LEONA Lewis was described by X Factor’s mastermind Simon Cowell as “absolutely the best contestant” he’d ever come across on the show, while Take That’s Gary Barlow, who sang alongside the Londoner on one of the programmes, said she was fifty times better than any other hopeful who had appeared on the talent contest.
Lofty praise indeed, but don’t think for a second it’s gone to Leona’s head.
“It’s amazing for people to say things like that, but I’ve wanted to sing since I was a little girl,” she says, sitting cross legged on a huge sofa in a swanky hotel.
“To get recognised and for people to say what I’ve done is inspiring is just amazing. It all makes me very proud. When I left school I worked part-time and spent every other moment in the studio, so I’ve always been working at it. I’ve tried to get as much experience as possible in different auditions. When the opportunity came with X Factor, it was just my time.”
As well as the compliments that have gone her way since first appearing on X Factor last year, Leona was also pulled up by some of the judges for not being confident enough. Whether that’s true or not, the 22-year-old has grown a lot since scooping the competition’s top prize last December.
“I don’t think I lacked confidence, but I’m not a loud, ‘look at me’ type of person. I never have been,” she says. “I’ve got a quiet confidence now that maybe I didn’t have before, and I’m just getting experience from the writers I’ve been working with. But I’m still the same person. It’s nice not to be in people’s faces all the time.”
Being in people’s faces is definitely not an accusation that can be levelled at Leona. Since scoring the Christmas No 1 last year and going on a short tour with the rest of the X Factor finalists, she seemed to vanish from the face of the Earth until the release of her current single Bleeding Love.
She was in fact jetting backwards and forwards to America, writing and recording her forthcoming debut album, Spirit, which comes out on November 12.
“You can’t put a time limit on original material,” she says, explaining her absence. “We wanted to get something great together, so we took that time to get it right.”
The ‘we’ she refers to includes her management team, co-songwriters and various producers, most notably Clive Davis.
The latter is a legend in music circles, currently the CEO of RCA records in North America, one of only a handful of non-performers in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and the man responsible for signing and/or discovering Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Notorious BIG, P Diddy and Toni Braxton among countless others.
Being noticed by a music mogul as esteemed as Davis is incredible, but it had extra significance for Leona as her favourite artists, Alicia Keys and Whitney Houston, were also discovered by him.
“He was great to work with,” says Leona, beaming. “The first time I met him was in his bungalow in Beverly Hills. I had to sing for him, just on the spot, cold, but he was lovely, put me at ease and explained how he wanted to be involved in what I was doing.
“I sang four songs – Summertime, Over The Rainbow, Homeless, which was the first track I recorded for the album, and Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word. They were all pretty big songs to sing.”
Big songs or not, Leona obviously impressed Davis, and soon after she was put to work with various songwriters to create Spirit, her forthcoming collection of songs.
“I worked with Salaam Remi, who’s written and produced for Amy Winehouse, Billy Steinberg, who’s written for Madonna, and Walter A, who is my idol because he’s written songs for people like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. I love the big singing divas so it was great to write with him,” explains Leona.
If Gary Barlow and Simon Cowell think Leona is the most talented X Factor winner, then who are we to argue? Nevertheless, high praise was also given to Michelle McManus and Steve Brookstein, who, it’s fair to say, have totally flopped since winning Pop Idol and X Factor respectively.
Even the career of Shayne Ward has stagnated of late, with his most recent offering billed as a comeback, even though it was only his fourth single.
“I don’t think any of them have done anything wrong, so it’s not about choosing who to follow or learn from,” says Leona of the aforementioned trio, before changing the subject slightly. “I think I’ve been given this opportunity – Simon really believed in me, and then Clive Davis became involved – so I’ve just run with the chance I’ve been given.
“I’ve been dedicated and worked at it, and that’s why I was able to take the time away to get it right.”
So what does she make of this year’s finalists? Has she even had time to watch?
“I always, always watch it,” she says enthusiastically. “If I’m out, I record it. I’m a big film fan too, so I make time to watch movies, but X Factor is something I never miss and it’s been great so far this year.
“I don’t know who’s going to win, but all the people have got something special about them. We haven’t seen enough of the finalists singing yet to be able to tell. I really liked that little guy Dominic, he was just great. He got voted off, but he’s only young so I’m sure he’ll go on to do something else.”
Never mind his future, what does Leona’s hold?
“I just want to release my album. I can’t wait for people to hear it and to realise what I’ve been doing for the last 10 months. It represents me and I’m so proud of it all.”