Max Leone, pop’s newest face, is worthy of your attention
With his second single Cautious, the 20-year-old musician proves that there’s a fire lit underneath the next generation of pop.
It takes a lot for a pop song to capture your attention these days, especially if it’s from an artist you’re unfamiliar with. In the age where algorithmic streaming playlists churn new music out with a head-spinning pace, most people will only give 20 seconds - maximum - to a song they’ve never encountered before until they flick over to the next, never coming back to it again. As a result, a lot of genuinely great music fails to capture the applause it deserves, and it’s becoming harder for artists to emerge based on their music alone; social media challenges and Netflix movie syncs seemingly being the go-to method of breaking out an artist in 2020.
Max Leone, for the most part, doesn’t seem bothered by this. More than anything, the 20-year-old California-based musician is just happy to have the means to share his art, regardless of the audience it captures or whether that audience even likes it. “I'm just happy to have the means to put the art out into the world,” his voice crackles down the phone from Los Angeles, where he moved after dropping out of Boston’s infamous Berklee College of Music in search of something a little more real life.
Dropping out of an institution like Berklee is a risky move from a burgeoning artist so early on in their potential career - the college has an alumni list spanning pages, from John Mayer and Charlie Puth to Empress Of and St. Vincent - yet, it somehow managed to pay off for Leone, and Cautious is the track that’ll prove it to the world.
That whole ‘20 seconds or it’s gone forever’ phenomenon that we were talking about earlier? Cautious, Leone’s second official single after the introductory First Grade at the top of the year, is a single that doesn’t even need that long to prove that it’s one worthy of staying with for a while. It’s dark and menacing, yet laden with this sense of uplifting hope; Leone’s charming, confident vocal darting amongst swelling bass and clapping percussion - the production makes itself known from the get-go, you definitely don’t need 20 seconds to grow to it - that gives the single its thick, gloomy backbone that Max Leone’s vocal contrasts against.
On its surface, Cautious a single that hints at something looming underneath. While the production is anything but light, Max Leone’s vocal surges with a sense of reflection that hints at uplifting and positive change, despite how rollercoastering change can often be. “Cautious is about isolating yourself from the world in an attempt to protect yourself from it, but ultimately discovering that the beauty and meaning in life is often derived through its discomfort,” he says on the track. Sure, picking yourself up and moving to a place like Los Angeles in search of something greater is a big, isolating move, but it’s also a new opportunity; a place to grow from the discomfort you put yourself through in the hopes of evolving as musically and personally.
The latter is something that’ll be showcased on a larger, six-track package arriving later this year, with Cautious being a preluding tease that for the most part, encapsulates the whole project and the emotional complexities that swirl amongst it. Like Cautious, the greater project aims to dissect Max Leone’s experiences with change and the emotional unbalance in can create; the lows - loneliness, anxiety, feelings of regret - mixed in-between the highs that give songs like Cautious that slight hint of euphoric upliftingness.
Cautious is an opportunity to introduce the world to Max Leone before the greater project defines both him and his sound for the complex, multi-faceted beings they are. It’s worth getting on it early though, as soon, Max Leone isn’t going to need introducing.
Let's kick this off by going back to your first experiences with music because it was really interesting hearing about how you're influenced by these classic, legacy musicians like Nina Simone and Pink Floyd - who are not your usual source of inspiration from a 20-year-old making pop music. What was your introduction to this stuff?
A lot of it is from just what my parents listened to; artists like Cat Stevens and Pink Floyd were just those bands that were played in the car on the way to school. I feel like other aspects of it - musicians like Nina Simone and Otis Redding, and that more soul-jazz sound - came from realising that a lot of hip-hop - Kanye, Kid Cudi, a lot of the stuff that I was listening to in middle school - was sample-based. I was really getting into production and figuring out how they would make those songs, and then through that, I realised that a lot of it was coming from Nina Simone or Otis, and then I discovered their music from there.
Hip-hop sampling is a way a lot of people first introduce themselves to those soul-jazz pioneers.
Yeah, and also when I listen to that music, I just feel like that it is the purest kind of songwriting. It's not like super produced, it's usually just a couple of instruments and then a vocalist. I like to reference those musicians when I'm just writing a song on guitar or piano, with no production or anything.
Is there like a sense of musicianship that you find really attractive?
Yeah, of course. As it goes with any legend, I think there are pieces of that to take from anyone who has made an impact with their records, regardless of genre or where they come from.
It's interesting because even your first instances of being a performer was in high school jazz bands, which comes back to that. How did that eventually transition into what you're working on today, and the sounds that you're writing now?
I think it’s because I'm a guitar player primarily. I played in a jazz band in high school, and then I went to Berklee College of Music, which is heavily jazz focused. I feel like [jazz music] was always a big influence, and one that only grew when I was involving myself in music more and more.
A lot of my songs today use jazz chords and jazz progressions and stuff like that, which I feel like is how it went into my music - it was a slow transition.
There are not many modern, commercial musicians working with jazz in a hip-hop/pop space, aside from the ones that are famous for it - BADBADNOTGOOD, for example. Is there anyone that you’re watching in the modern space that you’re like “Okay, I want to do it like this.”?
Well, I think someone who's been influential in my world has been Tom Misch. I feel like he's a jazz musician at heart - his music not necessarily jazz, but I feel like he's done a good job of combining the two different worlds.
We’re going to talk about moving to L.A. and everything in a second, but first I wanted to talk about Berkeley, because it sounds like that leaving there was the first big change that defines what you’re writing about now. What was that experience like?
I just needed to get out of Berkeley. It was a personal realisation, but I also felt I wanted to be really doing something with my music; something that felt more real life rather than being in class all day. Instead of learning how to do it, I just wanted to do it.
Do you feel like you got what you were after now, looking back at it?
Yeah, I definitely don't regret it. I do think that there are a lot of positive things that came out of going to Berkeley - I definitely learned a lot. You can never really stop learning music and I learnt so much there, so I definitely don't regret going there. I also don't regret leaving for the right choice.
Cautious - and the greater project we’ll talk about shortly - talks about this change, moving to L.A. shortly after, and everything you found there: isolation, loneliness, anxiety and so on. When it came to writing music after this experience, did it feel like the natural thing to write about?
Yeah, I didn't start the project with an intention or a concept really, it just kind of happened to be a collection of songs that came out of the first year of living in LA. It's really just an honest reflection of what was going on in my head at that time.
How much of it is solely done by you, because I know you work both in production and songwriting?
In the majority of the songs, it was just me by myself in my room, writing and producing. Cautious was just me, and then I was introduced to Luke Niccoli, who's been a frequent collaborator that produced First Grade, is someone that I’ve been working with a lot now, and we've co-produced some of the tracks as well. For the most part, it's been solo.
The reason why I ask is that in Australia, it seems like a lot of artists move to LA to collaborate with writers and producers, and it sounds like that isn't really something that you are there to do.
Yeah. I mean it's a newer aspect of my music. I was in a band for maybe a couple of months in high school, but other than that, I've never really been in a band, so it's always just been me alone. But now that I'm in LA, there are so many musicians and artists out here. It's been a new dimension, which is cool.
There are some quite personal things on this release, that are tied up to moving and experiencing things alone and in isolation. Do you feel like that’s easier to write about when you're completely in your own space?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like when I'm alone, I'm very honest. Sometimes when I'm writing with someone, especially someone who I don't know very well, I can tend to hide the raw emotion. I definitely feel like once it's in a song it's a lot easier for people to understand that it not as awkward as it is to put the initial idea out there though.
Are you finding much sense of catharticism in writing about this period, and dissecting it all?
Yeah, for sure. It's definitely been a long process to put the project together, so it feels really good to finally be releasing it into the world. That's a good feeling. But, it's also almost ironic that I’m getting more attention from them, especially that a lot of the songs deal with loneliness and isolation and that kind of thing. There is a weird irony in that.
Is there any nervousness in watching everyone digest your work, considering it’s such a personal release?
Yeah, there's always a little bit of self-consciousness that people won’t like the music, but right now, I'm just happy to have the means to put the art out into the world. It feels really good being to experience it all with everyone, regardless of whether or not people are liking it.
Tell me a bit about Cautious, because it seems to be the one that encapsulates this whole project.
Cautious is the track that most embodies the entire project, I would say - it definitely deals with a lot of the isolation and loneliness of being alone in a new city. I wrote it when I was living by myself and I didn't really have the connections or relationships in L.A. yet. It just came out of sitting in my room and playing the guitar and trying to tell myself that I was okay, because I had dropped out of school and was taking a huge risk and trying to convince myself that everything is fine. In reality, it’s also about realising that you have to put yourself out there to be receptive and enjoy life.
When I was writing, it felt like the most natural process; there wasn't a lot of revisions. It was just a song that happened one day, and it just felt like it should have happened.
How does the full release build into this story you’re trying to tell?
Each song is just a different piece of the story, I guess. There's no concept behind it beyond that, I think each song is a piece of me in a way. I think it's just a snapshot into a period of my life, which I think a lot of people can relate to, especially in a time when everyone seems to be moving around the world.
This is everyone’s introduction to you, and your introduction to everyone. Where do you want to go from here?
I'm not really sure, it definitely feels like we're starting from the very, very beginning. It's hard to envision what is going to happen in the future, but I'd love to just start playing shows and touring and see how people respond to the music.
Is there any way you want people to respond?
That's a tough one. I think people, especially now in the internet age, are really responsive to honest art, and I think that this is a very honest piece of work. I hope that people are receptive to that.
Max Leone's single Cautious is out now via Darkroom Records.
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