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Video: The Evolution of Leona Lewis
On 'Spirit,' Leona Lewis Was The U.K.'s Girl Next Door Who Conquered The Globe. Now, On 'Echo,' She's Taken Charge Of Her Image And Her Songwriting—And Is Ready For A World Tour
Violence and theft. Not words one would normally associate with Leona Lewis, the squeaky clean winner of "The X Factor," who went on to stunning worldwide success with her debut album, "Spirit.
Nor, one imagines, exactly how Clive Davis, Simon Cowell and Sony Music Entertainment envisaged the comeback push for Billboard's top new artist of 2008.
While the campaign for Lewis' debut was hitch-free, the setup for its follow-up, "Echo"-released Nov. 16 in the United Kingdom on Cowell's Syco Music and a day later in the United States on J-has been anything but smooth.
First, in mid-August, three songs from the album sessions leaked onto the Internet, reportedly after Syco's IT system was hacked.
Then, more dramatically, Lewis was assaulted Oct. 14 during a London book signing for her autobiography, "Dreams." The man accused of punching her in the head was committed under the United Kingdom's Mental Health Act.
"It was a shock," Lewis says of the attack, which left her bruised. "I was very sore. The main thing is that I'm still alive."By the time Billboard catches up with her, two weeks after the incident, she's even able to smile about it, particularly the tabloid reports that Lou Al-Chamaa-the childhood sweetheart with whom Lewis still lives in her working-class home neighborhood of Hackney in northeast London-rushed in to tackle her assailant.
"He wasn't even there," she says. "That makes me laugh. I'm sure if he was there, he would have. My dad and my brothers weren't there [either]. They're usually at different things that I do. But I'm so glad that they weren't. Because, oh, my God . . ."
In the immediate aftermath of the assault, Lewis canceled promotional trips to Germany and France, and pulled out of a high-profile U.K. TV appearance on BBC 1's "The One Show." She says she has no lasting concerns about making public appearances.
The Internet leak was dealt with in similarly succinct fashion, as the IFPI's anti-piracy unit teamed with law enforcement agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. A criminal investigation is ongoing, according to Syco head of media Ann-Marie Thomson. Dave Shack, London-based VP of international for Sony Music U.K., says, "I don't think it did us any real damage."
Shack's comment must be a relief to all concerned with promoting one of the year's most hotly anticipated albums. After all, "Spirit" sold 6.5 million copies worldwide (according to Sony), including 1.6 million in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and 2.8 million in the United Kingdom (according to the Official Charts Co. [OCC]). It also earned Lewis three nominations at the Grammy Awards and four at the BRITs.
The international breakout single, "Bleeding Love"-co-written by Jesse McCartney and OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder-hit No. 1 in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Billboard's European Hot 100 Singles chart.
Such success had been a long time coming for Lewis, who attended the United Kingdom's BRIT School for the Performing Arts and spent much of her teenage years writing and recording in search of that elusive break.
When it came, it catapulted her to unprecedented heights for a U.K. talent show winner, but Sony Music chief creative officer Clive Davis has no doubt she deserves every bit of her success.
"Leona has one of those very, very special voices that's expressive and has an incredible range," says Davis on why-of all the new artists who regularly cross his desk-he chose to back her so wholeheartedly. "But she also can feel the lyric very sensitively. You look for that in a singer. She's also passionate about music-it really runs in her soul. That combination made me feel that she was a special new talent."
All of which leaves a lot for Lewis' second album to live up to. Scott Seviour, New York-based senior VP of marketing and artist development for RCA Music Group, says the "Echo" campaign will have three long-reaching phases.
The "ignition point" was Lewis' September appearances on "VH1 Divas" and the finale of "America's Got Talent" the same week that lead single "Happy"-a slow-burning, epic ballad co-written with Tedder and Evan Bogart-went to top 40 and hot AC formats.
So far, however, "Happy" has only peaked at No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling 156,000 U.S. downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Bleeding Love," in contrast, has moved 3.8 million, the 12th-biggest-selling U.S. download of all time. "Happy" was released digitally Nov. 8 in the United Kingdom; the song has been performing strongly at U.K. radio, so far peaking at No. 4 on the OCC's radio airplay chart and debuting at No. 2 on the U.K. Singles chart Nov. 15.
"We all know 'Happy' is a fantastic song and a great calling card to come back [with]," Shack says. "But the caveat is, it's a song that takes work. We were always going to struggle to have 'Bleeding Love' part two."
Nonetheless, all parties say "Echo" has much greater depth than Lewis' debut. Phase two of the campaign encompasses the release of a second single, currently tipped to be either "Love Letter" or "I Got You," in February. Phase three will kick-start with Lewis' first tour in May.
"When an artist breaks in as many countries as Leona did, they have to go all over the world," Davis says. " She really had to go and help introduce her [new] album in all those countries that were interested in her."
As she meets Billboard in a central London broadcast studio on a sunny October morning, Lewis is doing a good job of keeping her own excitement in check. Little wonder, as she has to pace herself: During the next seven hours she's conducting 25 back-to-back interviews with U.K. regional radio stations.
She points out that the release dates for "Spirit" were staggered internationally, but "Echo" is being released simultaneously worldwide, hence today's compressed schedule.
Fortunately, the success of "Spirit" means she now has her pick of promotional platforms. After a Nov. 4 slot at Spain's Premios Ondas awards gala, she performed at MTV's European Music Awards ceremony in Berlin the following day-a significant step up from her role presenting an award at last year's ceremony in Liverpool and, Shack says, a crucial European campaign launch point.
"Her peers visually are Jay-Z and Beyoncé and all the people on the show this year," he says. "Those are fantastic luminaries for her to be sharing stages with and proving that she's a big European star as well."
Then there was her Nov. 8 return to U.K. ratings champ "The X Factor," timed for maximum impact on single and album sales, before heading for the States and a run of high-profile TV engagements on "Today" (Nov. 16), "Dancing With the Stars" (Nov. 17), "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" (Nov. 19), "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" (Nov. 19) and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" (taped Nov. 20, with the airdate still to be determined).
In person, as on TV, the 24-year-old is glamorous but demure. As befitting her committed vegetarianism and stated intention never to undertake raunchy photo shoots, her knee-high boots are a man-made version of suede and accessorized with cozy tights.
And while, as Shack puts it, "18 months ago, she was that starlet that had won 'The X Factor' and this was her first foray into promotion, so she was a bit caught in the headlights," she now radiates sleek, professional polish as she professes to not even know the meaning of "the sophomore slump."
"I wanted something that showed my growth, that showed where I was as a person and as an artist now," she says of "Echo," mostly recorded in Hollywood's Henson Recording Studios. "And I think I did that quite well."
THE WRITE STUFF
In practice, this meant telling the titanic figures of Cowell and Davis-both credited as producers on "Echo"-that she wanted a greater hand in songwriting.
She has co-writes on 10 of the U.S. version's 14 tracks (including hidden track "Stone Hearts & Hand Grenades") as compared with two on "Spirit," although the U.K. version replaces the Tedder/Lewis composition "You Don't Care" with a show-stopping cover version of Oasis' "Stop Crying Your Heart Out."
And, while Shack says that "Oasis have more resonance in Europe-a lot of middle America won't know that track at all," Lewis savvily points out that different international editions mean there is scope for repackaging the release with additional tracks further down the marketing line. The special edition of "Spirit" was responsible for 800,000 of its total U.K. sale, according to the OCC.
For "Echo," Lewis wrote a wish list of "everyone I wanted to work with." A fan of his 2008 hit "Let It Rock," she sought out Kevin Rudolf to co-write the uptempo "Love Letter." John Shanks, who has written for Bon Jovi and Kelly Clarkson, was recruited for "Broken," co-written with A. "Novel" Stevenson.
"I wanted a song that was just massive," Lewis says. "That one for me is the most vocally crazy."
Overall, "Echo" throws less of what Lewis describes as the "conventional" R&B-diva shapes. "Outta My Head," co-written by Swedish pop powerhouse Max Martin, is a Euro-club banger that, with a couple of strategic remixes, could do healthy business on next's summer dance charts. "Don't Let Me Down," co-written with Justin Timberlake and featuring him on backing vocals, is strings-drenched, midtempo, taut funk.
And then there's Tedder. He and the rest of OneRepublic guest on "Lost Then Found," while he and Lewis also wrote "You Don't Care," working on it in Tedder's Denver studio and London's Abbey Road-the latter location enabling Beatles enthusiast Tedder to channel the spirit of "Strawberry Fields Forever" in the opening bars.
"We've got a good chemistry together,"Lewis says. "He really gets me as a person."
"Leona's still learning as a writer but she has some definite God-given talent," Tedder says. "To some degree she's my muse. All that matters to us is putting really meaningful lyrics with really meaningful melodies. When she sings a song, you know you're going to be hearing it 10, 15 years from now at weddings."
Tedder first encountered Lewis at a songwriters conference organized by Davis at the Beverly Hills Hilton in early 2007. Lewis performed in front of a range of A-list hitmakers that also included, Tedder recalls, Stargate, Ne-Yo, Diane Warren and Desmond Child. By coincidence, it was the same week Tedder wrote "Bleeding Love."
"Clive is very old-fashioned and still the best," Tedder says. "That was probably the single smartest thing he did in the whole Leona album process. I think just about every hit she had from 'Spirit' came from the people in that room."
With "Echo," Lewis was determined to be front and center of that creative process. Was Cowell, the man who effectively discovered her, supportive of that?
"Simon doesn't really care whether I've written it or it's by Max Martin or Ryan Tedder," she says. "He just wants the best song. So when I sent him 'Happy,' I was like, 'I hope he doesn't actually see that I've written it.' But then he was like, 'Oh, this is amazing.' Then he found out I co-wrote it, and he was just like, 'Well done, I really rate you for that.' "
It's this evolution of Lewis, Shack says, that is key to the "Echo" campaign. "It's about movement, growth, her coming of age," he says.
TOUR DE FORCE
As well as her development as a songwriter, Lewis is ramping up by wearing custom-tailored outfits designed by British fashion icon Vivienne Westwood, who will also be involved in Lewis' move to the concert stage.
Lewis' world tour-projected to run for nine months-will kick off with nine U.K. arena dates in May and June, booked by Creative Artists Agency. She starts May 28 at Sheffield Arena and will also include two shows at London's O2 Arena. Harry Magee, Lewis' co-manager at London-based Modest Management, expects that run to be extended, or that Lewis will return for further U.K. gigs as part of a European tour in the fall. "In America, we'll be touring in the summer," he says, "either as part of a package or as special guests." Dates in Australia and Japan will follow in late 2010 and early 2011.
Magee says production details are still in the early stages-contrary to some Internet rumors, Michael Jackson's choreographer Travis Payne hasn't been hired-but fans should expect something spectacular.
After all, despite the lack of headline concerts, Lewis is hardly a stranger to the stage, performing everywhere from the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics (with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page) to Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday party in London's Hyde Park to the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards (with Lil Wayne and T-Pain). She sings "I See You (Theme From Avatar)" over the end credits of James Cameron's anticipated sci-fi film "Avatar."
And, a week after Billboard meets with her, Lewis performs her first full live show. It's a homecoming gig, at the 1,500-capacity Hackney Empire, a grand Victorian theater that was also the venue for Lewis' first talent competition.
"I sang 'My Heart Will Go On' by Celine Dion, which is a big song for a 13-year-old," she says with a laugh. "And I won, which was cool. I've been back there since and sang, although it was covers. It's so important for me to go back there and be able to do my own material."
The nine-song, 50-minute set features Lewis backed by six Shaolin-style dancers, two backing vocalists, a six-piece band and inventive lighting and visuals (at one point she sings from between the giant projected image of her own legs), all overseen by creative director William Baker, who for many years performed the same role for Kylie Minogue.
Despite the occasional hint of tentativeness, it's an impressive performance. Lewis's rich, soaring voice effortlessly fills the venue. Her elegant, expansive cover of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," featured on "Spirit," demonstrates her skills as an interpreter of standards, while "Happy" and "I Got You" (another Martin co-write from "Echo") already sound like stone-cold classics.
That "evolution" campaign seems firmly on track, although no one will offer predictions just yet for how "Echo" might sell in comparison with "Spirit."
"I never make predictions-I find that too intimidating," Davis says with a chuckle. "All I know is, we've worked hard to avoid any pitfalls with the sophomore album. We've got a great number of very strong songs that showcase the growth and maturing and development of Leona as an artist and as a creative person. The rest is up to fate."