Leela James: 'A Change Is Gonna Come'

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Ed Gordon talks with young rhythm and blues songstress Leela James. She talks about her debut CD, A Change is Gonna Come, and her love for classic soul music.

ED GORDON, host:

Some people say soul music is dead. Well, they just haven't heard this lady.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LEELA JAMES: (Singing) I was around by the river in a little tent; though just like a river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I, I know a change gonna come.

GORDON: That's Leela James. She's made it her business to rekindle that old school flavor. She's even set out to do it in a way that would attract younger audiences. So far, so good. Her debut CD is called "A Change Is Gonna Come," and for Leela, that says everything about the mission she is on.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) I don't know what's out there beyond the sky. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I, I know a change gonna come. Oh...

The record was a classic when it was originally recorded by Sam Cooke, and I felt like, you know, it would be a way of paying homage to him in that he was one of, in my opinion, the greatest soul singers to ever have touched the microphone. And it was also a way of reintroducing that song to a new generation of people who may not be familiar with him or the music. And then it, in addition, personified who I am as an artist and also the project, you know, all the things that we went through, the trials and tribulations, you know, saying `a change is gonna come' is literally what got us through and knowing that no matter how rough it would get, a change would come.

GORDON: Before we get into the music a little more, I'm curious, you have such a little voice speaking. Where does this huge voice come from when you sing?

Ms. JAMES: You know, I don't know. Everyone says that and it's so funny. I really didn't realize that there was some major difference between my speaking voice and my singing voice because, you know, this is what I've always had. And people would bring it to my attention and I didn't really know what they were talking about. And I guess that's the part of me I can't hear, and I will only have to say that it's just a God-given gift, because I can't explain it. When I sing, it just sounds the way that it sounds, and when I speak, I sound the way that I sound.

GORDON: Now I understand that you grew up with music, that your dad had a huge record collection. Would he let you touch his records?

Ms. JAMES: Yeah, absolutely. You know, he was just a music connoisseur, and I heard everything from the likes of Al Green to Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, and he would also play the songs that were, you know, maybe five or six hitting on the album and, like, `Listen to this and listen to the lyrics and watch how he'd phrase this' and, you know, we would dance to some of the songs and, you know, literally studied the music, and I just really enjoyed it. And, you know, sometimes the album cover's what just more so attracted me to the music. So depending on what the album cover looked like, that's what would make me play the record.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Can't go back to yesterday, yesterday. Can we just put the bombs away and fall back in love with music? Nothing but the music...

GORDON: It's clear that you found history in what you listen to in the sense that you are a throwback, many say, to what we knew and what I call the golden age of soul, the '70s there, of people like...

Ms. JAMES: Yes.

GORDON: ...Chaka Khan, Aretha, Gladys Knight and so many others. I don't want to leave anybody out.

Ms. JAMES: Right.

GORDON: I shouldn't even start calling names.

Ms. JAMES: Danny Wright, Tina Turner.

GORDON: Exactly. What's interesting to me, though, is you have a song on the CD that really salutes people who inspired you and who really...

Ms. JAMES: Right.

GORDON: ...laid the foundation. Talk to me about the genesis of that song.

Ms. JAMES: "Music"--I believe that's what you're referring to. That's the title. And I recorded the song, because during that time, I was going through a, quote, unquote, "battle" with one of the A&Rs at the record company, and they were really trying to get me to, you know, just make a certain type of music that I felt wasn't being true to myself or who I am as an artist, as a person.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) ...kind of music.

We need to really get back to, you know, real music and real singing and not be so focused on that quick fix of a hit, you know, and make it something that compromises the integrity of your person as well as your music, and I was kind of angry that day. At the same time, I was feeling like, you know, I really appreciate these artists, because they made good music. They made real music that we could still listen to.

(Soundbite of "Music")

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Tell me, tell me, honey.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Where has all the music gone?

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Tell me, yeah.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Just ...(unintelligible).

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) They don't say no more, where's the music gone?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) No, no. Ooh. No, no.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Tell me...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Can we get back, can we get back?

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) I want to talk about it, I'm going to talk about it, I'm going to sing about it, I'm going to sing about it, mm. All the music's gone. No, no. All the soul is gone. No, no. They say...

GORDON: Your songs--so often, the lyrical content is high, and we don't always see that today. You know, you've got songs that say something. Was that a prerequisite for you before you said, `Hey, I'm gonna record this,' that the songs really needed to make a statement?

Ms. JAMES: Absolutely. Once again, you know, I felt like a majority of the music of that golden era, as you were speaking of, or either before then, they had good lyrics, they had good melodies and it just was music that stuck to your ribs. You know, it's like you could still put on a Marvin Gaye album right now and enjoy it, or an Al Green album right now and enjoy it. And you can't necessarily say that about some of the records that have come out in the last couple of years, and I wanted to make an album that, you know, if I die within the next year or two, that, you know, I would--my legacy would be something that my family would be proud of. You know, my music was good. I said something, and I didn't take for granted the opportunity to make music and just put a bunch of garbage over wax.

GORDON: So many people feel that way, but they don't take the fight to the record company, particularly when a young and new artist.

Ms. JAMES: Right.

GORDON: They want you to do what's trendy, what's important. You know, I almost feel like this is something that you have to do, the idea that you're going to do the kind of music that you feel is not only best for you and your career, but the idea that, as you said, not to lose the integrity of the song.

Ms. JAMES: Right. And that's why the title of the album is "A Change Is Gonna Come," because it personifies so many different things in the struggle of, you know, I really just want to make good music. I want to make real music and music with integrity and offer a change to what has been considered popular and, you know, I have to keep my fight. I have to push forward and believe that a change is going to come, because eventually, people are going to say, `Hey, this ain't real, and I want some real food.' I want some good music again.'

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Yeah. Can you feel it?

GORDON: Well, I'll tell you what, this CD is a great start for all of that.

Ms. JAMES: Thank you.

GORDON: The CD is titled "A Change Is Gonna Come," and as I said, when you take on a Sam Cooke song, you'd better come strong, and you did that, and if you...

Ms. JAMES: Thank you.

GORDON: ...love the music that is, as I said, of that golden era of the '70s, this is a throwback to that, with some modern touches to it. And, Leela James, it's good to talk to you again.

Ms. JAMES: Oh, well, thank you so much, Ed, for having me. It's been great talking to you, too.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) ...same, y'all.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Tonight is the night.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Oh.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We're gonna have a good time.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Y'all better sing...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Let's just have a good time.

Unidentified Singer: That's right.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody say `yeah.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yeah.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody say `yeah.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yeah.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Say `good times.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Good times.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody say `good times.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Good times.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody say `yeah.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yeah.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody say `yeah.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yeah.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody say `good times.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Good times.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody say `good times.'

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Good times.

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Yeah. Oh. Tonight is the night, y'all.

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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