There’s an attitude shared by certain people in the music industry, especially at the high-end, major label level, that making a hit song is best done with a brutalist, clinically scientific approach. These people contend that the best, and perhaps the only way to make a hit is to obsessively mine data, scan algorithms and interrogate focus groups until you pinpoint to a precise degree what it is the public want. Then you find, after investigating hundreds of possible candidates, the perfect combination of pop star and song, present it to the public in the perfect manner, and wild success follows. In theory at least.
With the music industry increasingly strapped for cash, forced to survive solely on revenue generated by the likes of Taylor Swift and Adele, as well as whatever’s left from Thriller, they’ve become increasingly wedded in desperation to this idea, convinced that they’re only a few tweaks, and maybe one more Instagram tie-in with an energy drink company, away from that perfect formula that’ll bring them back to the glory days.
Of course, it generally doesn’t work like that in real life, and there are numerous examples of lab-grown stars who the majors were sure would go big, only for them to sink without a trace under a tidal wave of public indifference.
Luckily, there are other ways of making a hit song, and Léon, one of the brightest new pop talents on the Swedish scene at present, happened to find one. In July last year, she popped her song Tired Of Talking up on Soundcloud, without really expecting very much of a response, whereupon it promptly exploded. Less than one year later Tired Of Talking, released as part of Léon’s debut EP Treasure, has racked up just over 22 million Spotify plays at the time of writing, pushing the accelerator button on her pop career.
Léon, as you’ve probably guessed, is not her real name. She was born Lotta Lindgren to classical musician parents, and music was therefore an omnipresent part of her life growing up. She sang in choirs at the age of five, and began writing songs at nine.
However, the pop world always felt a bigger draw than following her parents into classical music. “I’ve always grown up with only musicians in my house, so it felt pretty natural to go in that direction, although I’m the only one who makes pop music. So I’m different in that way from my family. I’ve tried the classical thing. I played the cello, and was in choir, and all of that. But I felt more drawn to do pop for some reason,” she says.
Inspiration from her family’s record collection played a part in this decision. “My father introduced me early on to a lot of artists. He gave me these mix CDs, like with music from the 50s, music from the 60s, and so on. With a lot of pop music, artists like Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac, Amy Winehouse. I always listened to that more than classical music, so I guess that’s where my inspiration [to do pop] came from.”
The journey to becoming Léon began when Lindgren attended Musikmakarna, a songwriting academy all the way up in Örnsköldsvik, where she met her future producer Agrin Rahmani. “I had tried working with different producers for a while, from the age of about 20 to 22. During one year I worked with seven different producers. Then I met and started working with Agrin. We just started making music. We made one song, and from that point on I felt like I only wanted to work with him.”
“Then we started making more songs, and we decided we should make something serious with this. So I decided to come up with a name. About one year ago I started working under the name Léon. I came up with three names, but that was the only one I liked.”
At this point, curious, I ask her what the other contenders for her artist name were, but my (pretty weak) attempt at investigative journalism doesn’t achieve much success, and Lindgren decides to protect her pop star mystique by keeping this information private. “The thing is, I don’t really remember. They were bad! Seriously bad.”
The potentially hazardous task of naming herself safely negotiated, it was time to launch Léon. So she put Tired Of Talking up on Soundcloud, and suddenly things took off. Very quickly.
“It’s crazy,” she says, “because I just thought the other day about how it hasn’t even been a year since I put my song on Soundcloud. I just talked to my producer the other day in the studio, and we were like ‘This is insane!’.
“It’s not even been a year and we’ve been travelling everywhere. I was in the States for the first time last year, I was in London, and in England, for the first time just a month ago. So I’ve been to all these places. It’s slowly starting to feel normal, but in the beginning I didn’t really know what was happening,” she says.
“It felt a bit out of control. Some people may feel like ‘Woo hoo! Let’s do this!’, but I was a little different. I was excited because this is what I’ve always wanted to do, but it felt so surreal.”
Léon’s songs have quite a unique style, combining traditional pop songwriting structures with glitchy, innovative production. Lindgren and Rahmani usually write in tandem. “Usually, me and the producer, who is the only person I’m working with, start with a piano. He sits by the piano, or I sit by the piano, and I sing melodies, using lyrics I’ve recorded in a notepad, and we record it like that. Tired Of Talking started off with just a guitar and vocals.”
“Then he comes up with all these ideas. He’s very passionate about the production. So he goes crazy and tries a bunch of stuff in the production and I sit with him and pick what works. So I’m usually like ‘I love that!’ or ‘Not that!’”
Tired Of Talking, it’s fair to say, has become the defining song of Léon’s career so far. It was her debut single and her debut video, and the song she currently closes her sets with. In its subject matter, it’s closely related to Treasure, the opening song on the EP and the song that directly preceeds it, both chronicling different stages in the slow demise of a relationship. “I always feel like Treasure is the moment where the relationship is going sour, whereas Tired Of Talking is the end. I wrote Treasure before Tired Of Talking, so that makes sense. Tired Of Talking is more about self-respect, and saying bye when you should. It’s the first song I wrote that’s about saying goodbye. I’m dwelling in a lot of the other songs I write, so Tired Of Talking is a good departure from that as it’s more ‘You have to go!’”
When I saw Léon play at Debaser Strand in April, her set included a cover of Arctic Monkeys’ drunk-dialling anthem Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?, and I put it to her that that song deals with a similar kind of 3AM, dysfunctional relationship politics subject matter that a lot of her music does.
“The thing is, I saw the video, and I loved the video and thought that I would love to make something that raw. I feel like with that song, many people can connect with it. The idea of doing a more soulful version of it was appealing to me.“I feel like that might be what drew me to the song, to do a version of it. You may have noticed that I don’t have a song about a super-functional relationship! So I guess that’s what drew me to make a cover of that song. When I play it live, it fits with my songs.”
Léon’s Lullaby is the final song on the Treasure EP, and it’s quite a stylistic departure from the electronic pop of the other three songs. It’s a slow-moving, graceful soul ballad, with almost a hint of country in Lindgren’s vocals, and came to life during a studio experiment. “The thing, with Léon’s Lullaby, is that I’ve always made a lot of soul music. I had a soul band before I did all of this. I’ve always listened to a lot of jazz and soul and Motown stuff. “So I came to the studio one day, and my producer and I wrote that song in ten minutes,” she explains.
“We wanted to do something different, something completely different to the other songs we had made. So he said ‘We should just find a good picture from the 50s or 60s, a picture from sunny San Francisco or something’. So we Googled it and found one and we decided to vibe off that photo.
He put it up, on his big computer screen, and we turned down the lights. We just had that big photo in front of us, and he started playing guitar and I started singing, and after 15 minutes both the lyrics and melody were done. So that was a different kind of session, but it worked well. And I like it, because it shows a kind of diversity, which I’m going to have on my album.
It won’t just be these electronic, huge productions. So it’s nice to have Léon’s Lullaby on the EP, just as a sign that there may be something else to come.”
The fact that she only has a four-song EP at present is something that clearly makes Lindgren a little restless, and she’s eager to move on and show that she’s capable of much more. “I felt when I was making the EP that I wanted it to represent me. But it’s hard to do that in four songs, especially when that’s everything that people will hear from me for a year. So it’s hard to make those choices. I feel like I’m always walking in the same patterns with my songs on the EP, that I’m telling the same stories over and over. But now that I’m writing my album I can expand that to before, during and after. I can tell different stories and explore more.”
Which feels like a natural point in the conversation to ask her about the album. Details are, however, a little thin on the ground at present.
“The album is coming out this fall. And then I’m going on tour in the States. That’s going to be my first big tour, maybe 25 to 30 states. So I’ll have the album out and will be able to play all the songs from the album, and just spread my music to more people. We won’t be doing any festivals this summer, I’m waiting a bit on that, but I’m excited about the tour.”
And will her album touring plans see her pay a visit to Sweden? “I don’t have any dates [confirmed] yet, but I would love to play here, because it’s just a different thing [to playing abroad]” she says.
“I was actually a little scared the first time I played in Stockholm, because my manager’s American, so when we came to Stockholm he said ‘It’s your home city! We’re so excited!’. And I had to say ‘Just so you know, I don’t know how many people here have heard my music, so there might be only 90 people here. Don’t get your hopes up’.
”And then when I got out on the Debaser stage, there were more people there than I had ever played for, and it was incredible. I’m really bad at poker face, so I was just standing there going ‘You’re singing along to my lyrics!’. It was an amazing feeling! So I’m really excited to play here again.”
Sweden, we can probably assume, will be equally excited to have her back.
Léon’s Treasure EP is out on Columbia/Sony.
Photos: Richard Ström