In Conversation With… James Leon

James Leon

By Adam Humphries

Meet James Leon, a London-based singer, actor, producer and writer. He has been working in music for many years now and only dipped his foot into acting within the past couple of years and he is showing no signs of slowing down (despite the current Covid 19 situation).

He has worked with numerous producers and DJ’s over the years including Julian Simmons and Kristian Moller Mundar. Leon has even released his own music under the moniker of Project XS. His musical influences stem from the 80’s and early 90’s era with inspiration from music greats such as Erasure, George Michael and The Pet Shop Boys. Modern influences come from artists like The 1975 and Years and Years. James Leon can also be seen appearing on the internet in the upcoming drama series called Queerz Without Fearz with more things planned for 2021. However, in the meantime check out his current music releases including his EP, Zen.

“Of course, I love collaborating with different people, it gives you the opportunity to bring a different element to your music, so I’m always up for collaborations”

So James, actor, musician, journalist, songwriter and songwriter, how did it all begin for you?
Well first of all, I guess music has always been my first and biggest passion – from a really small age. I was quite a shy child though, so I never did any kind of public performing until much later on. But I grew up with my parents always playing music, stuff like Elton John, ABBA, The Carpenters etc, and then growing up in the ‘80’s I loved all the music that was around then. I was always writing little lyrics and making up songs, designing album covers and stuff from a really young age.

Much later on, having studied Sociology – not really knowing what I wanted to do – and having a couple of McJobs, I had a growing sense that I really need to do something creative. I trained to become a journalist, but it was while I was doing that, realising that wasn’t quite enough for me, I met a friend who was in bands and stuff who encouraged me to start putting songs together from my lyrics. With him I started recording rough demos of songs on basic home equipment, I then eventually found a producer to record some of these songs to a more professional standard.

From then, it has been a long slow journey. When I moved to London, I started gigging at events and small clubs etc – and recording more songs as and when I could and had the money to finance it. Meanwhile, things changed a bit with the advent of social media and blogs – enabling me to get my music out there to people without the backing of management or a record company. Music blogs started picking up my music helping me to get more exposure and interest. And of course, it became possible with the advent of digital music – to release your own stuff. Which I was able to do, releasing singles and eventually an album etc.

Acting has come more recently, it was always something at the back of mind which I fancied trying – then a few years ago, feeling I needed another creative outlet, having been doing music for a long time, I started doing some short courses. Then a couple of years ago, having left my full-time day job, I felt it was time to actually have a go at doing it for real – starting off doing student films and stuff and have just really got the bug from there.

Over the years you have worked with various producers such as Julian Simmons, how did that come about?
Well in terms of working with various producers, in my early days it would come about through ads in (now forgotten) publications like Loot, and also The Stage (still going), with producers advertising their availability for music projects.

With Julian, it was an interesting one – we have worked together on and off for many years, going back to 2004. I think I first found him via Loot more than a year before that – when I was going round London meeting many different producers to work wit; trying to find one who I a) clicked with b) liked their work c) could afford. But at the time life circumstances kind of ending up diverting me for a little while and my recording plans were on hold.

Then, the next summer I was at a party, and Julian co-incidentally was there as he was a friend of the host who was a friend of a very good friend of mine. A small group of us ended up sat around talking at the end of the night, and I realised that we had met before. Me being me, I took it as a sign that maybe he was the producer I was meant to work with. Hence, began a working collaboration has lasted many years.

Would possible future collaborations with him ever be on the cards then?
Of course. Although I did actually work with a different producer on my last single, ‘I Thought You Were My Friend’ , due to Julian not being available – as he now spends quite a lot of time working in Switzerland with acts there as his wife is Swiss; working together again in the future is always possible. We have worked together for so long, so its easy and I think we produce good stuff together, so hopefully that may happen again at some point.

Also, you collaborated with Danish producer, Kristian Moller-Mundar back in 2018 on the track, ‘I Thought You Were my Friend’. What was the reaction to that upon general release?
I am quite proud of the track, I think it may be one of the best I’ve done. It has quite a current sound, but it’s also honest and emotive and feels very representative of where I am at now. The track was originally the result of a collaboration between myself and a Manchester-based producer known as Pollarik – who wrote the original music track, which I wrote then wrote lyrics and topline over. I then found a new studio who hooked me up with Kristian and worked with him to put together and record the final version. The response was really good from the people who have followed my music – some have also said they think it’s the best thing I’ve done. It picked up some radio play and was added to several playlists. I mean, obviously it wasn’t a massive top ten hit, but I am an independent artist and I don’t have the marketing backing etc needed for that level of success.

I’ve also performed it live a couple of times where it has been particularly well received with members of the audience telling me afterwards what a good track, they thought it was.

When it comes to the collaborations with other producers/DJ’s and additional/backing vocals are needed who decides who will be doing it?
Well, usually I do all the vocals, although there are a couple of my early tracks that I think Julian did a few backing vocals on. I’m a topline writer basically – lyrics and melody, I don’t play instruments unfortunately but I do have a lot of input into what sounds are used on my tracks and arrangements etc.

In the past, I’ve usually come up with a lyric and vague melody first, and then gone into the studio with a producer and worked with them to put a song together, however on the last two tracks – I’ve done; which have resulted from collaborations with Pollarik – he has come up with the music first and I wrote a topline/lyrics over that.

You have also released your own music under the moniker, Project XS, a year earlier in 2018. Can we expect any more music like that at any point?
Yes that was for the track ‘FOMO’ which was my first original collaboration with Pollarik (he’d remixed several of my tracks previously); as it was very much a dance track and a slightly different sound – I thought it might be a good idea to release it under a different moniker to try and shake things up a bit.

That felt like the right thing to do at the time, but then for the next track it felt more natural to go back to my own name – but I wouldn’t rule out releasing something again under the Project XS banner, who knows maybe even using a different ‘featured’ vocalist. That could be cool.

As a songwriter and musician, your music is influenced by 80’s and 90’s artists such as Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys and George Michael as well as nowadays artists such as The 1975 and Years and Years. What is it about their music that inspires you so much?
I basically like songs that have good melodies and decent lyrics, and in various ways all those artists have that – as do acts like ABBA and Madonna who have also inspired or influenced me. I’m a huge fan of The Pet Shop Boys – there music has always been so clever, the lyrics are super intelligent but they have consistently made great pop tunes. Neil Tennant has a real emotive quality to his voice also and I think he is a real poet lyric-wise.

George Michael, I think, was possibly the best male vocalist the UK has ever had. I can only dream of being as good a singer as him, such passion, and such a soulful in his voice. From Wham to his solo stuff, he wrote so many good songs, I also love people like Debbie Harry and Blondie – these were huge mainstream pop stars but they weren’t manufactured, they came from the punk scene originally and had their own attitude, unique style and did things on their own terms.

That’s not to say I dislike manufactured bands per se, I am a huge Spice Girls fan (although I could argue they weren’t totally manufactured) and Girls Aloud – who had brilliant songs courtesy of the Xenomania production team, even if they didn’t write them themselves. Great songs, image and great performances – what’s not to love about that?

In terms of say, The 1975 and Years and Years, these are two bands I would say the despite being very current, are ‘proper’ old-fashioned pop bands, in terms of having a coherent, accessible sound with great pop tunes. The 1975 are particularly clever, and their singer Matt Healy is a proper pop/rock star – someone who has something interesting to say, so I admire that.

In terms of acts from the ‘80’s and 90’s (and the 70’s!) I do think there really was so much great music during those decades. This isn’t to say there isn’t music around today that I don’t enjoy, I’m constantly Shazaming tracks when I’m out and about or from TV shows, there is loads of good music out there now but I just don’t think we have those big artists with their unique individual identities and sound as much now sadly.

And as someone who’s known to musicians, DJ’s and producers would you ever consider any collaborations with them?
Of course, I love collaborating with different people, it gives you the opportunity to bring a different element to your music, so I’m always up for collaborations – be it remixes or co-writes. So, if anyone is interested PLEASE do get in touch!

So far you have released your first EP, Never Been Cool along with several singles such as ‘I Thought You Were my Friend’, ‘I Love the Music’, ‘Zen’ and ‘Plastic’, will there be any further music releases later down the line?
There will definitely be further releases – I have a remix package of ‘I Thought You Were My Friend’ almost ready for imminent release. Pollarik who I originally wrote the track with has done a fantastic ‘80’s style remix which sounds very Pet Shop Boys/Stock Aitken and Waterman; it’s a total reworking of the song which I think gives it a whole different lease of life.

I am desperate to record new material and have tons of ideas written for that, so when things eventually get back to normal, hopefully I will be able to go back into the studio to record something new

In regards to your acting now you’ve been involved with numerous theatre productions and short films and you’re involved in a web-series called Queerz Without Fearz, how did that come about?
Well I’ve be in a couple of small theatre productions, that were ‘immersive’ – and those were lots of fun. I’ve actually done more short films though and a little bit of TV so far.

Queerz Without Fearz was all pretty random, it was just via an advert on Mandy (which is a platform that features acting jobs) – and they were looking for someone to play ‘Mystery Man’, a rich man who tries to help the queer community in a dystopian future. I didn’t really know much about it beforehand, there was no audition, they just came back to me and said they thought I would be a good fit for the part and to just turn up on the day.

Tell us more!
Rain Dove, who produced and directed the series is actually very well-known – as a
model/activist/influencer, but I didn’t know any of this beforehand. It was lots of fun shooting on the day as it was all basically improvised without a script, we started out in a restaurant that had been hired, then an apartment, before some ‘guerrilla filming’ in pub toilets in Camden! So glamorous!

It’s a very quirky, colourful, out-there web series, which is also very now – in that it features people of many different genders and sexualities etc. The cast are a mix of You Tubers, influencers, and actors; and it’s set in a future where the world has become truly global; there are no separate countries or borders. All gay/queer people have been sent underground, and are living together in bunkers as it has become illegal (again) to not be heterosexual.

My character only appears in one episode, but I am a successful businessman who is – ‘discretely’- gay, he has played the game to fit into society and make money, but now want to give back and try to help this marginalised community.

Do you have any other acting projects lined up for next year?
Well as you can imagine the whole acting world has more or less shutdown right – with the odd thing filming remotely, so it’s difficult to look very far ahead. That said I have just applied for something that is shooting next summer, it would be an amazing opportunity but its not even at the audition stage yet so… Fingers crossed things resume fairly soon though, as I would really like to get back to acting again.

As a performer which do you find easier to remember; lyrics to a song or a script from an acting piece?
I have to say remembering lyrics is actually much easier for me than scripts – song lyrics are just one of those skills any pop fan picks up from an early age lol. Learning scripts is without doubt quite hard work, I have to go over line’s lots and lots of times before they go in… Lyrics to my own songs, well I have occasionally forgotten the odd line admittedly, but touch wood generally not an issue. I guess though, I write these myself so that may be why they are easier to remember…

Since March this year and we’ve all been staying at home due to the Covid-19 situation, has this given you more time to work on new musical projects?
It actually has – as tough as lockdown is in many ways when you are able to concentrate, it gives you a chance to focus on things you aren’t always had time for. I’ve been sorting out the remixes for ‘I Thought You Were My Friend’, something I’ve been trying to finish for months. I’ve also been doing some writing, I helped to write a ‘topical’ song for a radio show – about the current situation, which was sung, not by myself, but by a West End singer called Karen Holmes. That went out a couple of weeks ago. You can hear it on YouTube, and it’s called ‘The View Within’

I’ve also been working on a song – remotely of course – with a musician from Canada, again not for me – but to be potentially pitched to other artists. We’ll see what happens with this – but songwriting for other acts is definitely an area I’m keen to break into more.

Where can people hear your music?
I’m on all the platforms – here are some links:

Apple Music:

And where will we be able to see Queerz Without Fearz?
It will be on YouTube – the first two episodes are already on there, I think there are about 9 altogether, and I believe I am in episode 3. The lockdown has caused a bit of a delay but I think the rest of the series should hopefully appear online shortly…

Lastly, what else can we expect from you both later this year and next year in 2021?

Hopefully some new music later this year if possible, and more acting stuff – obviously everything is very uncertain right now, but am sure we will get back to some kind of ‘normal’ at some point – and then I can start making proper plans and working on new projects…