The future of R&B is in good hands with Leon Thomas III.
Bright-eyed journalists gathered in a virtual press conference to chat with the actor, singer, songwriter and producer about his highly-anticipated debut album, “Electric Dusk.” Most of the Gen Z writers grew up watching Thomas on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” where he played musical prodigy Andre Harris. Harris may have helped his friends at Hollywood Arts High School make it shine, but now it’s Thomas’ turn to step into the spotlight.
“We've got stuff coming out and it's really cool to see where we're taking this thing,” Thomas says as the first signed artist with Ty Dolla $ign's EZMNY Records, a joint partnership with Motown Records. “You're at chapter one right now but just know we've got chapters done for you guys. This is really the beginning of an amazing journey. Get ready for some really cool creative projects and cool things coming up.”
Like his former fictional character, Thomas is incredibly talented. Despite only being 30 years old, he’s already achieved more than most people will in a lifetime. The Brooklyn native has performed on Broadway, acted in several movies and TV shows, and worked with an array of top-charting artists including Ariana Grande, Drake, SZA, Post Malone, Snoh Aalegra, and many more.
Thanks to his songwriting and producing skills, Thomas has been sought out as a go-to in R&B and pop throughout his career. Working with other artists from behind the scenes over the years has helped him build the foundation for developing his own projects, he says. He was able to learn from artists’ mistakes and understand the importance of having the right team around.
However, Thomas took his time before establishing himself as a solo artist. He saw child-actors-turned-musicians fail time after time, and didn’t want that to be him.
“A lot of child actors, a lot of, you know, stars who were early on, they come out [and] they start putting out all this music and they burn out. They get on all types of stuff because they're burning themselves out,” he says. “I kind of gave myself the time to attack acting, really like be behind the scenes in music, and kind of build a foundation for myself in music so it wasn't like an awkward transition because it's been very hard for a lot of males, specifically Black males, to transfer out of that world and into music properly.”
In 2018, Thomas took center stage with his debut EP, “Genesis.” Its soulful seven tracks showcased new depths of Thomas’ artistry. However, it was more experimental compared to “Electric Dusk,” which Thomas painstakingly perfected.
“During ‘Genesis,’ I think I was just still kind of winging it,” says the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. “It was more so I was very focused on acting as well, doing the movie ‘Detroit’ and ‘Insecure,’ and then popping in to do the artist stuff. It was kind of more of a, ‘let's see where this goes,’ rather than, ‘this is my specific mission, and here's my plan of attack.’”
Creating “Electric Dusk” wasn’t easy. The 12-track album has been years in the making, four to be exact. But those years didn’t come without challenges.
Right off the momentum of “Genesis” and his roles in “Insecure” and “Detroit,” Thomas says he had label deals for his album. Consequently, he had to endure “a whole legal battle” before being able to sign with Motown/EZMNY Records in May 2022, which slowed the release process.
“I had to wait it out ... That was really tough because I had this music in my back pocket.”
While making “Electric Dusk,” Thomas felt a mixture of emotions, not all positive.
“The emotions that really went into creating this album were varied,” he says. “There was so much frustration. I’ll be completely honest, I was extremely frustrated for a lot of it. Just feeling like I wasn’t being heard. Even though I was being heard by a lot of people’s favorite artists in the studio, and I could get some of my ideas out through them, I wanted to be heard as myself and really embody exactly the vision of myself that I see in my head. It’s taken some time to grow and evolve into that, but the emotion that I feel now is just pride. I feel so proud of myself to be able to pull through so many blocks in the road.”
After working on Drake’s 2021 album, “Certified Lover Boy,” Thomas says he knew there were going to be a lot of eyes on him, watching to see what he’d do next. In the music industry, “The Drake Effect” refers to those collaborating with Drake reaping the benefits of his stardom. Suddenly people give you a shot. This was Thomas’ and he wasn’t going to blow it.
“There was this kind of pressure I was putting on myself to be the best I could be in R&B,” Thomas says. “I wanted to be the best.”
Thomas produced and engineered “Electric Dusk” almost exclusively by himself, having been inspired by Dr. Dre to mix his own album. Hearing the finished album for the first time made all the roadblocks worth it. Thomas beamed, saying it felt “amazing.”
“I listened to these songs, I think, more than any human being could possibly listen to these songs,” he says. “I heard every nook and cranny of it, you know. And I was like, ‘wow, this is amazing.’ I had a really amazing vision on how I wanted this thing to sound. And I'm glad that I believed in myself enough to do it.”
Writing songs for himself actually proved to be more difficult than writing songs for other artists.
“Writing for myself can be kind of uncomfortable,” Thomas reveals. “I think you get to play therapist when you're working with an artist and you're writing and producing for them. It's like, ‘tell me all your problems’ and you're pushing them to be vulnerable and real. But I think when it's for myself, sometimes I have to really dig deep and find some of those uncomfortable moments to talk about that maybe I wouldn't say on the first date, but I'm going to have to sing for the entire world.”
Thomas says that when creating music every song is different, but that lyrics are especially important to him. This is because good storytelling is vital. For Thomas, lyrics usually come first, then he’ll pair them with “the emotion and feeling that'll come from a track.” He’ll work until he gets it right, whether it’s for himself or someone else, but will never save songs for later.
“I have a rule,” he says. “Everything off the shelves. I feel like if it's not for me, then I'm trying to place it on somebody else. I think I love to be very specific about the soundscapes of my albums. So I want to make sure that everything is right. And once that project is done, I'm on to the next. It's very important to make sure that that body of music is its own identity.”
“Electric Dusk,” which was released on Aug. 18, is full of soulful R&B, sultry storytelling and deep vulnerability. It features Benny The Butcher, Ty Dolla $ign and Victoria Monet. In this album, Thomas has truly come into his own. While blending elements of hip-hop, classical, jazz and R&B, Thomas croons about love and heartbreak. His emotional ballads and gospel-infused soundscapes illustrate the evolution of his sound. Lead singles “Breaking Point” and “Crash & Burn” are sure to be fan favorites.
Thomas says his album has 1960s vibes.
“I feel like the simplicity of some of the lyrics sometimes, especially when it comes to songs like ‘Blue Hundreds,’ even ‘My Will.’ I was playing with a lot of psychedelic, like psych rock elements mixed in with R&B. If you really listen to the effects that I'm putting on a lot of the guitars, it's definitely inspired from a place that comes from that ’60s realm. It was just really cool to kind of mix that in with some of the hip-hop elements from the co-producer I was working with, Axel Foley, who works with Kendrick Lamar and stuff like that. So it was just a really interesting blend. And then my R&B top lines on top of it created this really magical blend that became ‘Electric Dusk.’”
Thomas hopes that people will better understand him after listening to “Electric Dusk.”
“I feel like music is an exchange of energy and I just want people to understand me a little bit better,” he says. “I think it's very easy to make assumptions about what my life might be like, what I think on the daily, or how I feel emotionally, but I think I spell out the range of emotions that I go through as a human being throughout this album. It's just a conversation. It's just me. It's essentially like letting people know how I'm feeling about the current status of dating in LA. It's insane. I think it's really just a nuanced conversation, but in the end the centerpiece is I want people to understand me better, really get my mind. It's an exciting time. We're getting so close to people really finally understanding me.”
Thomas has advice for up-and-coming R&B artists: “Write your life.”
“Not all the time, but really take time to have a conversation before you write the song. I think right now, I'm in with younger R&B artists and they're like, ‘let me get on the mic,’ ‘let me mumble.’ I'm like, ‘why not just sit around and tell a story?’ like, ‘tell me what's going on in your life,’ ‘who are you dating?’ ‘what's wrong?’ ‘what's right?’ Let's figure out what's actually going on because I feel like those are the things that every human being can relate to and you can find nuanced ways to detail. Maybe I have metaphors around that but I would love for more R&B artists to take their time. They're rushing through these songs and then wondering why people aren't necessarily responding to what they're saying. It’s because they simply didn't really take enough time to think about it.”
Thomas is set to open for Ty Dolla $ign on his “more motion less emotion tour” starting on Sept. 15 in San Diego and ending on Oct. 27 in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now.
“I'm going to be the first one up on the stage and I feel like it's going to be really important for me to gain new fans with amazing engagement, crowd engagement,” Thomas says. “I think I want it to be intimate in a way. I'm not going to have all the bells and whistles. I really want them to just understand what these songs mean to me. And I'm gonna have a good time. I mean, the tour is called ‘more motion less emotion,’ so I think it's more so just about running through these records with energy and having a good time.”
Thomas says he’s especially excited to perform “Crash & Burn” live because he did so on his last tour.
“It was cool to see people sing it back with me. And it just came out around that time. So I'm excited to sing that record now and really see how far it's come.”