Award-winning British songstress Leona Lewis opens up about falling deeply in love with music, her newborn daughter, and living free from fear.
British singer and songwriter Leona Lewis coos in dulcet tones. Angelic yet haunting, human yet divine, both nascent and from another time – Lewis’s faceted voice holds the philosophies of the heart. “When I pull from that place, that’s when I feel most connected to myself and to other people. And that’s the place for me of a lot of love,” says the award-winning songstress. “I just want to share the love,” she adds. “I want to put something very meaningful in the world. Something timeless – something that will be with people for a long time to come,” she says. “To know that some of my songs have touched people in that way makes me emotional. I know how it feels to be touched deeply and moved so much by a song, and by an artist’s music,” she says.
Lewis first stunned international audiences with her 2006 breakthrough win on X Factor, the British reality TV music competition created by Simon Cowell, followed by the worldwide No 1 song Bleeding Love from her debut album Spirit. But it was long before then that nine-year-old Leona’s first audience – her peers in performing arts school – encouraged her to realize her talent. She recalls how the music teacher asked the class who should sing the solo and, to her surprise, all the students pointed to her. Soon she was on stage, becoming enchanted with the magic and excitement of performing. “As I got more into music, I just fell more deeply in love with it, and with music and writing also as a way to really heal things in my life,” she shares. As the saying goes, the rest is history, or more accurately, a living history she is still writing. Lewis is a three-time Grammy Award nominee, seven-time Brit Award nominee, MTV VMA winner, World Music Award winner, and recognized with the Music Pioneer Award at the United Nations Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. She has graced Broadway as Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, and her performance in I See You – the theme song of the James Cameron film Avatar – is esteemed as a vocal masterpiece. This past December, donning a lavender Rami Al Ali gown, she performed such hits at the annual Vogue Ball of Arabia. Among the accolades of her career, being recently named as having the UK’s biggest debut album by a female artist elicits her childhood glee and love of music, “I think back to the little girl sitting in her room, just singing her heart out, rehearsing and practicing, having these wild dreams of being a singer, and recording albums,” Lewis reminisces.
It was 15 years ago when Bleeding Love catapulted her to stardom, yet the hope of those early years in Hackney, London, is ever present in Lewis. “I didn’t know if it was possible, and those dreams became a reality. It’s something I’m so grateful for, because it never would have happened without the support of everyone around me, of all the fans that love the music,” she continues with an air of wide-eyed disbelief. Now as a patron of Hackney Empire, where she performed in her youth, she is proud to mentor its young artists. “I really want to shine a light on them and the incredibly talented children and teenagers and young adults that are in these areas in the city that are very underserved, but need that light shined on them because we have some of the truest, purest, rawest talents,” she says with passion. When these young artists are in the room with Lewis, they are with a person whose very presence is proof that dreams are invincible. They will battle moments of crushing doubt; what Lewis demonstrates is that if they keep showing up for themselves and doing what they love day in and day out, then they will never feel alone in their struggles, nor in their dreams. “I don’t put music out just for the sake of it. Anything I do, it comes from a very deep place. It may take me a while to get there, and it may take time, but I think that’s when the most special things come to life because you’re putting that time into creating something so special, and that’s my process anyway, as an artist,” she says. In a tough industry where success is subjective, what remains true is that as much as those artists are burning to share their voices, there are people out there who are yearning just as much to hear their voices and be inspired. “I would hear certain songs and just fall in love with the artist that was singing it, because it’s helped to heal me in some way,” she humbly shares. Lewis delights in revealing the names of artists she admires: Salt, Yebba, Cleo Sol, Jacob Banks, Jazmine Sullivan, and James Blake. She has collaborated with a diverse roster of industry names on numerous hits, including Calum Scott on You Are The Reason, songwriter/producer Ryan Tedder on Solo Quiero (Somebody To Love) featuring Juan Magán and Cali Y El Dandee, and Alexis Ffrench on a classical crossover single and video One Look. Lewis was recently in the recording studio working on a voice animation role, and she summons humming tones in the soundtrack she co-composed for the female-centered and directed documentary Hidden Letters.
For Lewis, it is not enough to focus only on expanding her own horizons. Besides her vocal prowess, her flame endures in the hearts of her audiences because of who she is as a woman. “What’s always on my mind is how we can show more of our humanity and how we can connect more with our compassion for each other,” she says. She guards her privacy and family life, and rightly so, especially after welcoming her first child, Carmel Allegra, in July. She embraces counter forces by grounding herself in the present, particularly in the gift of being a new mother, which she acknowledges “is one of the most rewarding yet challenging roles in life.” In her voice is a weighted reverence as she expresses the gravity of the experience, “I am in awe of us as women, of all the mothers out there – and myself included,” she adds.“I’m proud of where women are at today, carving out careers for themselves in music. But I feel like behind the scenes, it’s still very unfair, and there’s not a level playing field.” Lewis also owns a plant-based coffee shop in Los Angeles and has encountered first-hand the barriers of pervasive inequalities. “Especially as a woman of color, going into business, there’s even less funding for us,” she says. “As a female business owner, a musician, someone who is also working behind the scenes of music, someone who wants to have an independent label, it’s just harder for us. That’s a matter of fact that it’s harder, and it shouldn’t be,” she states. Lewis is mindful of her public image and is quick to point out that all too often people form skewed perceptions of her “celebrity” life. “There’s always two sides to everything,” she admits.
With the birth of her daughter comes the birth of a new voice. “What I’m really excited about is the different places that I’ve now been able to access and unlock inside me that I really want to share with my fans and with the world,” she says. Lewis asks for patience, from both her fans and herself, as she slowly emerges from these recent months of metamorphosis into motherhood. “It’s just beautiful to be able to have the time to really dig deep artistically and to share my most authentic voice, and that will definitely be coming,” she says. “A big part of my next chapter is also a lot of self-healing, and just digging deep into what is holding me back, different things in my life that maybe are not serving me now as I step into this new role,” she candidly shares. Venturing into unpredictable waters as an artist and mother, Lewis focuses on a holistic, integrated approach to health and healing. She also credits meditation and Ayurveda, which her mother is now a practitioner of: “It’s a lot about your nutrition and balancing yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” Meanwhile, the motivations that have driven her music since day one to connect and share compassion are the same motivations that drive her activism and philanthropy today. “Everything in my life is linked,” she says. “Since I was a kid, I definitely have had a sensitivity towards the environment, towards animals,” Lewis, who is vegan, adds. Fittingly, she is a trustee of the Hopefield Animal Sanctuary, an organization that has given homes to over 500 abused and neglected animals. While the demands of her thriving career and growing family necessitate self-care, Lewis’s intention is selfless: show herself love so that she can continue to share love. “It’s a new chapter; it’s exciting, it’s daunting, it’s all those things. But mostly, I think it’s about putting more love out there.”
Originally published in the February 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Natalie Westernoff
Hair: Dani Hiswani
Makeup: Vimi Joshi
Set design: Yehia Bedeir
Fashion assistant: Kate Dixon