You’ll likely recognise the name Leah McFall as being a finalist on “The Voice UK” 2013. Her powerhouse performances have now gained over 60 million views on YouTube. Joining Team will.i.am, she quickly became the star of the season. During her time on the show, three of her cover performances even charted on the UK top 100 including, perhaps most notably, her rendition of “I Will Survive” which became her first UK top 10 hit peaking at number eight.
After the show, she was signed by Capitol Records and, alongside her mentor will.i.am, quickly started work on her debut album. In July 2014, she released her major label debut single “Home” which became her fourth UK top 100 chart entry. After this stellar run, however, fans are left with an unusually long silence. Her debut album “Weird to Wonderful” is quietly shelved, and Leah is dropped by the label.
I caught up with Leah, via Zoom, to talk about her music career after “The Voice”, how she dealt with her experiences in the music industry, life as a now independent artist, and the philosophies and home truths she’s picked up along the way.
So, despite the success of “Home”, the video for which has amassed over two million views on YouTube, your debut album “Weird to Wonderful” was eventually shelved by the label. How did you navigate dealing with the politics of the music industry, and how did you stay buoyant in that situation?
“I don’t really think I got the chance to navigate it to be honest. I think it kind of just happened all around us. After ‘Home’ had been released, I literally got word that day that my album was being shelved. To be honest with you a lot of artists experience it, the majority of artists experience it, it is a common thing in many ways. But it just is devastating because it’s obviously your own art sitting there in someone else’s hard-drive, and you can’t release it. That is really hard. But the other side of it is that you didn’t pay to make it so that’s why you don’t own it, you know what I mean?
“I definitely found it devastating. I always say I grieved that album more than I grieved any ex-boyfriend. I used to carry it around in my pocket in a little tiny iPod and just sit and listen to it all the time, like on the tube, just because I knew I was the only person that it was ever going to get heard by.
“I’d already been told the album was being shelved, but I wasn’t actually being told that I was being released from my contract. What that meant was I had a few years where I couldn’t write; I couldn’t make music. That was the hardest thing.”
What would you say with the most valuable thing you learned from that experience?
“I think to be honest it was just the creative side. I remember being in the studio with Will [will.i.am] and I would write songs by doing what you call ‘mumbles’ so literally I would have written the song where you’re just humming and singing the syllables and the words are absolute gibberish. Sia came in, this was before she released her solo stuff, and she played me her first take of Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ and it was literally just her singing mumbles, and the majority of the syllables she used became lyrics. She said to make sure whenever you’re listening to a track, and you’re about to write, that you record initially because your initial melodies are sometimes the absolute right ones. So I think it was probably the creative side of being signed. When you’re signed you get in rooms that you probably wouldn’t have been able to get into yourself.”
In recent years, the double standards between the treatment of male and female artists has been becoming increasingly clear. You of course were a signed female solo artist. Is this something you’d be willing to comment on?
“Oh, I’ll definitely talk about that. That’s exactly true. I had guy friends in the industry, and if they said ‘no’ to some things and ‘yes’ to other things, they were very much treated as artistic. Whereas a girl is immediately framed as a diva and hard to work with if she does the same. If she says ‘no I want it that way’, then she’s seen as a diva which I massively disagree with. It was actually when I was on tour with Jessie J that she told me to be aware of that, because that is what happens.
“For me, there were certain lyrics I didn’t want to sing. There were certain things I didn’t want to wear. I would see emails that I was blind copied into, where I was very much described as ‘hard to work with’ or whatever. If a male had said what I said, they would’ve just said ‘Oh, he knows what he wants, he’s artistic’. I witnessed that. That did happen with my guy friends in the industry. The only other person that was signed to the same label as me at the time was Sam Smith. He wasn’t as big at that time. They were very encouraging of him.”
(Smith now is referred to with They/Them pronouns. Any reference to them as male-identifying is within the specific context given by the point McFall makes, prior to their coming out)
In 2016, your follow-up single “Wolf Den” was released independently. You’ve said previously that this song is about your experience in the music industry. Talk to me about the origins of the song and the meaning behind it.
“‘Wolf Den’ was the first song that I wrote when I was free. For me that song is a complete prayer. It broke my heart writing that song. I’d actually been to a song writing conference with this massive worship leader called Matt Redman. He gave me the best piece of advice that I’d ever been given about songwriting, he said: ‘you need to write what your heart needs to hear because only then will you truly be able to speak to other people’s hearts’. ‘Wolf Den’ was the first song that I wrote where I was like, right, what do I need to hear?
“That was: keep going. They’ve all told you to give up. I’d been blind copied into an email where someone really high up in the industry had said ‘just tell her to get a normal job’ and I just couldn’t believe that that would even be said from the same people saying how good I was a few months ago. So I just wrote ‘I’ll keep singing sweet faith, even when the wolves say go home’.
“‘Wolf Den’ was just me and Pete Boxta [a songwriter and producer]. I was working with him long before I got signed and then I was back in that same room. Despite the fact that we haven’t seen each other in a few years he was like ‘Listen, I’m still well up for producing this record, even though I know you don’t have a penny’. And I literally didn’t have a penny.”
Your sound as an independent artist (on songs like “Happy Human” and “White X”) has been described as “electro alt RnB”. Your major-label debut song “Home” of course was more pop-based. Was there a sense of musically coming into yourself more as an independent artist?
“Yeah definitely. The songs that I wrote for the album with [will.i.am] that didn’t get released had that more RnB sensibility. My own music was quite jazzy and RnB. I didn’t ever really feel that comfortable singing pop. I always did love RnB. That’s the music that I would listen to. I think that when it came to being independent, there was just so much freedom to kind of explore that again. Pete Boxta’s really good at experimenting with beats, and it was just very experimental and stuff that was very different. It was mainly just because there wasn’t anyone saying ‘Oh, but that won’t be played on the radio’. There was a freedom in the fact that there wasn’t ever any push behind us to ever make Radio 1 anyway. We just wanted to put something out there that no matter what we were so proud of. I think I was literally just like, I’m free. Now let’s make music.”
Rejection is something that most students have to learn to cope with. Be that whilst in the education system or later as they enter the job market. After parting ways with the label, you went on to release the EP “Ink” independently in 2017 and supported this with a successful UK headline tour. The EP itself went on to chart within the top 20 on iTunes. For you, what was the key to staying resilient and ultimately getting to a place that made the creation of “Ink” possible?
“I think you just have to literally not be afraid of failure anymore. In those years where I couldn’t sing I think I actually just started to hate it. Then I needed to remember that singing was literally my favourite toy from when I was a little kid. There was that real just love of it before it ever became a dream to be able to make a living out of it.
“So I think I just needed to get back into a place where I just loved it, and wasn’t putting these goals on it like it needs to be playlisted here, it needs to make me this amount of money. If I took all of that away and was just like, you know, I just love making this music. I love being able to release something that someone in Ireland would message me, someone in Brazil would message me, someone in Chile would message me, and be like: ‘I was really struggling today and this song helped me’, to me that meant a lot. It helped me to keep going.
“I think it’s also as well that everyone would say rejection isn’t personal, it’s always personal. It’s always personal. It is a personal thing so it’s okay to feel rubbish about it and grieve a little about it. But I would just say, definitely just get back up and say – well, they’re not the people that I have to try and please with this. Take the pressure off yourself in that respect. They didn’t get it, that’s okay. They’re not the ones that this next record is for.”
Two weeks ago, you released the worship track “Faithful One”. What was the motivation behind the decision to bring worship music to the front and center of your work?
“Basically, there will always be this underlying theme for me because I grew up knowing God. In L.A., it was probably the loneliest I have ever been in my entire life. I don’t really care about ‘celebrity’, to be honest with you there’s a whole layer to that I didn’t really like. Whenever I was in L.A., I very much felt like it was just me and God. My faith deepened a lot whenever I was there, and there was that real reliance there because I had just spent a lot of time just with Him. Whenever there were these arguments, you know, in the industry over me or over my voice. I think I realised that’s not what I believe. I do believe that God gave me my voice. And actually that it wasn’t for anyone else to argue for ownership of. God had given it to me. I understand that a lot of people’s perception of faith is rejection or exclusion, because of maybe who they are and who they love, but that’s just not in any way what I believe.
“‘Faithful One’ is a cover of a worship song. It’s a song that I’ve sung in absolutely horrendous grief, that I sung when I was extremely lonely in L.A., that I sung when I got signed, that I sung when I became an independent artist on my own with no money, and a song that I found myself singing again over this whole lockdown.”
And finally what’s next for Leah McFall?
“I’m in the middle of making my new project, and yes it is very faith based. It’s absolutely beautiful. Every single project I’ve done I’ve taken that advice of ‘what does my heart need to hear? Because only then will I be able to truthfully minister unto other people’s hearts’. This next project is what I need to hear, and hopefully that’ll be the same as what other people need to hear, and it’ll connect to them in that same way as well. It will definitely be out in the new year.”