The Source Magazine sat down with actor/singer/producer/songwriter Leon Thomas to discuss his latest mixtape “V1bes,” partnering up with Rostrum Records, producing for Ariana Grande, collaborating with Wiz Khalifa and having Kenneth Brian “Babyface” Edmonds as a mentor. Read our exclusive interview below!
So, how old were you when you started acting?
LT: I started acting at ten years old. I had my first audition for “The Lion King.” My mom’s friend saw me at a rehearsal and she was like “You should audition, you have the same hair style as all the younger Simbas.” So I went on in and in a week I went from playing basketball and chilling, to starring on Broadway.
You said your parents and your grandparents were singers. Can you tell us a little bit about their background in music?
LT: My grandfather sang at the MET. He was also the music director for a TV show – the soap opera “One life to live” for years. It’s literally in the family, so I grew up around a lot of really awesome musicians and people who always inspired me to be myself.
And then your mom also sang?
LT: My mom also sang and she traveled a lot with a lot of different world beat groups, so I kind of grew up around a lot of really organic, hippy styled people so yeah it has been a nice journey.
After being on Broadway, what would you say was the next important step in your career?
LT: Well, the broadway world was a great place for me to just come up in the game. I did three different shows in three years and after that I booked a movie called “August Rush” that kind of catapulted me to being noticed by Nickelodeon, then Nickelodeon took me under their wing and I did about seven different shows with them over the years and I started off on a kids show called “The Backyardigans” and ever since then things have kind of just been rolling.
So, it’s been a very organic relationship with “Nickelodeon.” Was “Victorious” the biggest smash of them all?
LT: Yes “Victorious,” was definitely the biggest smash of them all, but I would say it’s a big hit with the toddlers when it comes to “The Backyardigans.”
So simultaneously all this time you’ve been making music, tell us about your musicality. What instruments do you play, in addition to singing?
LT: Well, I grew up playing drums and at age 12 I picked up a bass guitar and guitar as well because in the movie “August Rush,” I had to learn to play guitar. I also play piano and I played sax in school growing up.
So, you play a lot of instruments!
LT: Yes, I love music.
At what point did you start song writing, have you been song writing since you were young?
LT: Well, writing songs started off. My parents used to run an independent label out of my house, so I’ve seen them write songs my whole life and I started writing around twelve and the guitar was a great tool for me to express myself and accompany all of my different ideas and yeah that’s kind of where it all started at twelve years old.
What was the first song you wrote?
LT: I can’t remember the name of it, but it was a really dope record. Everyone was really supportive in my cast “The Color Purple.” They would all gather around and listen to the different songs I was doing and I would come into the dressing room and play it for them and it was just a great place to be. It was just a great place to develop my sound.
Who are some people in music that you admire or look up to?
LT: I really look up to Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, D’Angelo, Prince, Micheal Jackson of course!
Would you count these people as your influences as well in music?
LT: Definitely! I think there’s something very special evan about artists like Pharrell who are able to go produce a hit record and then put out a really awesome single themselves and stay current and just do their thing. I really want to be like them in the respect that they are always themselves and they always do what they want to do.
You’re a triple threat! You produce, you write, you sing, you compose. So tell us about that process where you took it to the next level, was it just signing to Columbia?
LT: Well, I signed to Columbia at fourteen, so there was a nice little learning curve there. I don’t know how many people at fourteen, really know everything about themselves, so it took me a minute to really find exactly what I wanted to do within the industry, but around seventeen or eighteen, I really found a nice little pocket, listening to Frank Ocean and Miguel in the early years and just really really being around the dope indie scene, it just gave me the inspiration to do exactly what I do musically now.
I want to talk about your current mixtape “V1bes,” that you have out. There’s a “1” in the title.
LT: I just threw the 1 in there. It’s in there because this will be the first mixtape of I want to say three over the next couple of years and they are all going to incorporate numbers in them, so you’ll see the theme later on.
So tell us about the creative process behind it when did you get started on it?
LT: Well, it all started off with me being in my room and listening to really dope instrumentals, like the producer J Dilla…I’m a really big fan of him and a lot of the chill wave scene, so “XXYYXX” was another producer I was listening to at the time when I said you know I really needed to write songs over this and I would just be in my room singing hooks and next thing I knew I’d have about full songs written and I took a trip to Pittsburg for Wiz Khalifa’s wedding and I ended up writing just about the entire mixtape in my hotel room there and when I got back, I had four days set up in the studio to record the whole thing and we recorded it in three days and mixed it in one.
That’s incredible, the project took a week?
LT: Yeah (laughs)
And so you also announced this big collaboration with Rostrum Records, can you tell me about how Rostrum came into the mix as a co-label?
LT: Shortly after “Victorious” was finished and we wrapped up our fourth season, I started doing a mixtape which was the first one “Metro Hearts” and I had a single on that mixtape called “Hello How Are You” and I was telling Billy I just really need a rapper on here I think Wiz Khlaifia would be a perfect match, and he hit up Benji Grinberg, who happened to be a really good friend of his and then after that we got together Benji came to the studio and said I would love to be involved in your project and we sat down with Columbia and they appointed them to be my marketing team there and so I’m signed to Columbia as a major label and Rostrum is pretty much running the ship for me and just making sure I have everything I need marketing wise and just setting up that promotion.
You have “Hello How Are You,” featuring Wiz Khalifa, so tell me about collaborating with him and working with him.
LT: I pretty much just requested my man and it worked out. It’s a huge look and I’m a huge fan! I met Wiz backstage at one of his shows and I am a major Wiz Khalifa fan, which is one of the main reasons I really wanted him on my record because I just really love the fact that he can express himself and be exactly who he wants to be no matter where he is and people respect him for it.
And are there any hopes to collaborate with other Rostrum artists?
LT: I got a chance to work with my labelmate Vali, we did a couple songs together. She actually has one song on “V1bes” with me “You and Me” and that was really awesome and I know Ty Dolla $ign. He isn’t Rostrum, but he’s with Taylor Gang and I would love to work with him at some point as well.
You also worked on four songs for Ariana Grande’s smash debut “Yours Truly.”
LT: It’s four, but I vocal produced on another one, so I say five.
Obviously she’s someone you know from the show “Victorious,” but how did you link up musically?
LT: Honestly I always find it awkward when you have friends who are doing things and you don’t want to be too pushy with stuff and for me I always let her do her own thing and we would always hang out and just be friends. She came by the studio because I was throwing a little party, a little get together and she happened to play her single which wasn’t out yet which is ” The Way” and she hadn’t had Mac Miller on it yet and she was just talking about how much she believed in that song and we had a record called “Baby I” that Kenny “Baby face” and Tony Dixon produced that we thought would really match up with that sound, and we sent it to her label, her label freaked out over it she came by to cut that and the next thing I knew we had cut four songs and I had a number one record in 30 countries, it was crazy
Speak about working with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
LT: I actually work under him at his studio. My production partner is signed to an exclusive deal with him and Tony Dixon and I’ve been working with them for about a year in a half to two years now just on a bunch of different artists like RaVaughn. She’s a Columbia artist and we did a single “Best Friend” and we’ve had some really awesome opportunities in the last couple of years and working with BabyFace is great because he’s a really awesome mentor.
Babyface is such a legendary songwriter and producer and to just be in that studio must be so cool, can you reflect on that experience?
LT: There’s a “Youtube” video online of Jay-Z going into the booth and cutting a song in ten minutes and I think a lot of songwriters see that and they think that it’s always supposed to be like that, but what I’ve learned from Kenny is that it’s okay to re-think a song and it’s okay to take your time and really work through the process I mean writing a song is a process.
Can you speak a little about your song writing process?
LT: I like to come into the studio with various concepts, but I don’t like to have anything written in stone and then the music is everything for me , melodies are a big deal, so if I can really just get in there and be inspired about what’s happening musically then the song should flow. It’s something that really doesn’t have a time thing. I don’t know that I can write a song in two hours. Sometimes it’ll take forty-five minutes and sometimes it’ll take five or six hours. My process varies.
Who would you like to collaborate with on a producer level?
LT: I would love to work with Timbaland. He’s like one of my heroes. Pharrell like I said before. He’s definitely one of my heroes and Kanye West just talking about an amazing producer. The thing is, what Kanye’s been able to do, he’s so ahead of the game, I just want to hear what he’s on right now cause it’s like at least two years in front of what everyone else is doing.
In terms of doing the track “Best Friend” with RaVaughn, can you tell me about collaborating with her?
LT: It was really great, we wrote the song with her younger sister Rhyon and it was me and my production parter Chris Tines and we were just in the room vibing out and we came out with a really awesome hook and some classic chords on the guitar that I was playing and it’s about being in love with someone who is your best friend and it kind of sucks and she was just telling him off.
Tell me about your relationship with Chris Tines and how you became “The Rascals.”
LT: Well, we started working together. A buddy of mine Jinsu whose a rapper told me to come by the studio and see if I could write some hooks with him and I came by and literally ever since that day I haven’t left the studio. Me and Chris Tines met and it was just a creative boom and we just started working every week, everyday and next thing we knew, we had about 70 songs done in a year and we placed quite a few as well.
LT: Well right now I’m in the studio finishing up my album. I have a movie coming out called “Bad Asses” with Danny Trejo and Danny Glover and I play a supporting role in that. That was a really awesome experience, It was my first action film, so I got to do some really cool stuff, drive some funky cars and run around beat people up (laughs), but it was cool.
LT: Yes! We’ve been in some pretty intense writing camps working on her second album trying to get everything together, but it’s fairly early in the process, but I know for a fact we should have some really good stuff on there.