Layton Greene has a lot to unpack from her turbulent upbringing. After inking a major label deal with Quality Control earlier this year, which she proudly reps around her neck with a thick diamond-encrusted “QC” chain during her visit to Billboard, the First Lady of R&B at QC released her emotionally-heavy debut EP Tell Ya Story to close out September.
At just 20 years old, the East St. Louis, Ill. native has experienced heartbreak and homelessness, and been a victim of sexual abuse while growing up in what she describes as a “lonely” and “sheltered” childhood on the move from Tennessee to Illinois.
Coming from a family with no musical background, Greene still remained destined to beat the odds, even after being turned down by The X Factor in 2011 following her first audition. “God gave me this voice for a reason, and he already had my path set,” she proclaims in her Midwest twang. “I just didn’t know when or how it was going to happen with all I was going through.”
Opening up in conversation is like a trip to the dentist for Layton, as she continues to adjust to her newfound fame. With that said, Greene has made a habit of turning to music for a therapeutic release of the trauma she’s held inside for years, which spilled out onto seven brutally honest tracks onTell Ya Story.
“I feel like music is a place where I can escape,” she admits while hiding behind dark-tinted designer sunglasses. “Me putting that into my music is not only helping me, but it helps others. I felt that it was important to tell my story, because that’s what molded me as a person. I want to inspire people who might be going through the same things and tell them they’re going through it for a reason.”
This is just the beginning for the budding R&B star. Check out the rest of our interview with the “Leave Em Alone” singer, as she touches on her sobering debut project, why this was the right time to open up, receiving co-signs from Kylie Jenner and Kehlani, and more.
Billboard: Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up?
Layton Greene: My dad put me onto Mary J. Blige. I was listening to what he was listening to. We didn’t have much, but it was fun for me. All I had was a radio. He loved Prince and I loved Keyshia Cole growing up. Anytime people would tell me to sing, I’d sing “Love” by Keyshia Cole.
What made you start singing?
I always loved it as a little girl. I was just passionate about it. Nobody in my family is musically inclined, so I was the chosen one. My parents didn’t find out until I was 7. They supported, but couldn’t help me pursue it. They did take me to audition for X Factor when I was 12, but I didn’t make it past the first one.
What was your childhood like?
When we first moved to Illinois, we were living with my dad’s family. He raised me because my biological father wasn’t in the picture. It was a full house with like 13 of us. All the girls stayed in one room. We lived there for six years, but then my mom, dad, older brother, and I moved to the projects until I moved to Knoxville. I would say my childhood was lonely. My older brother didn’t wanna play with me, my dad was working as the only one bringing in money, and my mom suffers from bi-polar depression because of her past. She slept most of my childhood away. I couldn’t go outside.
What was the grind getting to this point like? I know you were working late-nights at Wingstop and at Walmart.
I was homeless at the time I was working at Wingstop. It was me, my mom, and brother living out of a motel. I was working 24/7 as a senior in high school. My grades were slipping, and when I went, I wasn’t paying attention. I quit school and then ran away with a guy before I turned 18.
Is he the older guy you’re referring to in some of these records?
Yeah, that’s where some of it comes from. He had kids and all. It didn’t work out. That lasted just a couple months. I had been in touch with some of my biological family on Facebook, so I moved back to Tennessee. They took me in, and I started working at Walmart and getting my GED. But I could never fully focus on music at that time. That’s when I posted the viral “Roll in Peace” video. I started doing more covers and it gave me a huge platform, but I didn’t want people to think that’s all I could do. So I came out with “Myself,” and it went crazy with no push at all.
Is that how Quality Control discovered you?
Yeah, that’s when labels came calling. QC was the last label I sat down with, and once we met, I knew off the rip that they were going to be the one.
What was the recording process like when putting the project together?
Once I went viral, we had put together a production company with G Stylez. He’s someone I’ve been working with since day one. So this was a year and a half ago, but the last track I cut was a month or two ago. I want to touch as many lives as I can touch. This is only the beginning. I’m in album mode right now. I want to come with an album at the top of 2020.
On the EP’s opener, you speak on hiding being sexually abused by cousins as a child. What made this the right time to tell your truth?
I felt like these were major events that molded me and made me as strong as I am. I felt it was important for me to let it out. It made me feel better because it was weighing down on me. I really never talked to nobody about it before this. I didn’t have those conversations about what was going on [with family].
So your family members and fans are finding this out for the first time?
They usually hit me up and say they love the new songs, but it’s crickets right now. I think they don’t know what to say.
What was being in the studio working with Ne-Yo like? He co-wrote “Blame on Me.”
Oh my God, he is just dope. He’s a legend. Being able to be in the studio with him was surreal. It comes to [him so easy]. Just seeing what experience and putting in the time and work can get you. He’s got superpowers. We were in there for three days. He’s a dope soul and so genuine. He made me feel 100 percent comfortable.
Let’s get into “Never Knew.”
It’s a love story. I felt like I needed to have that because, although I’ve been through heartbreak, this song is basically talking about the time when I was homeless and then that guy came in to save me and we ran away. I thought this was Superman and we were going to be together forever. I thought he saved me from all my problems. I’m not homeless anymore and I became manager at Wingstop. It’s like, I never knew this was possible.
What advice would you have for your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to not blame everything on me. When I was younger, I blamed all that shit on me. I put that on me such much that I let it weigh me down. And to really not listen to what anybody’s got to say. I was in school letting them bully me. I remember crying, and I’m so much stronger than that now. I look back like, “What the hell.” My parents shot my dreams down so much without even trying. They used to tell me, “We’re not going to see any life like that. We have to work.”
How did you experience racism from within your own family as a bi-racial kid?
I felt like it was more traumatizing for my mom because she got us out of there. My mom is white and my dad is black, and [her family] automatically distanced themselves from her once she had bi-racial kids. There was stuff going on in her family that she would try to open up and her family would say she’s lying. They weren’t for her laying down with someone who wasn’t the same color as her. I don’t really talk to that side of the family.
“Knives” is a good metaphor.
It’s basically, when you’re in a relationship, and the guy keeps lying, and the lies just feel like knives cutting me. I don’t understand why people get in relationships. You could be single and do what you want to do. They’re going to hurt you and still do what they want to do, but if you go out and do what you want, they’re going to really cut you.
What was it like to see Kehlani and Kylie Jenner co-sign “Leave Em Alone?”
It’s crazy just getting recognition from people I’ve been watching for years. I look up to Kylie, she’s such a boss. We’re the same age, so I’m trying to be on that level. She knows what she’s doing and she’s smart as hell. People hate her for no reason. I’ve been listening to Kehlani since her first project. I’ve always looked up to her as well. I feel like we’ve been alike in a lot of ways.
How does it feel to be the First Lady of R&B at QC?
It’s a blessing to know something that big could happen. I just feel like I made history and I’m contributing to history. QC is like a family.
What’s the biggest changes in your life since becoming famous?
Everything has [changed]. I’m able to see all these places. Being able to provide for my family, too. It feels good to be able to do that, just coming from where I come from.
I heard you hate flying.
I hate flying. I hate the turbulence because I can’t even go to sleep. I’m tweaking on there and holding onto whoever I’m next to. If the flight attendant sits down, then we got a problem. I’m flying too much.
Where would you want to settle down and call home?
I’m in Atlanta now, but I eventually want a place in Los Angeles. I want to go to Canada as well. I’m going to be there when I’m old and ready to retire.
Have you had any struggles with fame? What’s the most difficult part for you?
I’m really shy and a reserved person. I felt like I was alone in my childhood and it had me really sheltered. I struggle with opening up with things like this. I feel like people change when they feel like you’ve made it. It’s bad, and I know it’s only going to get worse. People feel like once you made it, that you owe them something.