Former ‘Gossip Girl’ Star Leighton Meester on Her Debut Album: ‘I Learned How to Do It My Way’

Michael  Dallatorre
Leighton Meester

After a run as a TV teen queen and a brush with pop fame, Leighton Meester is giving fans something new to gossip about: her debut album. Fresh off her role in Of Mice and Men on Broadway, which wrapped in July, the 28-year-old is releasing Heartstrings on Oct. 28, on her own Hotly Wanting label. Previously signed to Republic, Meester is no stranger to music -- her guest spot on Cobra Starship’s 2009 hit, “Good Girls Go Bad,” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. But her new dream-rock sound is a stark departure from her past dalliances in pop. 

Exclusive: Listen to Leighton Meester's New Song 'Heartstrings'

You originally signed a contract with Republic. How was that experience?

It was fun at the time: I had a record deal and I thought that was cool. It just wasn’t me, and even then I knew that. I learned about the industry, songwriting and the process of producing, which was something I had no clue about. But I think I learned how to do it my way. 

Your earlier releases were pop. How is your new music different?

I can’t really set myself apart [from pop] considering the music that I made, but I never really had the desire or time to pursue that. It’s not my taste. This [new album] is for people who don’t know anything about my acting and don’t listen to pop music. I think that’s kind of exciting. [Of Mice and Men] was the most time-consuming thing I’ve ever done. Now I have time to actually concentrate [on music], which is cool. I’ve never really taken time off to do music.

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How does making music compare to acting?

I can’t say one is better; they’re just so different. With music it’s nice because I can plan everything [and] I can do it. With acting I have no control: Either I have work or I don’t.  

For people that know you from acting or from your entry into pop music, how does the new music represent who you are as an artist?

It’s for those [current fans], and I think more than anything it’s something totally new. It doesn’t have anything to do with my past work, so really it’s for everyone else too. It’s for the people who literally do not know the world of anything to do with what I’ve done and the acting and don’t listen to pop music. I think that’s kind of exciting.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of just me. I want people like me to be able to relate to it and be able to understand it in their own way. Ultimately I’m just really pleased with it. By now, really the sort of impetus for me is to release it and put it out. It was more just personal pressure, my own pressure on myself. I need to [put out this music] because otherwise I never will. I think I’d gone through so many different incarnations and so many different phases, and this music always comes back and I just love it. I’m really, really happy with where it’s at. 

Have you felt any pressure or pushback for being perceived as an actor-turned-musician?

I forget about that, and then people remind me. It’s not such a bad thing. I think if anything it’s helpful, for me at least. I’ve been acting since I was a kid. It’s different, but much of it’s the same. It goes together very well. Internally there’s pressure. I’m a human being; I feel pressure. Really I’m always reminded how people are very open and very receptive, and I think it’s depending on your taste: if you like it, the good thing is that one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. 

Who are the artists that have influenced you the most?

Joni Mitchell. I love Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. I love Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Kate BushTori Amos -- you can play a song and I’m singing along. I can remember music from when I was young. Even as a little kid, my dad listened [to certain songs] and I heard them while we were eating dinner. I think it’s my affinity for lyrics. Paul Simon, the Police, Bonnie Raitt. I associate it so much with being 5, 6, 7 years old, hearing in the background. Funny lyrics, like [Simon’s] lyrics “Me and Julio.” I’d be like, “What are they singing about?” And now I understand it and it just seems so -- if this makes any sense -- it’s complicated and meaningful and mature. Adults can listen and care about it, and a 6-year-old can grasp it, and a 6-year-old can love it.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of Billboard