One night several years ago, Leah LaBelle heard that one of her favorite bands, N.E.R.D., was playing a special show in her hometown of Seattle. An admirer of its lead singer Pharrell Williams, LaBelle was not about to let not having a ticket stop her from meeting him. She sweet-talked her way into a backstage meet-and-greet, and when Williams appeared, marched up to him and said, “I’m a singer and I just want to tell you that I’m a huge fan and you’re going to produce my album one day.”
Recalling the memory now, LaBelle shakes her head and laughs. “I don’t know what came over me, normally I’m not that bold, but clearly I was on a mission. I didn’t want to seem like a crazy, psycho fan, I wanted him to know that I sang. But of course in that moment, you’re always thinking, ‘I hope I get discovered today.’ I just went for it.”
LaBelle didn’t get discovered that day. She was only able to chat with Williams for a few minutes before he was hustled away to perform. But her prediction that he would produce her album did come true. Williams is responsible for half of the songs on LaBelle’s upcoming debut album, with the other half being produced by another industry heavy-hitter, Jermaine Dupri, who insisted on getting involved after seeing LaBelle’s homemade YouTube videos. The two have signed her to a joint venture with Williams’ label I Am Other, Dupri’s label So So Def, and Epic Records, now headed by L.A. Reid, who was also bowled over by LaBelle’s sultry, soulful voice, edgy style, and playful spirit.
Since signing, LaBelle has been in the studio with Williams in Miami and Dupri in Atlanta, recording a series of summery, hook-laden jams like her first single “Sexify” — a lighthearted, girl-talk song that was inspired by a series of Cosmopolitan coverlines. “We wanted to capture that cool girl who talks about love, life, sex, fashion, style, everything, so we actually pulled phrases and titles from the magazine and put them in the lyrics,” LaBelle explains. “Pharrell really encouraged me to embrace the fun, fearless side of my personality. I hope that song inspires girls to feel free to be sexy to guys while still being true to themselves.”
LaBelle also gets a chance to express her love for hip-hop on the breezy “Boxx Chevy,” which Dupri wrote and produced. “I love music with beats that bump and go straight into your soul,” she says. “That song has a harder aspect to it, but it’s still girly. It was fun to tap into that character and go to a different place. Pharrell and JD bring out different sides of me. Both are true to who I am.”
LaBelle’s personal story is as rich and textured as her music. Her parents met in their native Bulgaria where both were well-known performers. Her mother sang in an Abba-esque pop group while her father was a guitarist in one of Bulgaria’s first rock groups. Back then Bulgaria was a communist country and her father was imprisoned several times for such offenses as having long hair. Unwilling to raise children in such a controlling environment, LaBelle’s parents defected to Canada while on tour and had Leah while they were living in Toronto. After a few months, the family moved to Pennsylvania where they struggled to make ends meet. “My mom cleaned CVS parking lots,” LaBelle says. “She was literally picking up cigarette butts by hand off the concrete. It was hard for them to go from being famous to nobody knowing or caring who they were.”
Eventually the family made its way to Tacoma, Washington, where LaBelle’s parents formed a pop group called Double Freedom, which toured the U.S. However their marriage faltered during those years and, after the couple divorced, Leah and her mother moved to Seattle. “My mom had to start over by herself,” she says. “It was just the two of us, we didn’t know anybody. It was really rough.”
When LaBelle was seven, her mother took her to see Sister Act 2 and young Leah fell hard for its star, a pre-Fugees Lauryn Hill, who belts out a hip-hop-inspired version of “Joyful Joyful” in a pivotal scene. “She became my role model for days,” LaBelle says. “I had been singing with my parents since I was three, but when I saw her, I knew I wanted to perform.”
From there, LaBelle’s career took many twists and turns. At 10, she joined a prominent Seattle gospel choir, which she performed with until she was 16. “I really grew into myself as a singer during that time,” she says. “It’s where I discovered my soul and my depth because gospel music is so passionate.” At 17, she auditioned for Season 3 of American Idol and made the finals — an experience she credits with teaching her some hard lessons about the business. “It taught me the work ethic, but also to stay true to yourself and listen to your gut because most of the time you’re right.” After graduating from high school, LaBelle enrolled at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, but only stayed for a year. She moved to Los Angeles and began plying her trade as a back-up singer, touring with such artists as Keri Hilson, Jordin Sparks, and Eric Benet. She also pursued her solo career, but after many false starts with people making promises they didn’t keep, LaBelle was ready to give up.
“My mom said, ‘What are you doing? Figure out your life,’” LaBelle recalls. “The thought of losing her support was a real bottoming-out moment for me. I was like, ‘I think I’m done,’ and I would have never ever said that about music.”
The day after she had spent the night crying herself to sleep, LaBelle woke up to Tweets that both Williams and Dupri were trying to contact her. They had seen her YouTube videos and were trying to reach her through the site to no avail. Within days of meeting, she was signed to their labels and Epic Records. “I have been so humbled by this whole experience,” LaBelle says. “L.A. Reid asked me if I was ready for everything to change and I said, ‘You have no idea. I’ve been ready my entire life.’”