Leon Thomas III has spent two-thirds of his life as an active member in the entertainment industry. From making his Broadway debut at the age of 10 to starring in television shows as a teenager, he made his mark as an actor early on.
Since then, the 30-year-old multi-hyphenate has more than made a name for himself as a musician. Thomas has worked on critically acclaimed projects by Babyface, Toni Braxton, Drake, and Ariana Grande, among others. The Grammy-winning producer earned awards and plaques and has climbed charts with his music across multiple genres including R&B, hip-hop, and pop. Just this week, the eight-month-old track “Snooze” by SZA—whichThomas co-produced—peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The all-rounder is now set to make more moves as an artist with the release of his solo debut album Electric Dusk. With high energy and an infectious smile a week before the release of his project, Thomas sat down with EnVi on a Zoom call to discuss Electric Dusk, the vulnerability in his lyrics, and the power of collaboration.
The Power of Patience
The launch of Electric Dusk comes after four years of hard work and perseverance throughout Thomas’ journey of creating the album. On our call, Thomas mused over when a quick trip to the gas station ended with his debit card declining and all those moments where he asked himself, “Am I going to make this happen? Is this actually going to work out?”
The Brooklyn-born singer shared with EnVi that the album’s release was delayed “due to deals that kind of didn’t work out.” However, he added that it all worked out in the end. “God works in mysterious ways,” Thomas remarked, referring to his pre-release singles “Crash & Burn” and “Breaking Point,” which were written toward the end of his creative process and are now his highest-charting solo songs to date.
Then it only makes sense that after those four long years, the key lesson Thomas learned while working on his new album was patience.
“I wanted to put [Electric Dusk] out in a year after I was done with it originally, but God had a different plan. There was so much internal growth that happened in those four years, so much I learned about myself and it was almost like my own personal college,” Thomas revealed. “I was just studying the fine art of Leon Thomas and how to be my best self; whether it’s the art of meditation, self care, just spending more time with my family or just trying to be a better human being. I think all of those things were very important for me to have under my belt in order to unlock the next chapter of my life…I think these four years were necessary.”
Furthermore, those four years helped Thomas grow as an artist since the release of his 2018 EP Genesis. While the EP had various vocal pitches and an upbeat sound that’s featured on some Electric Dusk songs, this latest album showcases Thomas’ experimentation with new instruments, sounds, and production techniques.
“What’s crazy is that I named [the 2018 EP] Genesis because I knew it was the beginning of something special, a new chapter, just a whole new journey I was going to be going on.” He continued, “I feel like Electric Dusk was me showing off how I’ve evolved with [tuning vocal pitch] and how much I can do with it. I’m just really excited for people to continue to hear my growth and evolution.”
Now that the album is officially released, Thomas is especially thrilled for fans to hear the R&B-bop focus track “Sneak,” which has a sound that he thinks some listeners might be missing from him, and the percussion-driven song “Blue Hundreds.”
Despite anticipating seeing the response to the album, the Los Angeles-based singer is looking forward to listeners having a better understanding of him: “I just want to be understood, I just want to be heard. I’m just really excited for people to have the opportunity to actually get to know me better because they’ve seen me on, whether it be a TV show or whatever else. And it’s just really good to have the focus be on me as a human being now. And I’m really excited for people to just understand what I’m working with. I know I have something special to offer.”
The Soundtrack to Life
A majority of the 12-track album was created in one of Thomas’ friend’s basement in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, where a flatscreen TV was mounted above the area they would make beats. Thomas revealed that during their creative sessions, old school films from the ‘80s and Quentin Tartinto’s catalog would be played on mute with subtitles on. Thomas would then use the films as inspiration while he created his music.
The cinematography theme is prominent throughout Electric Dusk; even the title of the album was inspired by a popular drive-in movie theater in Los Angeles. The pre-released R&B duet “Love Jones” featuring Ty Dolla $ign was influenced by the 1997 romantic dramedy of the same name. On the short yet catchy tune “Fade to Black,” Thomas also included a soundbite from Star Trek: The Original Series, in which the character Leonard McCoy quotes the famous phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
“It kind of plays into the whole theme of the album. I was making a soundtrack to my fans’ lives and it’s up to you to figure out what scene the song is going to be played in,” Thomas said. “I wanted people to be able to live to this music in their cars, at their homes, at the shows. I feel like I really wasn’t doing a lot of club music because I feel like we got plenty of that but I’m doing records that people can really grow to and love to and even if you need to have your heart broken to. It’s a soundtrack.”
With a background in theater and television acting, Thomas noted he learned early on about subtext and what the character is trying to portray. Even as a child on Broadway, he had to understand not only the emotions the character was trying to evoke but also the notes he had to sing.
“I think once I transferred into music and started writing songs myself, I always think about [how] I may say one thing in the lyric but it could mean a myriad of different things to me, personally. I’ve kind of carried that even as I write for other people, I always ask them ‘What’s the subtext? What are you really trying to say?’ and now let’s find a cool way to say it.”
The singer-songwriter immerses listeners through various episodes from his life’s journey with the tracks on Electric Dusk. “It’s more so a collage of emotion than it is a beginning, middle, and end kind of thing but these are different scenes in my love life just explained through song. Thomas emphasized it’s genuinely about the ups and downs that come from love and love found and the love loss. I wanted to find a way to do that in a really cinematic way.”
Each melody on the R&B album conveys particular snapshots throughout Thomas’ life: “Breaking Point” narrates his coming-to-terms of a failing relationship, while “Slow Down” recounts his night with a girl in a suite at the W. With “Treasure In The Hills,” Thomas tells the story of what it would be like to go to an afterparty in the hills of Los Angeles and find the love of your life. He noted that people are constantly in search of diamonds and gold, using these treasures as a metaphor for fame and fortune. The self-proclaimed “lover boy” told EnVi, “I’m trying to find a real connection and I just wanted to explain that in a song.”
“Specifically on ‘Treasure In The Hills’ it’s kind of like a hill if you think about it musically. You’re going down a hill so it’s super ethereal in the beginning and churchy; you can understand every lyric and what’s going on,” Thomas explained about the song he wrote with friends and collaborators on an avocado ranch in northern California. “Then in the end, the outro is halftime and I think that’s what we go through after we go to that honeymoon phase of dealing with somebody that you think could be your forever. So that’s kind of what I was trying to do musically.”
He added, “But I thought about that after I made it…A lot of this stuff isn’t meticulously planned but if you really dissect it, it’s kind of cool to see my subconscious work in that way.”
Vulnerability in Songwriting
Through offering glimpses into different chapters of his life, Thomas has also unveiled the vulnerable moments. In the heart-rending pre-release ballad “Breaking Point (feat. Victoria Monét) [Remix],” the two tell the tale of a couple discovering the fragility of love and realizing that despite their love for each other, it’s best for them to go their separate ways. Thomas told EnVi that “Breaking Point” originally was not meant to be on the album and that it was just a musical journal at first: “It was just me explaining a feeling that I had in a relationship that I got out of. I think it was just me writing my feelings very freely and it turned into a song that people really love and can relate to.”
“It’s not as meticulous as I think a lot of people think it is,” Thomas expressed about being vulnerable on Electric Dusk. “I mean, some artists are extremely meticulous, like ‘alright we’re going to have a vulnerable song now,’ but for some of these records, I’m just kind of expressing myself–not kind of, I’m definitely expressing myself.”
He stated that he finds different ways of being vulnerable on certain songs; on some tracks he’s expressing himself through the production, while on “Breaking Point,” he’s doing it through lyrical content.
Thomas revealed that the sixth-track, “My Will,” was the most difficult to work on. “I think it was hard for me to finish more so because of how personal it was. It kind of just felt like I wasn’t sure if I wanted to really open up about that side of myself,” Thomas explained. “But I think people need to hear stuff like that, they need to understand that I go through moments like that too. In that, I got through it, I pulled myself up, I meditated, I prayed, and I got through it.”
He shared with EnVi that the song is a culmination of him having a hard time after his grandmother passed, while simultaneously going through financial problems and a break-up with his long-term girlfriend. Thomas recounted, “I was just really feeling like, ‘Could I, could I keep going?’ I feel like we all have those moments we’re like ‘Can I keep pushing?’”
The artist continued, “And what was crazy is that I wrote those lyrics years before I actually ended up writing the song. But I finished it years later and I did a track that just had so much emotion and [dynamism] to it. That song was definitely about a really low point in my life where I just wasn’t sure if I could make it.”
Creating his Signature Sound
The veteran musician was able to experiment with new techniques while curating his own signature sound as he worked on the album and telling his story. Since Genesis, Thomas has utilized tuning pitch in his songs, both for himself and other artists. He deemed it his “magic trick,” comparing it to Stevie Wonder’s harmonica and Zapp & Roger’s TalkBox. “It’s my calling card and when you hear it, you know it’s me.”
“I think the human ear is a really tricky thing because we can hear something in a regular pitch with minimal effects and it may affect us or it may not. But there’s something about frequencies that come from Varispeed in Logic that really stand out to the human ear,” Thomas explained to EnVi. He laughed as he expanded on his pride in having a successful signature sound, “And once I discovered that, I started making lots of money in music, in multiple genres, which is really cool.”
Thomas believes this method adds texture and character to his songs, especially with spoken word and rapping parts. For instance, in “My Will” Thomas lowers the pitch of his voice while reciting instructions for his friends and family to follow at his funeral, starting with the lyrics, “Please no cat fights at my funeral.”
He shared, “Sometimes when I pitch my vocal low, it’s kind of like my internal voice. It’s hard to explain. My normal voice is kind of high and cheery…I feel like my inner voice is that deep.”
Throughout Electric Dusk, Thomas worked with diverse experimental sounds implementing lo-fi, neo soul, boom bap, and alternative R&B concepts. He shared he was inspired by various artists including Tyler the Creator, J Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest, and Frank Ocean.
“I just wanted to take more chances in the genre of R&B. I feel like it’s very easy for us to just sit around and try to make upbeat bops. But it’s a little harder sometimes to dig in and get vulnerable or kind of mess with sonics that people aren’t as used to in the genre,” Thomas pointed out.
Thomas took the opportunity to mess around with countless instruments, noting that Electric Dusk is his first project where he played the saxophone. He explained, “I didn’t really have a lot of money in the beginning for samples and stuff like that. So I was kind of playing a lot of the instruments to myself and sampling myself kind of like I would have old records from the ‘60s. And a lot of that just turned into a very specific sound for Electric Dusk, that I think I can really call my own.”
“Blue Hundreds” came to life when Thomas was inspired by the drum pattern in “Time of the Season” by The Zombies. He first played the drums, then he added guitar, bass and the saxophone. He shared that playing all the instruments, singing the song, and dancing in his guesthouse was such a fun moment that he’ll never forget. He added, “It’s like a feeling that came from [creating the song], because I knew at the time when I made ‘Blue Hundreds’ that God had a big blessing for me. I ain’t know when it was coming, I ain’t know how it was coming, but I felt it and I claimed it in that record. I’m just excited for people to share that emotion.”
Thomas mixed, engineered, and played instruments on other tracks, too, such as the drums, bass, keyboard, and guitar on “Treasure In The Hills.” He revealed that a lot of the songs were recorded on the first day; he kept the original take, only adding different backgrounds and few other elements. He expressed, “It’s just really me showing people who I am as a musician, just as much as I am as an artist. And just trying to really tie all of that in with the underlying message lyrically. This was a great moment for me to showcase who I am as an artist and I really hope people hear me and feel me.”
Mastering the Art of Collaboration
While working on songs for other artists such as Kehlani and Giveon, Thomas tended to be in a room with two to four other writers and three other producers. He described it as having elements of camaraderie, something he didn’t have much of while he was working on his own album. He opened up about feeling lonely while working on his album: “I think it’s really hard to get people who are kind of caught up in the rat race to believe in something they can’t see immediate intrinsic value. So I only wanted people around that believed in me and really thought that I could be the next big thing.”
He continued, sharing that “at the time of doing that album, I was pretty few and far between, they just saw me as a producer and a songwriter. So sometimes it would just be me in a room, carving away at an idea until it felt like something I could play for somebody.”
However, Thomas added that AxlFolie, who he unofficially deemed the executive producer of Electric Dusk, was by his side the entire time. Thomas mentioned that during his first meeting with AxlFolie, he was dead set on impressing the producer. So Thomas got into the studio and quickly wrote “Fade to Black” because he wanted to show AxlFolie “I’m nice, come work with me.” Thomas proclaimed it worked. “He really took a liking to me and we literally spent, I want to say three months straight just every other week, working out of that Silver Lake basement coming up with a lot of these records like ‘Love Jones’ and ‘X-Rated.’”
Thomas also collaborated with producers FaxOnly and BNYX, who are both known for their work with Drake, and Don Mills, who has produced for J. Cole. Thomas noted, “What’s great is that I saw the greatness in these guys prior to their big blow up. So it was really cool to get some amazing tracks out of them prior to everybody else in the world trying to get tracks from them right now.”
The singer worked with one other co-writer on Electric Dusk, Bizzy Crook who had creative credits on Genesis. Thomas relayed that he and Crook are friends and that their co-writing process works by them just talking about their lives. He further explained, “He’ll fill me in, I’ll fill him in and then we’ll essentially text all throughout the day. I’ll send a verse of just cool bars, he’ll send a verse of cool bars. And sometimes I’ll take pieces from the bars he’ll send me and then turn that into a song. Sometimes the melody comes easy but sometimes the words be tricky.” He stated that some of the lyrics to “Blue Hundreds” came from one of the “random texts” Crook sent him and that the song has become one of his favorites.
Since his signing to Ty Dolla $ign’s label EZMNY Records in a partnership with Motown Records in 2022, Thomas has been able to build a larger, stronger creative circle and community. He recounted, “Yesterday, I was just at the studio, we got to EZMNY Headquarters, I was over there cooking up. Ty was in one room, in A Room, and I was in B Room…It’s cool to make some of my new music now because more of a community [is] present and I really respect and love that aspect of it.”
“I’m a big believer in mastering the art of collaboration,” Thomas said. “So, I think if you can master that you can really genuinely make anything.”
What’s Next for Leon Thomas?
Thomas will be joining Ty Dolla $ign’s tour “More Motion Less Emotion” with rapper Symba. The 31-stop North American leg of the tour starts on September 15 in San Diego. Thomas said fans should anticipate “a more broken down set” than his usual performances, but he’s still going to be on stage working the crowd with his guitar. “I’m gonna hype the crowd up, we’re gonna have plenty of motion but it’s just not going to be my normal set up, which is like me and two other musicians. But I’m still excited for people to see me do me,” he said to EnVi.
In a closing message to his fans, Thomas expressed, “You know, I think on your journey of life, it’s really important to take time to learn yourself and to know yourself…Everybody has different tools but I think this album is an example of me being able to pull through great times and dark times and really utilize that as an opportunity to learn myself better. So after you listen to [Electric Dusk] just take time with silence and just learn yourself, whatever that means [for you]. If it’s meditation, if it’s prayer, do you, but I want that for my fans and that’s something I’m definitely always gonna push.”
Want more in-depth artist interviews? Check out our exclusive interview with J-pop artist SHINJIRO here!