Q&A with Unsigned singer-songwriter Leon O'Leary

Posted by The Garage Friday 10 May 2019, 15:56
  • Leon O'Leary and his sister Issy rehearse ahead of their Unsigned gig at The Garage in Norwich 19 May
  • Leon O'Leary performing at Unsigned

Leon O’Leary is a singer-songwriter from the Suffolk coast. He’s performed at many venues across East Anglia and his tracks have featured on BBC Introducing Suffolk. We caught up with him after a series of gigs to talk about his Unsigned gig at The Waterfront in Norwich on Sunday 19 May.

You’ve had a busy weekend?

Friday we were at the Bury Songwriters’ Competition, then we did the Bury Fringe All-Dayer and that was great fun. Sunday we did Ipswich May Day Festival and that was windy and cold but it was still good fun. It was pretty busy, I definitely chilled out on Monday and just relaxed a bit.

Why did you enter Unsigned?

I know there are things I can improve on but I need the help to do so, YouTube can only go so far. I want to work on my craft and I want to be the best I can be. The last session with Millie I got so much insight into how to improve my songs. Songs I performed at my sets at the weekend, I did change them and did what Millie advised because it did help. It’s been eye-opening. Unsigned also gave me the opportunity to play my new music at The Waterfront which I’m looking forward to. I released a single in January called Ivy which is on all major streaming platforms. However, my new songs involve a lot more electric guitar so I can’t wait to record and get some of the newer stuff out there.

How would you describe your music?

It used to be mainly acoustic. I do a lot of electric now. It’s a hard one. I go for a dark theme, I think, with my music. I’d say ambient rock. I have a wide range of musical tastes but the music I play is the music I love listening to. My inspirations definitely influence my music. If you like Ben Howard, Bon Iver, Foy Vance, James Bay, Sam Fender, Bear's Den, David Gray, even Bruce Springsteen then you’ll hopefully like my music.

Do you perform all original songs?

I might throw in a sneaky cover but it’s usually originals because I just want to get my music out there. I started songwriting before singing and playing. We had this rubbish little school band. I was writing the songs for it. Before then I wasn’t really playing anything, I was just doing drum. I’ve been playing guitar and performing three years. I started off in school doing gigs, then progressed from there. I’ve done festivals, open mics…

How did you get into music?

My parents listen to a lot of music in the house; that had an effect on me. I got into music when I was in primary school when I saw one of my friends playing guitar. At the time I was too small to play guitar. My dad noticed I had a natural rhythm for music, I’d be tapping on the table or something. Dad said “why don’t you try drumming”. I tried that and then got bored. I then picked up a cheap toy ukulele which was more my size. I learnt guitar when I was finally big enough to play one and found love for songwriting and performing from there.

Your sister Issy is now your vocal harmonist and appears on your first single Ivy. How did that happen?

I do like performing on my own. I was getting a bit bored and a bit lonely with my music. I’m still a big fan of Ben Howard but I used to be a crazy big fan. Issy is still a massive fan. He has a harmonist and cellist called India Bourne and that’s Issy’s inspiration. I wanted to try to encourage her to do music so we did a Ben Howard song and it all started from there.

How do you feel when you’re songwriting and performing?

Songwriting should be a slow process, it’s very intimate, very focused. I think songwriting also comes with performing. You might look back and think “actually, I want to change that”. When I perform a finished song there’s a whole lot of passion and energy that I try to put into it.

How are you feeling about performing at The Waterfront?

The Waterfront is an awesome venue and I’ve always wanted to perform there. I can’t wait. I have played at a lot of venues around Suffolk and Norfolk such as The Smokehouse, John Peel Centre, The Constitutional Club, Norwich Arts Centre, Trinity Park, Karma Kafe and a lot more.

What’s next?

I’m starting Access Creative College Norwich this year. If all fails I’d probably go into songwriting, producing or teaching. The end goal is to make it and be performing. I don’t necessarily want to make it big like Ed Sheeran or be really popular in the mainstream. I just want to make it big in my lane and be recognised as the lead guy in that genre.

The Garage, Young Norfolk Arts Festival, Norfolk Music Hub and Youth Music is hosting the night, which will also feature performances by Bridget Holmes, Hannah Birtwell, Solomon Lake and The Renadeans.

In the run-up to the gig, each will get private tutoring from Millie Manders, the chance to record a demo in a professional studio and have their very own photoshoot.

Millie said: “In the sessions we also discussed the artists’ image, worked on audience interaction and implemented personal goals based on who inspires them and their own vision for their music and performance.”

The Unsigned project was created to provide young musicians with the opportunity to take their music, performance and professional skills to the next level.

It gives them valuable, focused training time with experienced professional music artist Millie, who helps them improve their artistry alongside music career mentoring and marketing advice tailored especially to them.

The young musicians will be provided with video captured from their performance to help promote themselves.

Carrie Mansfield, Creative Director at The Garage, said: “We’re so pleased to have teamed up with The Norfolk Music Hub, The Young Norfolk Arts Trust and Youth Music to provide this exciting opportunity for young musicians.

“Our work is all about supporting and encouraging young people to believe in themselves and their talents - this project does just that and has been a real success. I have heard them all rehearsing in our music room with Millie over the last few months and can’t wait to see them on the stage.”

Unsigned takes place on Sunday 19 May at The Waterfront, Norwich. The event if for ages 14+. Doors open at 7pm, with music starting at 7.30pm. Click here for more details.