From writing songs at age 12, to recording himself on a cassette player in his bedroom, to dancing and acting in school theater, the creative arts were never an option for Leon Else–they were his escape.
Music provided solace from family problems, mental depression, and the stigma that results from masking such issues with the "perfect lives, perfect little houses, perfect little bodies" we see on social media. The sense of raw, emotional vulnerability that comes with accepting a not-so-perfect reality is infused in all of Else's music, garnering major support for recent singles "Black Car" and "Dance."
We sat down with Leon Else to get more insight on his beginnings, his perspective on how to address mental illness, as well as his future plans. Read more below!
Ones To Watch: How did you know music was your calling?
Leon Else: For me, I don't think I "knew." I think it's just something that I'd always felt a feeling towards. I wanted to sing all the time, to my family, always at family dinners. And you do it at such a young age, and you don't think about it, you just do it. And before you know it, it just becomes normal, and it becomes an everyday thing.
I think that when you have a natural calling to whatever it is, you just find yourself there.
Ones To Watch: So your latest single is "Dance." It sounds a lot
happier and more upbeat than the previous ones–what inspired that?
Leon Else: Well actually, it's funny because it feels more upbeat and happy, but the lyrics are still kind of dark. It's still about you know, "Running in the rain again, got a black dog chasing me" means the black dog of depression…
He follows everywhere I go
Oh, won’t he let me be
Fire in my brain again
Armageddon over me
Voices whisper in my ear
You know you’ll never be free
The song addresses subjects that are considered "current" because people are starting to talk about them more now, but they're subjects that have probably been around since mankind has been alive. Problems with mental health, blah blah blah. I believe that we can all try and change our perspective to turn every situation into a better situation. I do think exercise and fitness actually are better ways of dealing with depression than kind of just taking a pill and suppressing yourself.
Ones to Watch: Do you turn to music too?
Leon Else: Yeah, absolutely! I mean I do take pills, I'm ADHD so I do sometimes need help from medication if I'm a bit too much, you know? But in general, I just try to exercise and write music. I find writing music really hard–it's really personal. I don't wake up every day going, "Oh my god, my life's so fucking great, I get to go and write a song today, lucky me." And after I skip down the road to the studio. I think that's what a lot of people think that’s what people in my situation do. People look from the outside in. We look on Instagram, we see people with their perfect lives, their perfect little house, their perfect little bodies, and we're like, "God, they look so happy," but we all do it too. I think that it's just about trying to put it out there, showing people what the real picture is.
Ones to Watch: And how do you hope that message is received by your fans?
Leon Else: I just want them to feel something, anything. I don't care if they absolutely hate my music–it's good they're feeling something. I want it to be passionate. I don't need them to cheer for me or cheer against me. I want people to feel like a sense of escapism.
I believe that life is very hard for more people than not. And life is also hard because we're so busy looking through the window into someone else's world, but they've got control of what we see. I believe that people need to talk about being more open about things, and I try to do that with what I'm talking about in my music. I've been very honest about what I'm going through, what I'm feeling. There are some people who are like, "Well what the fuck's he got to be so down and sad about?"
But that's my point… one thing that brings us all together, one thing that makes us all the same, is the fact that no matter what level we're at, no matter how much money we've got or what class in society we are, one thing that brings us all together is feelings.
That's what connects people, period. I want my music to get them to start talking, to not have a stigma attached to the issues. To come to my show and just for that one or two hours, forget about everything. Forget about the problems or drama or bills or boyfriend/girlfriend troubles or whatever. And lose yourself in the moment. Feel something. It's more powerful than people realize. Music is a remedy. And it sounds so cheesy to say that….
Ones to Watch: Speaking of health issues, we read that you're a major advocate of spreading awareness on mental illness–tell us about that?
Leon Else: I grew up in a family where mental health had a huge part in ripping my family apart. I've seen a lot growing up, and it's a problem that I don't think is fully addressed. Because I experience it, now I know people experience it way harder than I do, and I know people experience it less than I do. But I have an understanding to a level, and when someone feels down, it's awful.
If I can just make certain people feel better about their existence–feel better about their life or where they are in the world, or if they have a brain that thinks a bit more or thinks a bit differently, or sees things not the way that we are told we should see things–I want those people to know they're not alone.
And if I do, then I hope someone else will say "Oh and I do too," so that's what it is for me.
Ones to Watch: Have you gotten that reaction?
Leon Else: Yeah! I do, I speak quite openly on my blog and stuff like that. I don't hold back. I'm not going to filter myself, and I've gotten a lot of feedback for it.
Ones to Watch: Got it. Now to the question everyone's dying to ask: where did you learn your dance moves?
Leon Else: [chuckles] Well, I was a professional dancer. To get out of my hometown, I knew I had to just get out of there. You know, and you couldn't really go and learn to be a pop star, so to speak. But there were dance schools, theater schools, because that's such an old technique to go and do. So I'd go to the dance class in school, and I got into it that way. It just felt great.
I love any way of expressing–it's not just singing or songwriting, it's creating or painting or just being a creative director, putting ideas together to make a project, whatever it may be. Dance was the first true option that presented itself in a creative format that could get me out.
Ones to Watch: What can we expect from you in the next year and
Leon Else: Expect the unexpected…because I don't truly know what I'm doing. I don't have expectations for myself–I just like take each bit as it comes, because it's such a mountain to climb. Obviously I want to go on tour, and more music naturally.
I'm definitely going to put out an album… and it's going to be different. I definitely got some more country vibes.
Ones to Watch: Country? Plot twist!
Leon Else: Yeah, I'd say country with some synths kind of thing–think of Springsteen "Streets of Philadelphia." Kind of Johnny Cash-esque. That kind of vibe is what I want to inject into the set.
Ones to Watch: Do you have an idea of your ultimate goal?
My ultimate goal is to be the biggest artist in the world–but in my own way.
But I don't want to be generic pop. I want to do something more than just stand there and sing, or just sell records. There's so much more I want to do as a creative because I think creative arts is the way for a lot of problems.