Have you heard of Kelli-Leigh? If not, why not? With 19 releases and two No. 1 hits, only the deepest of cave dwellers can have escaped her dulcet tones over their radio waves. Kelli-Leigh may be a jewel in UK dance music’s crown with chart success and a long list of musical accolades, but a cursory glance at her social media profiles reveals followers in the low thousands. Not to be sniffed at, for sure, but neither is it an accurate reflection of her achievements. Why has no one made this girl a Wikipedia page?
The problem? We live in an age in which the ego of the producer reigns supreme, in which producers can be belligerently reluctant to share their hallowed limelight. Fear not, Kelli-Leigh’s in town.
We meet in the depths of winter at London’s Somerset House. She is exactly on time and looks happy, understated and on fleek in a floppy, felt hat. She is warm, down-to-earth and instantly likeable. No divas here.
Over coffee, she tells me her story is typical: a Londoner, born and bred, she attended the illustrious Brit School before foraying into open mic nights, function circuits and vocal sessions, carving out a career recording demos for songwriters, deftly imitating the vocal style and nuance of big name artists.
Making tracks into dance music was never intentional, she reveals. Her real love lies in soulful rock and her eclectic tastes span Skunk Anansie, Whitney Houston, Norah Jones and Ella Fitzgerald, with a deep fondness for a gutsy guitar solo borne of her mother’s obsession with U2.
Her career in dance music came about largely though her long working relationship with Replay Heaven, a company which remakes samples of songs allowing (mainly club and urban) music producers to circumvent sampling fees and clearance issues. She also toured with High On Heels, an all-female musical collective headed up by international DJ Miss Kelly Marie.
However, she knew she wanted to crack the backing vocals scene and boy, did she. At 26, she landed her first proper BV gig: Adele’s 21 tour. It blew her mind, she tells me, regaling tales of the magic she witnessed hearing Adele sing up-close and personal for the first time, standing off the mic in a rehearsal. She talks admiringly of the insane power innate to Adele’s voice, the ridiculous resonance and projection.
Kelli-Leigh went on to sing with Leona Lewis and Jessie J. Although she yearned to be an artist in her own right, her skills as a backing vocalist meant she was in such demand that she couldn’t focus on her own musical ambitions.
Then came 2013: a devastating car crash, a severely prolapsed disc, excruciating sciatica and a wheelchair. Kelli-Leigh couldn’t walk, let alone wear high heels. This new immobility forced her hand and she had to give up tours, gigs and much-coveted BV spots. Only a select few people bothered to call to see if she was okay, fewer still visited. When colleagues realised she wasn’t going to be getting them work, the phone all but stopped ringing. One can guess at the physical pain, but the emotional price must have been even greater.
Some may have thrown in the towel and wallowed in understandable self-pity, but Kelli-Leigh sensed her opportunity to shift. When Replay Heaven asked Kelli-Leigh to sing I Got U for Duke Dumont and Jax Jones, she said she could but would have to do the session sitting down. A month later, she was called to sing I Wanna Feel for Secondcity and did the same.
I Wanna Feel – Secondcity featuring vocals by Kelli-Leigh
I Got U went to No. 1 in March 2014, I Wanna Feel hit the top spot in April 2014 and her single Love Too Deep with Ferrick Dawn charted in the top 40 a month later. Suddenly, Kelli-Leigh’s luck had changed: three massive tracks, an agent, a tour with Duke Dumont and an appearance on BBC Live Lounge. Now, the phone was ringing off the hook.
Truly back on her feet, Kelli-Leigh boasts a phenomenal 11 million streams, 2 Beat Port Top 10 Vocals and 12 releases last year alone, notably Low Steppa’s Runnin’ and Duke Dumont’s Be Here. Impressive, huh? But search Spotify for any of the aforementioned tracks, and you won’t find her name there. Why not?
Kelli-Leigh is on a mission to get recognition for dance music vocalists and credit where credit is due.
“Some producers don’t like a vocalist having any kind of recognition, but there’s a large amount of them who have launched their careers off a vocal-house track or a vocal-dance track… They’ll take the vocal and take the top line, but then they don’t want to put a feature on, because they’re like, ‘No, this is my track, it’s about me’.
“It feels like vocalists are being completely disrespected by certain people and I think some people don’t understand what it actually takes to be a very good singer. I think it’s because you can’t see a singer using their instrument like you can with a guitarist, where you can see how many fancy things they can do and how many chords they can play.”
How has she dealt with refusals to be featured?
“The person who did it to me, I considered a friend, and that felt really harsh. Suddenly I got this phone call saying, ‘I’m not going to feature you and if you ask to be featured I’m going to replace your vocal with someone else’. That was really rude, considering I had writing on the track as well.
“At the time I wasn’t strong enough in myself. I had to make a decision, either to go ‘Eff you, you can’t have the song’ or to say ‘fine’, let it go and move on. So, I let the song go, but when it eventually came out I was really offended because this person did everything in their power not to mention my name.”
A consummate professional, she is reluctant to name names, but tells me she had always had a good relationship with this particular producer prior to the disagreement.
“That was so disappointing. [I thought] ‘I sang this track for you and that’s my songwriting. It’s not a competition, we’re all in this together. If you didn’t write the song, announce the songwriter.’ It doesn’t take much to just say who’s involved in a project, but egos get in the way and that’s really tough, this lack of respect after they’ve taken your vocal and used it for whatever they want.”
I ask if gender plays a role in the reluctance of producers to credit and feature vocalists. She is eager to impress upon me that many of the men she works with are lovely and name-checks Low Steppa as exemplary in his attitude and approach, shouting her out on the radio and tagging her on social media whenever anything happened with Runnin’.
But she admits that, yes, dance music is a man’s world: some find it shocking she records and engineers her own vocals; some male sound engineers take umbrage when she asks for specific microphones or levels. There remains a pervasive and outdated assumption that all things technical are the preserve of men.
“There are female producers, but a low percentage. I think some [men] do see it as ‘Alright, female, do your vocals. Killer vocalist. You look sexy on stage – great!’ but then when you come in and say ‘Actually, I don’t think this chord works on the vocals, and I think the vocal should do this here and, actually, let me comp that because I’ll do it faster than you,’ they don’t expect you to know what you’re talking about… They just expect you to come in, sing and go home.”
She came close to releasing an album in Poland, but was called a “diva bitch” by the producers and indie label when she dared to criticise the music.
“They wouldn’t speak to [a man] like that. I don’t just want to be famous, so I won’t kowtow. It rubs people up the wrong way, especially men… I sometimes feel that if I were looser with my morals and behaviour then maybe my career might have advanced more by now and that’s a weird thing. Especially with social media, there’s a balance between wanting to look attractive and nice and the fear that you might be whoring yourself out for a few more likes but then, if you do, you notice those likes go up.”
What’s to be done? Taking matters into her own hands, Kelli-Leigh tells me enthusiastically about the show she made on PyroRadio at the end of 2016, in which she looked back at a year of dance music and piled on praise for vocalists such as Raphaella, Boy Matthews, Karen Harding and Becky Hill.
“A lot of us have been doing multiple things with different people and are smashing it, all in our own way. When I did the show, I felt so proud to not be looking at any other vocalists as my competition, but to look at them and go, ‘Oh my God, that vocalist killed that’ and ‘That songwriting, I loved’. It was so nice to hear us back-to-back as a force, with a lot of us being UK artists as well.
“I want to break down this barrier that isn’t really talked about. It feels like singers are on the back foot of late. We should be championing and shouting each other out more. I’m not the best riffer or ad libber, unless I’m in a really comfortable zone. I know my thing is my tone and my sound: that seems to be my gift. So, I can appreciate someone else who can do all the runs in the world that I can’t do and look at it and celebrate it. We all have a fingerprint. We’re all completely unique.”
Much to her chagrin, Kelli-Leigh may now be too unique: she’s had to stop backing singing altogether now she’s a bona fide artist. People don’t get it: are you a backing singer or an artist?
“When you’re a backing singer, you’re subduing your own style and sound in order to give that to somebody else, but even the industry sees you like [you can’t be both]. Shows like X Factor or The Voice – actual backing vocalists have gone on there and they ridicule them. They like to get these people and make them say in front of the camera ‘Oh, I really just want it to be my opportunity now and I want to step into the limelight.’ They really enjoy setting them up and then letting them fall. I’ve always found that really disgusting.”
Evidently, Kelli-Leigh is not one to take anything lying down, speaking up on behalf of all vocalists and songwriters. What’s her advice to them?
“Follow your gut instinct. Think about what you enjoy. Is the song something that represents you and which you’re proud of? Are you doing it just get paid or to advance your career in a certain way? Think about what you want to achieve before you do anything.
“Value your own opinion and sound. If you don’t like something or want to change something, say it.
Try to retain your individuality and remember that the vocalist – you – is just as important as the producer.
Never feel lesser than… You’re up there because you’ve created something vocally specially that the audience has connected with and that’s made a moment, it’s made magic happen. Self-worth should always be first, before anything else.”
So, what’s next for this songstress? Three new releases in January and February, songwriting trips to Los Angeles and, best of all, plans to release something of her own. Kelli-Leigh: remember the name.
WHEN DID YOU REALISE YOU WANTED TO BE A SINGER?
I started thinking about it around the age of six or seven, but knew definitely by 11 or 12.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST SONG YOU SANG IN PUBLIC? HOW DID YOU FEEL?
A stand out moment was coming joint first when I was in Year 7 with some post 16 students at my secondary school’s talent competition with a song I wrote and my parents produced. It felt so good that a song I had written had captured the room.
WHO IS YOUR SINGING IDOL?
I have a few but Whitney stands out for me. Her voice is pure feeling, interlaced with power and intimacy; she blew me away from a very young age.
WHO HAVE YOU WORKED WITH/SUPPORTED?
Adele, Leona Lewis, Duke Dumont, Jax Jones, Rita Ora, MK, Low Steppa, Ferreck Dawn, Secondcity, Jessie J, Blonde, Tieks and many more…
WHO ARE YOU LISTENING TO AND WHY?
I’m in love with Raleigh Ritchie. His music and lyrical content is simply brilliant.
A SONG OR LYRIC THAT MAKES YOU CRY?
How by Lisa Loeb. That song couldn’t be more beautiful or more perfect as a composition and I love Lisa’s honest, warm tone.
FAVOURITE PIECE OF RECORDING GEAR?
I love my Blue Baby Bottle mic. I’ve had it for about six years and it’s been so good to me and so consistent; I know how it works with my voice. I recorded Low Steppa’s Runnin’(which I co-wrote with Rob Harvey) in my flat using this mic and got a great sound on my vocals. That track has now had over seven million Spotty streams. I’ve also recorded quite a few other tracks in my flat on this mic.
THREE THINGS YOU COULDN’T DO WITHOUT WHEN GIGGING?
My Sennheiser (although for some reason not all sound techs follow my tech rider on this and I’ve had the Shure/Sennheiser debate time and time again, *sigh*), my ear plugs/in-ears and my music.
IF YOU WEREN’T A SINGER WHAT WOULD YOU BE?
A radio DJ.
WHERE CAN WE HEAR YOU?
You can also go to Spotify where my latest releases and features will drop first.
Article By: Clarissa Land