Since shooting to fame on The X Factor in 2006, superstar singer Leona Lewis has become one of the biggest pop acts on the planet – selling more than ten million albums worldwide.
Ahead of a colossal show at Scarborough Open Air Theatre this Friday, she spoke to Mark Butler about her new Motown-influenced Christmas album, the truth about Simon Cowell, and how she managed to stay sane during her meteoric rise.
Hi Leona. You’re out in LA at the moment. How are things over there?
It’s hot as hell! But it’s good. I’ve just been back in the studio, I’ve been writing a bit, and then I’m back in London tomorrow.
And then on to sunny Scarborough of course. You’ll be pleased to hear we’re enjoying a heatwave at the moment.
I heard! That’s good to know. I’m really looking forward to the shows this weekend. I was on a long tour earlier in the year and I always get a bit of tour withdrawal, but now I’m completely fresh and it’s great to be going back in for a few more gigs.
What can people expect from the shows?
It’s going to be so much fun. It’s an extension of what we did on the tour. I’ve got a ten-piece band and an amazing string section. There’ll be real high energy moments and more stripped back sections too. It’s going to be a rollercoaster.
You sound genuinely excited.
I am. I love singing live. There’s nothing I enjoy more. You really feed off the crowd. It’s what I’ve always loved doing. Everything just disappears for two hours. It’s just you connecting with all these people, no matter what else is happening at that time.
You mentioned you’ve been back in the studio. What can you tell me about your new album?
I’m actually making a Christmas album! It’s a mixture of Christmas classics and original material. I’m really excited about it. It’s very soulful, and very Motown actually. Really going back to the roots of that music. It’s a first for me in that respect. I just want to sing my heart out, and I can really go to town with this.
Is it weird recording a Christmas album in the middle of July?
Yeah – it’s bizarre writing Christmas songs when it’s sweltering hot like this! I feel like I should simulate the Yuletide spirit by putting on a woolly jumper and bringing in a snow machine or something.
Simon Cowell is a big fan of Christmas records. Was this his idea by any chance?
Oh, Simon is always giving me good advice. He’s mentored me for sure, and it came from both of us really.
So much has been written and said about Simon Cowell over the years. You know him better than most – what’s he really like as a person?
What you see is what you get. He’s very warm and very charming, and very funny too. He’s also incredibly honest, and some people don’t like that about him. But it’s something that I love. As a mentor he’s been great to me. He gets a lot of flak for what he does, but the talent shows he does give people an opportunity to get up and sing live – which would be a rare thing otherwise. He’s a cool guy.
What have been your career highlights so far?
Playing the Albert Hall and the O2 were particularly special moments. I’d dreamed of performing in those venues, in my hometown.
Looking back at your time on The X Factor, how would you sum up that experience now?
It was crazy. I went from playing tiny little gigs with no one there to appearing on this huge TV show with millions of people watching. Everyone suddenly knew who I was. It was mental. It took a bit of getting used to. It’s still hard to come to terms with sometimes.
How did you cope with that?
My way of dealing with it was to surround myself with friends and family. People who’d known me from the beginning. You get surrounded by people you don’t really know, and swallowed up by this whole crazy machine, so it was really important to see familiar faces. That kept me grounded. And sane.
Plenty of previous X-Factor winners have slipped back into obscurity very quickly – and a lot has been said about the ‘talent show curse’. Why do you think you were able to buck that trend so impressively?
To be successful in music you need talent, luck – being in the right place at the right time – and a lot of hard work. Having all three is important, and also having good people and a supportive network around you.
Do you still have some big career ambitions?
There’s still lots of things I’d like to achieve. I’d love to tour more of Europe, and Asia and Australia. I’m in the process of doing that.
I think our time is almost up. So in the spirit of your forthcoming Yuletide album – what’s your favourite Christmas song?
(laughs) Oh Holy Night perhaps? Mariah Carey did a version that was amazing. And White Christmas of course. That’s probably my absolute favourite.
Leona Lewis plays Scarborough Open Air Theatre this Friday, July 12, and Kew Gardens in Richmond, London on Saturday, July 13