Since hitting the Broadway stage at 10 years old, singer-songwriter Leon Thomas has been destined for stardom. Not only did Nickelodeon recognize his talent and offer him a production deal that led to him to co-starring in the hit-series, Victorious, but Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds also recognized his rarity after seeing him at work in his studio. After years of incubating in the chambers of childhood stardom, Thomas is ready to emerge from the comfort of his mentor’s wing and to straighten his feathers as an independent artist.
The 21-year-old Grammy Award-winning artist stopped by VIBE to recount his unconventional ascension to stardom, his plans to become Hollywood’s next big, multifaceted entertainer, and how his new music has turned his idols into his fans.
VIBE: For those who don’t know, can you give people your conception story as a musician?
Leon Thomas: I come from a whole family of musicians. My step dad played for people like B.B. King, Salt-n-Pepa, Missy Elliott, an old school, New Jack Swing band called Hi-Five. They were a boy band. I grew up around some of the most fire musicians in New York, I grew up Brooklyn. I started doing Broadway at 10 years old with The Lion King. Then I did Carolina Change and The Color Purple with Oprah, which gave me the awesome opportunity to travel to the West Coast, where I met Nickelodeon.
From age 13, they gave me a development deal, which means I got a record deal and they started developing a TV show for me around that time. At 16 years old, I did a show called Victorious. I had an amazing experience doing that. It took me all over the world. It gave me exposure to places like Britain, Germany, Italy, and of course the U.S. After that, I started mentoring under Babyface.
I had a chance to go to college at Morehouse or do this thing under Face. Of course, I took the situation with Face. I told myself, if I was going to be a producer and writer and multifaceted artists, he was the perfect person to do that under. So that’s what I did, man. We found ourselves on some amazing projects from Love, Marriage, Divorce – which was his duet album with Tony Braxton that won a Grammy – to multi-platinum records with Ariana Grande. Just a bunch of different people, Ty Dolla $ign. Post Malone, and now I’m giving myself the opportunity to hop into this artist stuff alone. It’s just a really great situation that I’m in. I locked in with some people at Priority Records, and it just seems like I have a shot to do this independently.
So, you’re independent?
Well, I’m not signed to a major label, but I do have a distribution deal with Priority and they have been awesome. They’ve been doing a lot to make sure the music gets to outlets like VIBE and streaming services. We just hit Billboard—[No.] 26 on the Urban A/C Charts. So, I feel really good about the progression. A lot of people in my position don’t get the opportunities, so I’m feeling blessed.
What was the motive behind being independent?
To be honest, I want attention. Not that I’m a spoiled brat or anything, I just know what it’s like at major labels. When you have Beyoncé and Adele releasing the same month you’re trying to put your first debut out, it could get lost in the sauce. I just felt like I wanted to build my brand up to a place I can’t be ignored.
That’s something Wale spoke about when referencing his label issues. He felt like he wasn’t getting the attention he needed at Atlantic.
Yeah. A lot of artists feel that way and it’s hard. It’s tough.
You seem to have taken the time to craft your sound. Where did that come from? What were your influences?
I’ll tell you where that came from. I was filming Victorious and I had, like, three months to be off and be creative. School had finished earlier, so, I went out to Atlanta and started working with my boy, Novel. We were listening to artists like early James Blake and early Frank Ocean, people like that, and it just opened my mind to different sounds. And that you can let a track almost speak for myself. That minimalist vibe. That kind of built the things that I was crafting for my project. Also, just being hip to people like Kaytranada, early and being in the rooms with people like Post Malone before he popped off. Even chilling around Syd Tha Kid and The Internet. Just to see that real music was being respected and they were touring and doing their own thing, it gave me hope. Because at that time it was very DJ Mustard-heavy—which I have a lot of respect for that stuff—but it doesn’t necessarily fit my sound. So, being able to be unapologetically musical is what I was trying to do, and now I’m getting that chance.
Taking those college years to be around those people and Babyface must have been impactful. What was the most impressionable thing that Babyface taught you during that time?
There’s so much you can gain from exploring every sense of the business. He’s not just focused on writing a hit for Beyoncé, he’s also scoring the new Bobby Brown movie. It’s okay to explore different business opportunities and be versatile. The more you know, the more you can do to diversify your portfolio, and that’s how he has been able to stay afloat. From even signing artists like Outkast and TLC—at the time he wasn’t producing their stuff, but he knew how to find them early on. Even people like Usher, you know, he got it. And seeing how he moves in business, like being friends with the executive before even getting anything from them was a big thing I learned from him. Like just dinners, taking them out to eat! Like what? They’re there for you. [Laughs] You never know but food does a lot!
Is that a direction you want to take it? Like in a position like Face, but your spin on it?
Honestly, man, I see writing and being a part of amazing films. Starring in films as well as doing this music thing. Touring, enjoying that. I also would love to develop artists later in my life. After that, then it’s more so philanthropic efforts. I want to go out and see what I can do to touch the world. Really pay it forward. But I really want to be able to develop people as well.
So acting is not ruled out? I know a lot of actors-turned-musicians turn their back on the camera in that way.
Nah, man! I never did that. Only because I been acting since I was 10. I don’t even know how to feel if I don’t do a project in a year. I’ve never gone a year of my life without doing a project. I have to film something, I have to do something, because that’s a side of me that I can’t ignore.
Do think that aids in your creativity as an all-around artist?
I think it makes it confusing to people who step into the game because I can play anybody, I can do whatever. But when it comes to who I am as an artist, it definitely does help my creative aspects. When I was doing my videos and we were writing out the treatment, it wasn’t just a paragraph, it was a full script, you know what I’m saying? The director knew he couldn’t play around. He had to work. But [he] would also ask my opinions on shots.
That’s real. I was thinking more along the terms of songwriting and song creating. You are able to put yourself in certain settings and invoke certain feelings because you do that in acting.
Oh yeah! What’s crazy is most of my records, the ones that went platinum, were with female artists. That’s one of the coolest things— [I] really put myself in a woman’s shoes or really listen to my girlfriend when she’s telling me what I’m doing wrong, and write a song from her perspective.
I think that interesting to see how intersectional art is.
Yeah, man. I always tell my boys who rap that it’s important to start taking acting classes early because it’s going to happen.
Of all the people you have been around that have gone on to be successful, whose rise was your favorite to witness?
Honestly, being in a room with Ariana Grande at an early age, and her saying the references of the people she kind of wanted to vibe and be like, and to see her even go into the studio with us, and see her bring that energy out through every song. I knew even before it happened, I used to tell people like, ‘Yo, this chick going to be huge!’ And people would be like, ‘Aw Nickelodeon, whatever.’ But to see people really show respect and bow down to what she has to offer. Same with Post Malone, like he’s a musician. It’s cool to see what he can do with the acoustic guitar. We would jam out because I play the guitar, but it was cool. I didn’t know if I was tripping or if it would work. But as you can see, it worked.”
So what’s next for you?
Well, I got this movie I’m working on soon, down in Texas. But, also tour— I can’t announce any dates yet because we’re solidifying those loose ends, but I finally get to say what’s up to my fans that have been following me for so many years. Meeting my core fan base is something I’m super excited about. But after that, honestly, I been working with some amazing producers. From Boi-1da to my boy Axel Foley, who produced a bunch of the Kendrick stuff. I been working with a bunch of my heroes lately. I’m excited for 2019. We have a lot of music.
Getting viewed as a peer and not a fan or anything like that from people you idolize has to be gratifying, right?
You know, for a long time I had to fight the weird stigma that comes with growing up on TV. Certain people don’t want to associate their brands with certain things, but it was really cool to see people show respect to the fact that I was able to win a Grammy at 21. Or get on platinum records and do my thing. Right now, I’m not really trying to impress my peers as much as I am unapologetically being myself musically. that’s what they’re responding to.