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Soul singer Leela James on carrying the torch of the blues, being patient, and staying true to yourself

Leela James gives her best “Etta” gaze. The singer performs Monday at the Birchmere. (Photo by Kevin “KT” Terrell)

The soul singer, who we first met in 2005 on her album “A Change Is Gonna Come,” is due to release her newest collection “Loving You More...In The Spirit of Etta James” this summer, paying homage to the singer, who died in May at the age of 75.

James’s tour stops at the Birchmere on Monday. The Los Angeles native spoke with us about the importance of remembering the past, what she and Etta James have in common, and why she can’t be put into a box.

Your new album is a strong collection of Etta James’s catalog. What about Etta James’s life and legacy inspired you to make a whole album about it?

I just think she was a real artist and a real person, and a true, true, true musician worthy of being honored. I know that we did recognize her in some aspects, but I just felt like she could have received more. This is my way of keeping her music and her legacy alive, and hopefully a new generation of listeners will really embrace her and the music.

This album is in the spirit of another artist, but what makes it you?

This is a tribute album, however it has a brand new fresh face on it. These are Etta James songs as well as some original songs of mine, and it’s not what you would expect from a tribute cover album. We’ve completely taken the songs and flipped them inside out to the point where they don’t even sound like the originals, so I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised and pleased.

What elements of Etta James do you see in yourself?

I see a lot of the same artistry in her in me. We have similar vocal tones, and we have a raspy tone. We have very strong voices, and from my understanding of her personality, a very strong personality as well. I just think from an artist standpoint, you don’t find too many female artists that are raw and really direct with their vocal delivery in this day and age. I just can relate to her style in that aspect. That for me connects us, definitely. Plus, I’m a blues child. We share that too!

Leela James performs on stage during the NAACP Image Awards in 2007. (Vince Bucci/Getty Images North America)

I’ve always been about keeping real music alive. A lot of times I feel like the only way to do that is to expose those artists that made the good music by reintroducing their music, because sometimes they can just easily get lost in the shuffle of time. When you have a new generation of listeners you kinda gotta do something that will get their attention. As a new artist, a lot of times I just feel like this is my way of doing that, by doing some of the songs. [I’m] still doing my own thing, but every once in a while it’s okay to pay homage and tribute to people who have come before and opened the doors for us all.

You have a strong foothold in soul music and are largely known as a soul artist. Are you interested in exploring other genres?

Oh, absolutely! I love music. I’m a musician. I’m a lover of music, so all kinds of music is what I’m into. I definitely am not an artist that can be put in a box of “Oh, I’m just this one thing.” I love hip hop, soul, funk, blues, gospel, jazz, rock and roll. It’s all me. But of course it’s going to be my voice, and my voice is the soul.



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