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You’ve got to be extremely confident in your talent to take a song demo you recorded on a phone while battling a hangover in bed, and then add it to your debut album. But that’s exactly what 26-year old Swedish singer-songwriter LÉON (née Lotta Lindgren) decided to do.
It ends up a glorious testament to the raw artistry she’s polished on tour over the past few years. It also announces, on her first full-length album, that she’s in control of her sound, and her musical destiny.
LÉON’s rise to fame has been truly fantastical. In 2015, after enrolling in a Swedish songwriting and producing school where she connected with a producing partner, she uploaded a song they recorded to SoundCloud one day thinking that just her pals in Stockholm would hear it. The next day, LÉON felt something was happening, as she told Billboard, “I had, like, 20 new people following me on Instagram, and I was like, ‘Oh shit!’”
Within a week, her finger-snapping kiss-off to a cheating ex entitled “Tired of Talking” broke 100,000 plays on SoundCloud. Suddenly, the rapper G-Eazy reached out to her, Katy Perry tweeted that LÉON was “one to watch,” and a veteran A&R executive flew LÉON and her producer to Los Angeles for meetings.
Shortly after, she signed a record deal with Columbia, and now BMG has partnered with LÉON on her own label imprint, LÉON Recordings. It was a whirlwind discovery process, for sure, when you consider that, in the days leading up to the SoundCloud upload, her emails to record labels were going unanswered. It’s an absolutely crazy story.
But when you listen to LÉON from start to finish (headphones recommended), you’ll understand what all the fuss was about. Her smoky, flexible and approachable vocals reminiscent of Stevie Nicks and Amy Winehouse confidently deliver colorful, relatable and memorable love songs exploring the highs, lows and in-betweens of relationships.
LÉON has said in interviews that she sees all of the songs on this album as different colors in a rainbow. It makes total sense because, thankfully, the album is hard to categorize.
The “colors” include soulful styling (“Lost Time”), Motown retro (“Falling”), piano balladry (“Come Home To Me”), and hazy, vocoder-enhanced indie-pop (“Pink”) where she drops a mystery lyric about a “Stephanie” that makes you wonder if this name-drop is her version of a “Becky With The Good Hair.” Hope so.
There’s even a beautifully country-tinged ballad, “Hope Is A Heartache,” with its Johnny Cash-like "boom-chicka-boom” foundation holding up soaring, caramel-colored vocals about the pains of being “the other woman”. If you think that Swedes could never “do country,” go spin The Cardigans’ Long Gone Before Daylight album. They can.
But, the biggest surprise on LÉON is the inclusion of “Cruel to Care,” a raw demo recording that slams the brakes part of the way into the second half of this lushly-produced album.
LÉON says she woke up one morning “super hungover” and started playing guitar when the song came to her. So, she turned on her phone’s Voice Memos app and recorded it once—throat-clearing, sheet-ruffling and all.
What you hear is a woman who’s lonely, introspective, and reminiscing about a lover she regrettably left behind: “I gave you up, I let you go / I've been thinking twice / Thought you should know / I gave you all I had ’til I was broke / But new lovers, new lives start feeling old.” It’s the rawest moment on the album because it’s just Lotta (not LÉON) recording herself during an inspired and vulnerable moment of reflection. Had it been fully produced, as was originally planned, it would have certainly lost that intimacy.
Surprisingly, the album ends upwardly with a triumphant dance-pop declaration of heartbreak, “You And I.” To me, the best pop songs mix painful emotion with hopeful arrangement, and this buoyant album closer nails it by celebrating the inevitably messy emotions of longing and loneliness after you’ve split with someone.
It’s definitely the strongest and most radio-friendly of the three singles she’s released so far from the album. I played “You And I” probably 7 or 8 times in a row in my car after hearing it for the first time. It’s an addictive anthem that ends the LÉON journey far from the happy opener of “Lost Time,” but without leaving us in a ditch of sorrow.
With so much of today’s chart-topping pop songs sounding like they’re written to be GIF-able and hashtag-able on social media, only to dissolve into the ether after a few months, it’s promising to hear a singular talent like LÉON offer songs to the world that bloom the more you listen to them.
With her solidly self-assured debut, LÉON ignores the trends that other pop artists are chasing, resulting in a modern, grown, and soulful pop album that promises to age well.
Notable Tracks: "Cruel To Care" | “Falling” | "Hope Is a Heartache" | “You And I”