Leon + the Fantastic is a San Matteo, California-based songwriter and piano teacher who integrates a classical approach to composition with rock, pop, and R&B influences. His performance at LEAF comes at an auspicious time: Leon is releasing his first full band EP, Let Me Cool on May 18th. “This is the single biggest driver of my hopes and dreams right now,” he says of the contemplative 6-track collection, which explores themes of justice, passion, and the “glorious chaos of daily life.”
We asked Leon some questions to learn more about his songwriting process and vision.
There are times in my life when an emotionally felt urgency is the general tone of my day to day. I’ll sit down at the piano as an urgent refuge, and start playing at some interesting chord change, improvising a bit. Melody will come, always through a sort of half-gibberish. I’ll locate a central theme, and certain vowels will come to the foreground. If I’m loyal to the moment, I’ll sit down and rework those vowels and sounds with words. My grandmother was a sculptor working in stone. She would describe her work as discovery, discovering what each piece will be. At a certain point there is recognition of a shape, and then dedication and craft to bring it to be. Often if I don’t complete the song in one sitting. It stays on my shelf, years later, a half-created beast, a strange half-angel with potential, maybe even wings, but no name.
Somehow, my muse is best guided by the flow of the moment, improvisation, discovery, recognition and then commitment. I do love chord changes and chromatic melodies. Uh-oh, music theory speak … cover your ears, children! For this reason I gravitate to artists like The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Chris Cornell, Jeff Buckley, Elliot Smith, Queen, Rufus Wainwright. Recently I’m re-inspired by groups like Aish, Once and Future Band, Meerna, Big Thief, Soccer Mommy, Joy Again. Of course I’ve always loved the old greats of hip hop like Tribe, Outkast and Biggie. And contemporary prog rap artists like Shabazz Palaces and Robert Glasper. In jazz, it’s Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Eric Lewis, Brad Mehldau. In country, it’s the Man in Black. And in classical, I am all about Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. I like it all. Or as my high school friend Lily once put it, “Leon, you’re a twisted mess of religion and sin.”
It means everything. I spent many years as a piano player in jazz or classical and giving up on my own songwriting. I have always written music. I simply am not a born or natural singer. The eencie weencie bit of vocal skill I possess came with a tremendous amount of labor, and barely puts me at level. … The fact that my single was selected, that I am a finalist. I am blown away. To be invited to play, for people who don’t know me, who are saying, we like what you do… It just fills me, man. It brings a lot of hope to this Leon here.
That I’ve been through a long journey to get here, like many of us have. I skipped high school in the 9th grade and started to play. I wanted to just start being a person, and fell deeply in love with music. I eventually got connected with a theater company and wrote songs as a teenager and in my early 20s I belatedly went to music school in New York.
For a time I thought I’d become a Rabbi, I left music and took a deep dive among the extreme hasidic movement of Jerusalem. … The thing is, I am and was always too much of a universalist, and never really wanted to be tied down. After my deep dive, I rescued myself back up from the wellspring, dragging my tired frame up the rope until I re-emerged, with no trips, no attachment to a particular scene or group or set of beliefs. I wanted to get back into music. Let that be the story, the story of the folks I’ve met along the way. And so much of it were hard times man. Hard times. I’ve slept on park benches and grand estates. And now I seek to reap that harvest in song.