day. Earth Wind and Fire, Sam Cooke and of course Prince. When I heard about his passing I was heartbroken. He was clearly so passionate about life, and somehow managed to overcome music industry politics. He taught us that you can do it yourself if you’re strong and creative. There’s hope for you. I’m still going because of that, I accept it and I’ll catch the vibes from everywhere. Music is all around me, all day, everyday.
Can’t say fairer than that.
For more on Leonn check out the following links: