Pop stars are often perceived as fearless egomaniacs unable to concede defeat even in the midst of their demise. But British singer Leona Lewis couldn’t be more humble. Her fifth studio album, I Am, marks her debut on Island Def Jam, and her first since severing ties with Simon Cowell, who signed her to his Sony-distributed Syco Music, after winning the third season of The X Factor.
Despite her hit singles “Bleeding Love,” “Better in Time,” and “Happy,” chart topping albums, and angelic voice that has been compared to the likes of Mariah and Whitney, she was concerned about her future.
“I was kinda worried,” she remembered. “I didn’t know if I was going to get signed again. After going through a low point. I was vulnerable. I just left my label. It was a very big change for me. I knew so many people at that label for years. To leave that and to not have anything [was tough].”
Creative differences prompted Leona’s decision to part ways with Simon. In a two-page handwritten letter Leona wrote to fans last year, she said she was not comfortable with the direction her music was taking.
“For my fifth album, I was asked to make a record that would not have been true to myself,” she wrote. She said while she was grateful for the opportunity to record, she had to fight for her artistic voice. “I cannot make music that does not speak to my soul, and as scary as it seemed, I could no longer compromise myself, and so I decided to leave.”
Without any record deal offers, Leona teamed with her friend, songwriter Toby Gad, who has worked with Beyoncé, John Legend, and Madonna, to begin creating the kind of music she wanted to make.
After making about four songs, Toby approached Island Def Jam about Leona. They called her to schedule a meeting to hear some of the music, loved it, and expressed interest in signing her. While she ended up meeting with other labels as well, she settled with Island.
Even though things worked out for her, she did not take it for granted. “I am like every other person. I go through those emotions, those vulnerabilities,” she said. “In this day it’s not so quick that a label will say, ‘Oh, I’ll sign it.’ It took a lot of work and getting myself off the ground and making things happen for myself.”
Leona learned a lot working with moguls Simon and Clive Davis. “To find your voice with those two is very difficult,” she said. “You really have to grow a pair. I definitely learned a lot from them being big mentors to me. It tested me in my inner strength. They made me a strong artist who is able to speak up for myself. It was time for me to go and flex my muscles and do my thing.”
Her triumphant message is heard in the songs on I Am. Leona’s open letter to fans inspired acclaimed songwriter Diana Warren to write Leona the song “You Knew Me When” that celebrates her evolution. The dance anthem “Ladders” is about being brave enough to face mistakes. The album’s latest single “Thunder” is an ode to rebounding after a setback.
The survivalist theme is intentional. “When I look back on this, I feel like I’ve been through a lot, an emotional roller coaster ride,” she said. “But I’ve come out so much stronger. I’m wiser. I’ve learned so much about myself. This is really close to my heart. If it can help anyone, I feel like my job is done.”