Clapper Sounds with Leon Zai

For our 17th Clapper Sounds Interview, we’re highlighting singer, songwriter, and Clapper Creator, Leon Zai!

Leon Zai (better known as @Iamleonzai on Clapper) began his music journey in church, an influence that still impacts his music to this day. His Clapper page is full of incredible R&B covers, sneak peeks into the process, and highlights of his own single, Safe. Oh, and he’s showing off his vocals, which are endlessly relaxing and absolutely beautiful. In this interview, we talked about his inspirations, his different songwriting processes, his thoughts on social media’s role in the music industry, and much more!

If you get so good to the point where you’re undeniable, success is going to come find you.

Clapper Sounds is meant to be an intimate musical experience, and we want that mission to translate into our written interviews too. As you read about Leon Zai play his music in the background and really get to know this artist’s unique sound.

Let’s start from the beginning. What is your first memory of being involved with music? How did you start your artist journey?

My first memory of being involved with music is definitely in church. My dad is pastor and my mom is a musician. She was very keen on getting me and my brother to sing and perform in church. But growing up I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music, so it wasn’t until I started listening to music when I was 13 that I found what I really liked. I discovered artists that I thought, “wow, this is really close to a sound that I think makes sense for me”. So, I think a lot of it was finding other artists and blending them together to create my own sound. A lot of my artistry started with writing, too.  When I was a teenager I used to have a friend that would write and sing, and it inspired me to start doing that.

How would you describe your musical style? Who are your biggest inspirations?

My style is a blend between pop, R&B, and cinematic elements. I love for my songs to sound big and I love a lot of live instrumentation. Ideally, I would love for my music to be soothing. I think music has impacted me most in that way. So when I’m creating my music, I want to recreate that and really heal my audience. I want to give them a space where they can feel safe. I’m influenced by a lot of modern R&B. My recent favorites are SZA, Lucky Daye, Jhené Aiko, Jazmine Sullivan, and from a different era obviously Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Rihanna. And even beyond that people like Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, and The Carpenters. And just because of the way I grew up, gospel music. So, all of that!

What is your songwriting process like?

My songwriting process is very different depending on the situation. A lot of times I’m in sessions with other writers, and you can’t always play the same position. Sometimes there’s already a great lyricist, so they need you to do melodies. Maybe you help blend pieces together, or maybe you have to do it all in a session.  It can really depend on who you’re working with. When I’m writing on my own, I like to take my time. I can be working on a song for months. At the same time, I wrote my first single, Safe, at a bus stop in 20 minutes. I had the chords I’d put together in a loop and was listening to the loop in my headphones. The song just came to me, but that’s the only time something like that has ever happened.

One thing I’ve learned from a lot of my mentors in the industry is that collaboration is everything. And I only say that because I know I’m not the best at everything. If I can be in a room and let everybody do what they excel at, that’s how we’re going to get the best out of everyone and probably the best product. I’ve been learning to focus on what I’m really good at and allow other people to bring in their specialty to take the record to the next level.

What are your thoughts on content creation as an artist? How do you feel about artists having to balance their social media presence and still be committed to their art?

It’s difficult. Back in the day, labels would take care of everything and the artist just has to focus on singing, dancing, and recording. But I feel like now artists are having to do their own marketing, their own content, their own everything. Even big artists that are signed will tell you “I had to put my own money behind my music video or marketing”. So I feel like the artist is being spread thinly. I wonder if that’s impacting an artist’s ability to fully execute and be in the zone when it comes to their artistry.

The other side of that is, I believe the ability to have your own presence online and not having to be funneled through a label has opened up the world to be a really equal playing field.  You could live in the middle of nowhere and not have access to any labels, but now be able to get your music heard across the world. I think there are pros and cons, but I think it’s beautiful that now you don’t have to be somewhere specific in order to be successful in music. And I love that, with platforms like Clapper, people are truly being themselves and expressing themselves as they see fit and that’s how people are going viral. And at the end of the day, just like anything that’s new, either you get with it or you get left behind.

Do you have any side hustles other than music?

I have worked in tech for the last few years. I really never envisioned myself working in tech. But in my junior year of college all of my friends had internships for the summer lined up by December. So I felt like I was behind and decided to get an internship. It ended up being at a robotics company, and I just ended up staying in tech. I also work as an assistant to someone who’s been in the music industry for 20-30 years. They’re pretty much like family at this point and have helped me in my music career in terms of guidance. I’m also on websites like SoundBetter offering people my service in terms of vocals or writing. So, I do whatever I can.

Deciding to be an artist can have its ups and downs. What advice would you give to that young artist who is just learning to play guitar, or starting singing lessons and their dream is to be a musician?

There’s a lot! I think the first, which I’ve learned from a lot of my mentors, is don’t worry about success finding you. Worry about getting your craft to the point where you have no doubt. And I think that’s a small analogy for music overall. If you get so good to the point where you’re undeniable, success is going to come find you. So before people worry about the fame and all the other things that come with being an artist, worry about the actual craft and getting good.

The other thing I would advise people – and this can sound corny, but I truly believe it – is to just be yourself. No one is going to sit there and write a song exactly the way you do. And if we lean into that, we get to tell stories that are unique to us, we get to make music that’s unique to us, and we get to express ourselves uninhibited. I think that’s something really special that not everyone gets to do.

Make sure to check our recorded live session on our account Clapper Sounds and in our reels on Instagram. Enjoy the Clapper Sounds live session of the week!