Leonard Friend

Leonard Friend is the newest blue-eyed soul sensation to hit the airwaves with his January 2012 debut, Lynyrd Frynd EP. While his driver's license reads Alex Feder, today this former frontman of The XYZ Affair, a Brooklyn-based indie rock band, boasts a new name and sound. A self-described "white, nerdy, guitar playing, pink shoe wearing, pompadoured R&B singer," Leonard's growing fan base would counter that he's in fact the total package. Think a little Justin Timberlake mixed with a bit of Usher and a dash of Robin Thicke and you've got Leonard. Hoping to carve a unique niche for himself in a take no prisoners industry in which only the fittest survive, the evolution of this singer is as much a story in itself as are the lyrics he both pens and performs.

But Leonard is no stranger to the business, having sung lead for XYZ's four-part harmonies for eight years. Now he's on his own, taking the plunge as a solo act. Not only does he explain how Leonard differs from Alex, but he also shares why he stands out from the pack and his goal to become an Unfollowable Act. While his tone and technique don't necessarily remind us of Marvin, MJ or The Temps, he says his is soul music nonetheless because he means every word he sings. He hopes that listeners, too, discover their own personal meaning in his lyrics and keep him around for the long haul so he can continue his musical odyssey.
Michelle Armstrong (Songfacts): You were previously the frontman for Brooklyn-based The XYZ Affair, a group that drew favorable press for what media described as "gilded melodies" and "a sunny sound." What prompted you to go solo?

Leonard Friend: I loved being in The XYZ Affair, but it got to the point where I felt burnt out. We had been a band for eight years, but I had totally shifted gears/interests artistically, and at a certain point, it just became clear that it wasn't right for me anymore. I still love those records and hope that someday more people get to hear them.

Songfacts: In what ways has the transition from bandmate to solo artist influenced your creative process as a singer-songwriter?

Leonard: It's a similar process, except now the studio is my "band." Before, I would come up with a million ideas for each song and the guys in the band and I would mess with them until we found the right fit. Now, I use the computer to bounce my ideas around with production help from my good friend, Shannon Ferguson (who actually engineered the first XYZ record).

Songfacts: Who is Leonard Friend and how is he different from Alex Feder?

Leonard: Leonard Friend is just an extension of myself. Being a singer in this genre is very different from being in an indie rock band. I went to see Usher last December; I think he tore off six different tee shirts in one show. When I went to see Prince a month later, he was wearing a Prince shirt and serenading Leighton Meester. Michael Jackson used to just stand there motionless for two solid minutes at the start of his shows. It's easier to forget everything and get lost in swagger as Leonard Friend than it is as Alex Feder. Jewish kids from suburban Maryland don't have that kind of panache. But at the end of the day, Leonard Friend is just a tool for me to express myself more fully.

Songfacts: How do you typically write a song?

Leonard: These days it totally varies. Sometimes I have the beat first and then write on top of it. Sometimes I'll have a hook or lyric that I'll write around. Sometimes I'll have a vocal melody that I'll write around.

Songfacts: New York City can seem like a different world than Los Angeles, which is where you moved to reinvent yourself as Leonard Friend. What did you hope to gain by heading west in this phase of your career and has it worked?

Leonard: To be honest, I've barely settled down in LA. I just knew that it was time for a change, and that's about as big of a change as you can get while still living in a big city in the U.S. Leonard Friend isn't just a new project; it was a matter of creating a new person. It'd be strange to try to do that in a place that was known and comfortable to me.

Songfacts: Your cross-country soundtrack included everything from The King of Pop to drummer- singer Phil Collins to Prince spinoff The Time. Given your obvious appreciation for music of various genres, how would describe Leonard Friend's sound?

Leonard: One nice thing so far about starting a new project is that I feel far more open to doing anything I want. I'm not too worried about it sounding like previous songs or fitting into a particular mold. If I write a song that means something to me, then it's a Leonard Friend song. The songs on this EP tend to all be "dancier" in that Michael Jackson/Justin Timberlake kinda way, but who knows what'll happen on the next one?

Songfacts: We can trace blue-eyed soul back to singers like Chris Clark and Bobby Caldwell while artists today like Joss Stone and Robin Thicke are known for their R&B imbued vocals. What is "soul" to you and how does your music personify it?

Leonard: To me, "soul" is just a matter of meaning it. I spent a long time wishing that my voice sounded like Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson or David Ruffin, and the fact that it didn't made me afraid to really sing out. At a certain point I just accepted, "this is what my voice sounds like. This is what it sounds like when I mean it." Prince doesn't sound like Al Green who doesn't sound like Gladys Knight who doesn't sound like Sam Cooke. So I guess Leonard Friend is my version. Is it a lot "whiter" than Otis Redding? For sure. Am I a master vocal technician like Maxwell or R. Kelly? Not really. But I mean it! And that's that.

Songfacts: What can we expect to hear on the EP?

Leonard: Seven songs that will hopefully be glued in your brain for weeks and make you wanna dance every time you hear them.

Songfacts: Please tell us about one of your songs that is very meaningful for you.

Leonard: "The Year I Die" is the last song on the record and really means a lot to me. I don't want to go into the backstory because I want listeners to be able to apply their own meaning to the lyrics, but it's the most personal song on the record once you dig into it. I think of it as kind of the Leonard Friend version of Bruce Springsteen meets Alicia Keys.

Songfacts: How do you think your fans from The XYZ Affair will react to your new persona and sound?

Leonard: So far, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, for which I'm very grateful. I'm hoping it continues that way as I release more music.

Songfacts: We can't help but notice your interpretation of Michael Jackson's signature spin in The XYZ Affair's "Evening Life" video! You also seem to pay homage to MJ, James Brown, Justin Timberlake and even George Jefferson in your new "Serious Music" video. How important is the performance element of your artistry?

Leonard: I've always been obsessed with the idea of an "Unfollowable Act." Who would ever want to go on after James Brown or Michael Jackson or Prince? Every element of their performance is perfect, from the timing to the execution to the feeling they put into it. They perform every motion in just the right moment and it makes even the simplest of movements staggeringly impressive. My dance mentor and choreographer, Pavan Thimmaiah, has always stressed that Michael doing the Moonwalk is not the important part of that performance; it's WHEN he does the Moonwalk that matters. So I try to focus on that element of simplicity, precision, timing, et cetera in the hopes that one day I can be an Unfollowable Act.

Songfacts: What differentiates you on today's music scene?

Leonard: Hopefully a lot of things! Unless another white, nerdy, guitar playing, pink shoe wearing, pompadoured R&B singer comes out before my EP hits, I think I've got the market cornered.

Songfacts: On a final note: Why rose-colored shoes in the "Serious Music" video and can we expect more fabulous footwear in the future?

Leonard: When I first came up with the idea for Leonard Friend, the idea for the pink shoes came right after it. I'm not sure why. I had to have them custom made! They're really a part of Leonard Friend; definitely expect to see more of them.

January 9, 2012
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