The soulful vocals of Kelli-Leigh are one you’ll be familiar with if you’ve listened to any club anthems in the last 10 years. The London powerhouse can be heard on “More Than Friends” (James Hype), “I Wanna Feel” (Second City) and the Billboard dance chart and GRAMMY-nominated number 1 “I Got U” (Duke Dumont & Jax Jones).
Her career to date includes over 500 million streams on Spotify, 2 UK numbers 1s and 3 UK Top 10 hits and the upward trajectory continues with her solo work.
Since setting up her own, fully self-funded, label Music Core in 2018, Kelli-Leigh has released four independent singles, “Do You Want To Be Loved Like This“, “Can’t Dance“, “Nothing More” and “Without You”, as well as “Cotton Clouds” and “Just For One Day”. The singer now returns with a sensual mid-tempo number entitled “Whiskey Midnight”.
Kelli-Leigh speaks to IndustryMe about her journey from backing singer to solo artist and new single “Whiskey Midnight”.
Looking back at your journey many would describe the call to be Adele’s backing vocalist as a career-defining moment. Can you recall how it all happened?
It absolutely was. It was my first ever Tour, the first time I had ever been to America and Canada, and my first time really seeing how life on the road is. I got the call through someone I had been doing session recording for at the time. He had been asked if he knew any new singers on the scene and I was put forward. Next thing I knew I had a diary of a year’s worth of dates taking in the most amazing experience.
Seeing the positive impact working with Adele had on your own journey, why did you say no when the call came the second time around?
At this point, I had sung 2 number 1 records and had started building a reputation for my vocals and songwriting on dance records. I’ve always been an artist but I never prioritised myself and I knew if I went back on tour as a BV then that would be me hanging up my hat for my artist path and going back to being a singer for someone else career. It was a scary decision but I had to back myself.
You describe the response you’ve received from the industry as positive. Given the variety of accolades you have under your belt and the experience you’ve acquired was this something you expected?
It hasn’t always been positive actually. It’s always been positive in how my voice has been received but I’ve had to work hard to get attention and respect for my own vision for myself. The accolades have definitely helped highlighting what I can achieve but it hasn’t thrown open doors.
With that being said, why have you taken the decision to remain independent?
After ‘More Than Friends’ went top 10 I thought that would be my moment to break out, it wasn’t and I still wasn’t being noticed as an artist myself. However, in the industry’s defence I also didn’t have any music out of my own apart from an old EP in 2011 as I had hoped someone would back me to be able to release. So becoming independent was when I decided I had to build my own door, [and] create my own platform and opportunity.
From my understanding all of your music is released via your own label. What are three things you wish you’d known before embarking on that venture?
Lead time lead time lead time! You can’t over-prepare for a release, have all assets in place beforehand, make sure you have scheduling right for uploading and releasing, and make sure you have a follow-up record to go.
Sound advice! On the flip side what’s the best part about having your own label?
Creative control. I am across everything. From writing the record to the mixing and mastering to the artwork and all the visuals. It’s my voice and with each single, I put out I learn how to be better at putting my voice and vision across. Also being in control of who’s on my team. I finally feel pretty happy with the team I have on board. They all get my vision and are all wonderful and professional people. That makes a huge difference to progressing.
I recently came across a playlist on Spotify of songs that feature your vocals. There are just over 20 songs on there and from what I counted you aren’t credited on 10 (approx 50%). As an artist how does that make you feel?
Ah that would be my ‘Yes I sang’ it playlist. I set that up out of frustration, to let people know that I sung those records. I added on some credited but haven’t added every single credited record…perhaps I should? But yeah it’s been a mix of pride at what my voice has achieved and what could’ve been if my name was on those records. People are still discovering I sang some of those tracks so it’s cool at the end of the day, it’s part of the journey of my career and hopefully people who love those records are now discovering my music.
You definitely should! The percentage of songs without credit leads me to think that this is a much more common experience than people realise?
It absolutely is. Funk Butcher tweeted about this and its’ something people are finally starting to take note off. A Lot of singers are uncredited, that’s the way the industry has been running.
Shall we talk about Black female vocalists on House music tracks used for authenticity but never making the visuals for the marketed video or worse yet credited as the featuring act?! 🤷🏾♂️— Funk Butcher (@FunkButcher) June 2, 2020
This was something Funk Butcher highlighted in his tweet in addition to black vocalists often been left out of the visuals in the house scene . Is this something you’ve personally dealt with and do you have any advice on navigating that space? It is. I say to any singers now, be brave and bold. If they want your voice then you have a right to decide if you want to be credited or not.
Absolutely! Moving on to more positive news. You have a new single out, Whiskey Midnight, which I must say is a little more risqué than I expected…
Love that! Yep… this is my “Nothing More” mark 2. I have a deep sexual side to me, I love writing lyrics about our sexual nature as human beings. It’s so magical that feeling when you’re into someone, can’t stop thinking about someone, being turned on by someone. It’s so human and such a chemical reaction we can’t control.
You know some records will be sweet and romantic [like] “Cotton Clouds“, some will be about self-reflection like “Just For One Day” and then there will be “Whiskey Midnight”. All of it is human exploration and honesty.
Some days I feel sexy, some days I just need my PJs and to speak to nobody. I’m expressing how my brain and thoughts work.
The video was edited by you, right? A sense of resourcefulness acquired from being independent no doubt?
Yes totally! I actually love video editing! I started a few years back doing basic go-pro tour diary edits on iMovie which were pretty rubbish to be honest ha! Then after I shot my first video “Do You Wanna Be Loved Like This?”
I found the easiest way to go back on the edit was to edit bits myself and send over so the 815 guys in Dubai could move forward on the edit from there. This came in handy with “Can’t Dance” as I really had a vision of what I wanted but director Ty had another vision so me being able to edit bits meant I could explain it better.
By the time I shot “Nothing More” with Bipolar Spider I just asked him if he minded me coming over and doing the edit myself off the back of what he’d started, he was totally cool with it and I loved it and I appreciated him being so cool with me working through my vision. So I got myself Final Cut after that and started getting into it.
I edited the whole of “Just For One Day” which was a low budget sentimental video I created with my sister Sarah-Louise which then set me up for editing “Whisky Midnight’” which I seriously enjoyed doing!
I’ll be editing the next single video as well. For me, it’s an extension of my creative process. It’s how I continue my voice and narrative. I think visually, so it just feels so natural to be able to edit how the song ends up looking to the viewer. I’ve got a lot to learn still but I’m loving this process.
Having now put out a number of singles, are there any plans for a project on the horizon?
There are but I can’t mention it yet. I’ve got a strong set of music that I’m excited about and I’m just putting finishing touches to them all over the coming months. I have such grand ideas though I’m hoping with the pandemic cancellation of live shows I can afford it!
Finally what are you most looking forward to doing now that lockdown is lifting?
Seeing family properly, writing songs in a room, and not over Zoom… Zoom has definitely facilitated being able to create over these few months but it’s just not the same. Non-music wise I just want to get in the sea. Water heals me, it soothes my soul and I feel I really need to get into the sea soon and cleanse some of the craziness that’s been happening in the last few months. Also, I find water deeply inspiring. I always feel calmer by the sea. I finally feel like my own voice is starting to be heard so I want to get re-inspired to keep writing.