An Interview With Leon John

Leon John

Leon John releases new single ‘Pray For You’

With his soulful presence, impactful songwriting style and more than 100k streams across online platforms, it won’t be long before Leon John encapsulates you with his words and melodies.

Inspired by his Karanga and Xhosa roots, Leon John’s music is enchantingly complemented by his evocative and resonant vocals. His debut EP released in 2018, ‘To Be Continued’ has to date received more than 80k streams, with his previous single ‘Somebody’ debuting at #16 on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter Chart and listed at #1 on Apple Music’s ‘Afro-Soul Hits’ within a week of its release.

Now with the release of his latest single, ‘Pray For You’, he brings you a new pop power ballad with a banging percussive beat and emotive piano accompaniment which commands attention with the first second.

I caught up with Leon John to find out what he has been up to this year and his plans for the future:

Before we delve into your music, please give us a bit of background: Who are you, where do you come from and when and how did you get into making music?

Thank you so much for this chance to have a chat with you! My name is Leon John and I’m a Zimbabwean born southern African singer-songwriter of Karanga and Xhosa heritage. I like to consider myself a person from nowhere and everywhere at the same time, what with my childhood of moving from place to place never leaving in me a feeling of truly belonging to one place. However, I do believe my adolescent years growing up in Cairo to have been very impactful in informing my perspective in the way that I relate to myself and the world that surrounds me. Those years; my coming of age and those experiences really stuck with me and have certainly made themselves present in my music, much as they have in my life.

I’ve always been fascinated with performance from as far back into my childhood as I can remember but I specifically chose music as my desired path after watching Dreamgirls when I was 11. I was enchanted and entranced by the pure unadulterated, heart-on-the-sleeve musical expression and craved that for myself at a time when I felt infantile and lacking a voice. As soon as I got to university when I was 17, I set myself on a path of immersing myself in the Joburg underground music scene, learning all that I could about being an independent artist from great local bands like The Brother Moves On and Zuko Collective. I took a leap and made my own EP project in April of 2018 and here I am, a year later and still learning and keeping on.

What a journey so far! And now, 2019 is almost on its head. What have you been up to this year and what are some personal highlights so far?

I was able to release two singles this year that I’m pretty proud of. The first of the singles called ‘Somebody’ debuted at number 16 on the iTunes Chart and that was so humbling. The second and most recent single ‘Pray For You’ was a dream collaboration with a producer I love and admire called Bubele Booi who was so grateful to work me and add me to his illustrious roster which includes Beyonce of all people! As is with all of my music, ‘Pray For You’ was a deeply personal record inspired by the death of my cousin and the way people have embraced and received it so far has and continues to overwhelm me.

Amazing. So, you’ve released your debut EP in 2018, how has this been received and tell us a bit about your journey since then.

I have had opportunities to do things that I never thought I’d be able to do in such a short amount of time given that I only debuted in 2018 and that I’m a relatively small-time independent artist. I’ve collaborated with some pretty great people like Trevor Stuurman and Rich Mnisi and had the chance to perform on some pretty big stages, performing at Global Citizen Next 100, as well as making it into the finals of AfroPunk’s Battle of the Bands standing out as highlights.

I’m just so grateful for all of the opportunities that have come my way since the EP. People have been so kind and so receptive to the music. I receive multiple messages almost on a weekly basis from people telling me how much they’ve enjoyed the music and that means the most to me out of everything else. I am just really, really, really grateful.

Let’s talk more about your new single ‘Pray For You’. Tell me about this song: What is it about, who worked with you on it and can we expect a music video soon?

Songs always seem to follow me in the wake of tragedy and ‘Pray For You’ was no different. We wrote the song in the wake of losing my cousin to suicide the previous day. The writing session with Bubele Booi (the producer) had been planned for ages before then but when the day arrived, I couldn’t focus on anything else but his death. It kept running circles in my mind, especially what his twin sister had said to me on the phone when I had spoken to her the day before. It struck me as so profoundly, moving, brave and so wise that in the middle of grief, so raw and so new that she had the clarity of mind to console me and tell me that we shouldn’t judge or place blame on our loss but rather pray for him instead. By pure coincidence, it happened that Bubele was also grieving life in his own way that day and from our mutual sorrow ‘Pray For You’ was born. Songwriting has always been a form of catharsis for me, a way for me to air out my fears, anxieties and confront all the feelings I would otherwise try and run [away] from in daily life. It puts my emotions out in [the] open so there isn’t anywhere to hide from them and [I] have no choice but to confront them and ‘Pray For You’ did exactly that for me at that moment.

Leon John

It is indeed a beautiful song. So, who or what inspires your music and, specifically, your sound?

No matter what I do or what I sing, my voice and the manner in which I sing will never change in that I always want to be as honest as possible in every word and every phrase.

There is something so affirming in my roots and my heritage; to know that my Karanga and Xhosa cultures are so unshakeably set in my foundations, musically or otherwise. My absolute adoration of Oliver Mtukudzi’s arrangements and storytelling abilities, the gutsy fearlessness with which Thandiswa Mazwai performs and the brave poetic cadences of Miriam Makeba always remind and inspire me to remain truthful to those foundations in every note and phrase.

I have a deep love for Angelique Kidjo’s music, I’m obsessed with the tone and timbre of her voice. She is such a powerhouse. Patrick Watson’s writing touches places in my heart that I never even knew I had. By God who doesn’t love Adele? That voice! Her writing is beyond measure and she is my hero in the way that she engages her artistry. There is no confusing who she is and what she is about. Nina Simone, Nina Simone, Nina Simone! The band Freshlyground hold a dear place in my heart and are unarguably my favourite band of all time since I was a wee babe. And of course, anybody who says they’re not inspired by Beyonce’s triple-threat talents is lying. My list of inspirations could go on and on.

I’ve read that storytelling is very important to you. How do you incorporate this into your songs and what type of stories inspire you to make music?

I always aim in my music and in my writing to reflect on the absolute dilemma of being a human being; to comment on life in all of its contradictions and absurdities and on just how interesting, frustrating and heartbreaking it is to merely be alive sometimes. In whatever it is I do or say, however, in song or inaction, my ultimate goal has always and will always be to connect; to use my voice and words to tell stories and above all, to be secure in the knowledge that I am being heard and understood.

Where can we catch one of your live performances?

There are, unfortunately, no shows left for 2019.  I’ll be spending a lot of the festive season writing new songs and preparing for my projects in the New Year. But definitely within the first month or two of 2020, there will be some gigs and shows to look forward to and you’ll be the first to know!

Finally, what are you planning for 2020?

I never like to pre-empt or think too far ahead, preferring instead to be focussed at the moment but I definitely have a few aspirations for the coming year, primary of which is another EP project that I’ve tentatively already begun tinkering with ideas for. You can also expect a music video in the very near future which was a collaborative effort with a brilliant actor whose performance I’m very excited to share with everyone.

Images:

Karolina Sobel Photography

Lexia Roussos Photography

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