Crossover Talent

Singer Leona Lewis hopes to translate her U.K. popularity into an American success story

April 08, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Leona Lewis sounds as if she's been a star for years - composed and self-assured. It's little wonder: The British pop singer has been preparing for her moment in the spotlight since she was a kid growing up in East London. But the 23-year-old artist certainly didn't anticipate her runaway success.

In her native country, Lewis is a huge sensation. In late 2006, she became the winner of The X Factor, an international music talent show popular in the United Kingdom. Her album Spirit, released in the U.K. in November, became Britain's fastest-selling debut ever, entering the charts at No. 1 and selling close to 3 million copies. The CD's first single, "Bleeding Love," also rocketed to the top of the singles charts there.

And in seemingly no time, the power ballad made a splash in America. Last month, soon after Lewis made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, "Bleeding Love" topped Billboard's pop charts.

And the buzz keeps building. With production and artistic guidance by two powerful pop impresarios, Simon Cowell and Clive Davis, Spirit hits U.S. stores today.

"I'm really excited for everyone to hear the album," Lewis says. "`Bleeding Love' is the big single now, but there's much more on the album there. It's so wonderful that there's this interest."

For the past month or so, the American music press has promoted the curly haired beauty as the next pop diva. Lewis' crystalline, acrobatic vocal style has drawn comparisons to early Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her voice - couched in airy, surging ballads - recalls the early '90s hits of those two superstars. It's a sound that has been largely missing from the pop charts, where for the past few years, hit singles have been more beat-dominated.

"The American public has always craved great melodic pop artists," says Chuck Taylor, senior correspondent for Billboard magazine. "But corporate-led radio narrowed its focus to the point that it played to the lowest common denominator. ... Leona is young, striking and her album is chock-full of sing-along pop songs. America is starving for the likes of such a heroine."

Effortlessly jumping octaves, swooping and spiraling through a song, Lewis' voice is almost an anomaly in an age where heavily filtered, computer-enhanced vocals are the norm.

"I was immediately knocked out by her range, her versatility and the pure beauty of her voice. She is an artist who will be a true star for many years to come," says Davis, president of J Records. His label released Spirit in conjunction with Cowell's SyCo Music, the company that automatically signs winners from The X Factor. But Lewis is modest about the hype.

"Whitney and Mariah - those are big, big comparisons," says Lewis, who was in New York City last week prepping for a promotional blitz. "I think I have a lot of hard work to do."

Lewis was born in the London district of Islington. Her Guyanese father and Welsh mother, now both social workers, juggled several jobs to support their daughter's performing-arts education. At age 5, Lewis attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School. She later went to the Italia Conti Academy and the BRIT School, both performing-arts institutions. The latter's alumni include Kate Nash, Imogen Heap and Amy Winehouse.

Early on, Lewis studied ballet, then voice. She was most inspired by the music her father played around the house when he wasn't working part-time as a DJ. She heard lots of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Minnie Riperton.

"I think Stevie's melodies are amazing," Lewis says, "and I loved how Minnie's lyrics conveyed such imagery and how she went from one note to the other - her beautiful expressions. I want that for my music."

On Spirit, the singer worked with several hit-manufacturing producers, including Stargate, Akon and Dallas Austin. The result is a slick blend of synth-suffused '90s pop with faint flourishes of contemporary R&B. Lewis' voice is the undeniable centerpiece.

About the album title, she says, "I put everything in the songs, so it represents who I am. I thought Spirit was a very powerful title and summed up all I put into the album."

She says working with Cowell, who's notorious for his acidic criticisms of singers, was intimidating but ultimately rewarding.

"It was quite the experience," she says with a light chuckle. "He and Clive are very powerful. I learned from them that you should be passionate about what you do. With every song, there must be passion. They both stand by their artists, which is great when you're just starting out."

Despite the heady success, Lewis says her focus is strictly on the music. For now.

"Who knows what other opportunities may be out there," she says. "I love to sing. I just want to connect with people, and hope they find my music relatable. I love to sing those big, classic love songs. I think there needs to be more of them."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Leona Louise Lewis

Born:

April 3, 1985, in Islington, London, England

Education:

Studied ballet and voice at several performing arts institutions, including the BRIT School, whose alumni include another recent British singing sensation, multi-Grammy winner Amy Winehouse

Career:

Named the winner of The X Factor in 2006 and signed a deal with SyCo/Sony in the U.K. and J Records in the United States

Discography:

Spirit, released in the U.K. on Nov. 9, and in the U.S. today.

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