Leona Lewis... Girl interrupted is back on song
As the X Factor's first true superstar, Leona Lewis was a trailblazer. But after a difficult year in which she split with Simon Cowell's label and wrote an open letter to fans about feeling depressed, the 'diva next door' is starting over
The last time we heard from Leona Lewis, X Factor winner turned global superstar, she was in extremis. Coming to terms with a painful break-up last September, she wrote a letter to the world across two pages of a notebook and posted pictures of it on Twitter. It may have lacked the polish of her song lyrics, but it was heartfelt - alarmingly so.
"It has been quite the rollercoaster year. The emotions I've felt have been more powerful, in both a positive and negative way, than any time I've ever felt in my life," she wrote. "At some points I felt extremely depressed and other times experienced amazing highs, but it got to a place where the downs were outweighing the ups. So I'm writing this letter for anyone who has ever felt the same way."
It was a thoroughly modern medium for discussing a terribly 21st-century trauma. The split in question was from not a lover but a far more significant other, namely Simon Cowell - Mephistophelean music impresario, kingmaker and chart-breaker.
After clinching the third X Factor in 2006 and becoming the show's first true star (the winners of series one and two: Steve Brookstein and Shayne Ward), she signed a five-album deal with Cowell's then-fledgling record label, Syco. Her first original single, Bleeding Love, reached number one in 35 countries and was the 17th best-selling song of the 2000s in America. But by her fourth album, the stratospheric sales had faltered. When it came to her next release, her management mooted an album of Motown-inspired covers. Lewis disagreed. Disillusioned and dismayed that her (swooping mezzo-soprano) voice had been lost in a chorus of new signings, she felt she was no longer being heard.
"My head was in a different space - I really wanted to do my own songs," Lewis says. "But they weren't prepared to do that. At first they didn't want me to go, and rumours were being put out that I was dropped, which was very upsetting."
As attested by her open letter, leaving was far from an easy decision. To escape the soul-searching, she threw herself into riding her horses and spending long hours in the recording studio.
"A lot of the songs were about breaking up, endings and beginnings and empowerment," she says, laughing. "It was a scary time because I hadn't signed to another label and I didn't know what the future held, and my fans were sending me messages wondering what was going on.
"It was all getting me down and the guy I was writing with suggested I put down my emotions, not in an artistic way, more like a diary. I was astonished at the huge reaction the letter generated."
Today, Lewis, who turned 30 in April, has a new single (Fire Under My Feet) and album (I Am) on a new label (Island Records) to promote. She radiates positivity and is in, dare I say it, a revisionist mood. It's not that she has recovered from her depression, but more a case that she now denies she was ever depressed - at least technically - in the first place.
Lewis describes herself as having "highs and lows" brought on by circumstance, not a clinical illness. In retrospect, frustrated and anxious might have been better terms to use, but she declines (and I do mean declines) to dwell on it.
"I did not suffer from depression," she says firmly. "I wouldn't dream of belittling those who suffer from what is a terrible condition. I have a best friend who has severe depression, who takes medication and still struggles, so I know how bad it can be.
"I find it so hard to remember how it was, how I was. I am all about living in the present moment."
All the same, her letter gave rise to some questions: was she an insomniac? Did she experience difficulties in concentrating or even getting out of bed in the morning?
She answers "No" to every one, before segueing into, "I internalise things. I don't usually let my real feelings show. The past is past. I'm not bitter - why would I be? I had seven years with Syco and we achieved a lot together. It's the same with X Factor - it offers amazing opportunities to performers."
Lewis, who has a Delphic, enigmatic quality, comes across as determined to keep her own counsel. If she's embarrassed about oversharing, there's no way she's admitting it.
Nor will she say a word against Cowell. Not a single one. They didn't have a showdown about her departure; there was no door-slamming. "It was a breakdown in communications," she says diplomatically. "As the whole label grew and the roster of new artists with it, they didn't want to clash releases and there was a lot of politics. It was time for me to move on."
In fact, Cowell wished her well and, when she was signed to Island Records, famous as the label of artists including Bob Marley, Amy Winehouse and U2, he sent her a congratulatory note.
"I loved the atmosphere at Island the second I walked in the door," Lewis says. "There was loud music playing, a real buzz. It wasn't corporate, it was full of energy and life." If that isn't a de facto indictment of her previous label, it's hard to know what would be.
"I wanted to go somewhere I had close personal relationships, the sort of place where I could phone the boss on a Sunday and ask him if one track - already finished - could have strings on it, and he would not only take my call but say, 'Yes.'"
This is not something she would ever have dreamed of doing in Cowell's stable. But it is clear her new creative freedom has imbued Lewis with joy unconfined.
"This new album is dedicated to the fans who have been with me from the start and the people in my life who picked me up when I needed it," she says. "I think they will enjoy what I think is 'classic me'. There are some torch songs, a couple of big ballads, and also soulfulness. The whole theme is empowerment and discovering the strength to be independent and do things on your own terms."
An X Factor-style recap of Lewis's "journey": born in Islington, north London, to a Welsh social-worker mother and a Guyanese youth-worker father, she knew from an early age that performance was her dream, and attended the Brit School for Performing Arts & Technology in Croydon.
Having applied to the X Factor, she took the crown in December 2006, aged 21, and within a year she had gone global. The success of Bleeding Love was matched by its parent album:Lewis's eight-million-selling debut, Spirit, saw her "break America" and become the first British female solo artist to top the US Billboard 200 album chart in more than two decades. Her second album, Echo, was also a huge success. But number three, Glassheart, saw a dip in sales.
In 2013, her Christmas release marked a watershed, after which Lewis and Syco fell out of love. Aside from being scrupulously fair to her former label, she is understandably focused on her own future. "I have a responsibility to myself," she says. "I don't want to get caught up in any sort of co-dependence again."
How dignified. How diplomatic. But then, speaking as the mother of two daughters, I have always found there to be something family-friendly about Lewis. I can slip away into the kitchen to fill my wine glass safe in the knowledge that she won't swear or gyrate in my absence. Her frock will be guaranteed not to shock. "Some performers are into raunchy outfits, but that's just not me," she says. "I don't judge - each to their own - I just wouldn't ever get my boobs out in public. My little cousins might see pictures. I'm very responsible."
I'm not sure even an entire Sunday-school outing of cherubic little cousins could persuade Miley and Rihanna to cover up in the scramble for publicity, but Lewis has developed her own rules. "I grew up in the spotlight and it wasn't always pleasant. I remember when my grandmother died, a photographer turned up at her funeral," she says. "It was disgusting that I wasn't even given the dignity to grieve in private. Now, I'm much more confident about who I am and what I will and won't stand for."
Lewis's sense of equilibrium may be partly down to the fact that her love life, although never tabloid-turbulent, has settled down. Her four-year on-off relationship with the German choreographer Dennis Jauch, 27, is now very much on. "Before, I thought I wanted to be young and single, then once I was I realised it wasn't all it was cracked up to be," she says. "We're together, but because we both travel so much we have to make a huge effort to see one another. If we are within an hour of each other one of us will jump on a plane to see the other. I think the most unexpected meeting place was in Romania."
When in the UK, Lewis stays with her parents in north London. Otherwise her home is in a ranching area on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where she keeps two horses, one of them a rare glossy black Friesian originally from the Netherlands. She is proficient enough in horsemanship to go riding in or near the cities abroad where she performs on tour.
Back in America she also has two dogs - litter mates whose pregnant mother had been abandoned on a highway - called Forrest and Lilly. The dogs have an unexpected extra pack member: a white rescue rabbit, Melrose, given to Lewis by a homeless man she met on the street who could no longer look after him (let's face it, only a Londoner would stop to speak to a homeless man on the mean streets of LA). "I wasn't sure how exactly to treat a rabbit so I just let him hang out with the dogs, so now he thinks he's a dog. He copies the others when they run to the door and leaps up on visitors' legs and licks them."
This domestic detail may be why Lewis is considered to be more of a "diva next door" than most. A long-time vegetarian, she persuaded her boyfriend to give up meat two years ago. "I think if I can get a German who eats sausage twice a day, every day to embrace vegetarianism, I can convince anyone," she says with a Pollyanna-ish beam. There's something quite evangelical about Lewis, whose determination to spread the love saw her launch EmpowerMonth unilaterally on her Facebook page, offering inspirational quotes, flagging up TED talks and generally putting positivity out there.
She hopes EmpowerMonth "could become a thing, an annual thing", but until then she wants to get her music heard - especially on tour. And with typical good grace and, yes, savvy (she's no fool), she has no intention of self-indulgently monopolising her gigs with new material. "There will be songs from I Am, but I know what my fans want and why they've come to see me. I wouldn't dream of not giving them my hits - they love it, I love it. There's something so electrifying about being on stage and the audience joining in. It's, it's…"
Might it be "empowering"?
"Yes, empowering!" she says. She knows I'm being a little bit facetious, but she smiles away.
'I Am' will be released on 11 September 11
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