Leona Lewis on stardom, sustainability and Snoop Dogg


5th Dec 2023 Culture

7 min read

Leona Lewis on stardom, sustainability and Snoop Dogg
The British singer-songwriter opens up about motherhood, the magic of performing on stage and her passion for animal activism
Talking to me from sunny Los Angeles, Leona Lewis has come a long way since her X Factor days. Back then, she was a hopeful 21-year-old looking for her big break; today, she is a singer-songwriter who has sold 35 million records worldwide, owner of vegan coffee shop Plants and Coffee, and mother of a 14-month-old who was up early this morning.
“Me and my husband are still figuring [parenting] out,” Lewis laughs. “We’re just about getting to a point where we’re like, Okay, I think this works.
"Lewis's debut album Spirit remains one of the best-selling albums in UK chart history"
You wouldn’t know from looking at her that Lewis was up early chasing after an energetic toddler. She is glowing and happy to chat. Currently she is in the midst of preparing for her upcoming Christmas headline UK tour, working on the setlist. 
How do you put a setlist together, anyway? Lewis explains that usually, an artist will prioritise songs from whatever album they’ve just had out. In the case of artists with a few albums, they can play around a bit more. This applies to Lewis, who has five studio albums under her belt, including debut album Spirit which became the fastest-selling debut album in the UK at time of its release in 2007, and remains one of the best-selling albums in UK chart history
It’s clear that Lewis’ fans are important to her, and they play an important role in shaping the setlist. “I asked on Instagram what songs people wanted to hear,” she tells me. “I went through them and thought, Which of these are my favourites as well? I find a middle ground.” 
Leona Lewis in recording studio
As for what songs she is most excited to perform, Lewis is keeping mum. She’ll go as far as saying that she is doing a lot of songs that she hasn’t sung on stage before, but she won’t name any names. “People don’t know the setlist yet so I can’t say too much,” she winks. “But I’m really excited that there’s going to be a lot of new songs that people haven’t heard me sing live before!”
Going on tour is no easy feat, and Lewis admits that she was nervous to begin with. Her Christmas tour will be her first headline tour for a few years, and her first ever as a mother. “It’s going to be such a different experience,” she says. “Before when I was touring it was just me, but now it’s me and the baby. She’s going to be there with me a lot, so it got me a bit nervous at the beginning.”
It’s reassuring to know that even an award-winning global singing sensation gets a little nervous from time to time. Her pre-show rituals for dealing with nerves? Singing through “Say A Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin and taking a moment to be thankful. “I like to just remember what I’m doing it all for, how excited I am for everything to come together. It’s so amazing when you’re performing live and people know a song, and everyone’s singing it with you. You just feel so connected to each other.”

Where it all began

Although she lives in LA now, Lewis speaks warmly of Hackney, the east-London borough where she grew up. “I think London will always feel like home,” she says. “It’s where I was born and raised. Hackney has changed so much, it’s so gentrified now, but in some ways it feels the same. My family still live there, so it’s always just going to be home to me.”
You can still hear her London roots in her friendly accent as she reminisces about her career beginnings. Lewis always knew that being an artist was her goal, and after leaving the BRIT School at the age of 17, she started seriously pursuing it. She went to labels and tried to get deals, but nothing seemed to stick. “At the time, people just weren’t about my sound, so it was really difficult,” she says.
"Notoriously hard-to-impress Simon Cowell applauded Lewis's performance"
In 2006, she auditioned for the third series of The X Factor with the song “Over the Rainbow”, immediately impressing the judges—notoriously hard-to-impress Simon Cowell even applauded her performance. She went on to win the competition, and her winner's single, a cover of Kelly Clarkson's song “A Moment Like This”, broke a world record after being digitally downloaded more than 50,000 times in less than 30 minutes. 
Now, she often finds herself on the other side of the panel, having been a guest judge on shows such as The X Factor, Queen of the Universe and I Can See Your Voice. What’s it like being the judge rather than the contestant? 
Leona Lewis Simon Cowell X Factor
“I love being part of a panel because you’re witnessing other people share their gifts,” Lewis says warmly. “It can be really daunting to get up there and express yourself like that. For a lot of people it takes a lot of courage, so I’m always really happy to witness that.
"I think these shows can either help you grow as a person or diminish you as a person. I like to take it as an opportunity to to help. Whenever I get time with the people that are coming on to the show to just like chat backstage and have a heart-to-heart, I try to give advice that would have helped me when I was doing what they’re doing.”

Navigating motherhood and collaborating with Snoop Dogg

Has motherhood changed things for Lewis? For one thing, she’s working on projects that she may never have picked up otherwise. Exhibit A: A collaboration with Snoop Dogg on a YouTube song for kids (yes, you read that right). How did that even come about? She laughs. “I had just had the baby and I was looking on YouTube for songs to stop her crying. Babies love to hear stuff over and over and over, and I was getting to the point of madness!”
By chance, she came across a Snoop Dogg channel for babies. When she played a song, her baby was mesmerised. “I thought, wonder if Snoop Dogg would be up for working on something together? She loved it so much and I just thought it would be lovely to play her one of these songs and be able to say, This is Mummy.
The result is a collaboration on an animated YouTube music video to help raise awareness for children’s wellness and celebrate Mental Health Day titled “It’s Okay.” Lewis voices a puppy called London Lilly who sings about why it’s okay to be afraid of the dark.
“I love the message that it’s okay to be scared, it’s okay to feel these things,” Lewis says. “I think when Carmel gets a bit older, she’ll be able to understand it. So it’s something that will grow with her.”
Balancing a career with being a new mother is hard work, Lewis attests. You can’t just switch off when you have a baby the way that you might be able to with other stuff. “I’m lucky to have a really good support network around me,” Lewis says. “I’ve got my husband, I’ve got his mum, I’ve got my parents. I’m really lucky to have people that help me so I am able to rest.”

A passion for sustainability

Alongside her impressive musical career, Lewis is also the owner of a vegan coffee shop, Coffee and Plants, in Pasadena. Her enthusiasm for the coffee shop is contagious: she reveals the drink flavours that they’ve been working on lately and my mouth waters.
“The weather is lovely in LA, but it has gotten a bit colder and there’s that autumnal feeling now,” she says. “We’ve just rolled out our new pumpkin drink at the coffee shop. It’s called Pumpkin Pie, and it’s really good! We use all real pumpkin puree, not flavoured syrup. The best part about the coffee shop is doing all the tasting sessions, although it gets a bit dangerous—you can go a bit crazy with the pastries!”
"Alongside her impressive musical career, Lewis is also the owner of a vegan coffee shop"
Coffee and Plants is a real passion project for the singer-songwriter, being fully plant-based. Lewis has a long history of animal activism, starting with going vegetarian at the age of 12 after going on shopping trips to Oxford Circus with her mum and seeing protestors with animal testing signs. “I was so upset, I said, Mum, I have to help the animals,” she says. “That became my mission as a kid, and it’s fed into every aspect of my life. I was campaigning before anyone even knew who I was.”
Her animal activism only grew alongside her fame: in 2011 she supported a campaign to ban the use of wild animals in circuses in the EU, and in 2013 she released a cruelty-free makeup line with The Body Shop. When it came to opening a coffee shop, making it plant-based was a no brainer. 
“I wanted it to be plant-based because I’m plant-based,” she says. “I would often go into coffee shops and see milk cartons stacked up high and think, oh my gosh, how many cows are being milked for this? The dairy industry, mass farming, it’s so cruel and it harms the environment too, so it’s twofold.”
Environmental awareness is also at the heart of Coffee and Plants, with all cups being recyclable and a tree being planted for every 100 cups sold. But ultimately, Lewis is hoping for a widespread mindset shift. “We want to be as sustainable as possible. What we really try and get people to do is actually bring in their own flask to refill, or we encourage them to sit in and have a coffee in a cup instead,” she explains. “We want to get rid of cups that you have to throw away altogether. But it’s something that we have to slowly implement, because people’s minds have to change about how we use things first. We need a mindset shift where we start to think, Okay, we shouldn’t really be using stuff that just goes in the bin. We have to start using reusable things.”
Dates for Leona Lewis’s Christmas with Love 2023 UK Tour can be found at leonalewismusic.com
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