Introducing the Hardline According to… Leo Napier, a soul singer who can rock out, a solipsist studio wunderkind who can wow a crowd, a collaborator who can write his own songs, a solo artist with a hot band, a tattooed wild boy who could charm your mum, a young man with more tales to tell than musicians twice his age.
Those include signing with a legendary record producer, misadventures of the druggy kind, stints in jail, cohabiting with Lily Allen and developing an obsession with UFOs.
Meet the R&B-pop chameleon, a singer, songwriter and mercurial performer whose flexible voice can adapt just as easily to folk and funk, hip hop and electronica. Think an old-school soul singer in a modern soul context: Ray Charles fronting Daft Punk.
He first made a name for himself on the New York EDM circuit in 2015, when he collaborated with DJ/producers Griz (whose A Fine Way To Die featuring Napier has had millions of streams to date) and Gramatik: those were Napier’s audacious - now rasping, now sweet - soul tones on the latter’s Native Son (which went on to become the lead track from Gramatik’s 2016 long-player, Epigram) alongside Raekwon. The fact that Napier subsequently appeared alongside the Wu-Tang Clan rapper at Coachella confirms his eclectic status.
And now after the features comes the main event: the solo single proper, Before I Go Away, followed by the debut EP Mind Up (released in autumn 2017). The EP mixes up classic funk and soul with tough electronic rhythms produced by an array of well-respected talents. Napier describes the songs as “gritty urban tales” that feature a cast of colourful characters peppered with his signature quirky humour.
“I never planned to stick the five tunes together and call it an EP,” he says. “But somehow these songs feel cohesive. It’s controlled chaos; a web of funky anecdotes served up, not exactly on a silver platter, but more of a greasy plate, with a whole lot of hot sauce.
“I guess I'm a storyteller,” adds Napier, who has tattoos adorning his upper body, one of Ray Charles and others that variously say ’It’s Showtime’ and ‘I Am What It Is Love Me Hate Me. “I like to tell interesting stories. I don't care how fictional they are.”
His own story reads like fiction. He was born in LA to British parents: his dad moved the family to America’s West Coast so he could pursue a career as an actor (he was a regular in US soaps General Hospital and All My Children) while his mum became a makeup artist on TV commercials. There was always music around the house: Annie Lennox, Al Green, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker…
Actually, that should say “houses”: the Napiers moved several times, firstly back to West London where Leo lived between the ages of 8 and 12, then back to LA, and onto Santa Barbara. This meant changing school a lot, and having to adapt to new situations, often hostile ones.
Napier admits he was “an asshole, for a long time”. He first got arrested at 14, for variously gambling, smoking weed and skipping school - LA’s Alexander Hamilton High, the one attended by Fiona Apple and 70s pop idol David Cassidy.
“I was a dumb little guy,” he says, adding that he didn’t get put in jail till his late teens, when he spent a month after getting into a bar room brawl.
There, the Jewish Napier’s closest brush with danger was the occasion he spied a fellow prisoner in the shower with a swastika on his penis.
“I started laughing,” he says, not taking it personally, despite the fact that his grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He was released early from jail after the guards discovered his nascent gift for singing via his YouTube cover versions of songs by Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Van Morrison.
“They said I shouldn’t be in there, so they let me out,” he smiles.
Aged 19, he moved to London, where he lived in “a nice place in Notting Hill” owned by his godfather, Danny Kleinman, the British TV commercial and video director who has designed every James Bond title sequence since 1995’s GoldenEye. His flatmate happened to be a pre-fame Lily Allen.
“We used to live together before she was a star,” he says. “We didn’t exactly get along. We knew just how to wind each other up. We were both bestowed with large personalities and sharp tongues. A wonderful concoction. She told me she was recording demos, but I didn’t know she was capable of singing a note until a year later, when I heard her on the radio.”
He decided “not to be an asshole anymore” and moved back to Los Angeles, where he “started really learning how to be a musician”. He played with “a great group of guys” and studied closely the makeup of a band, starting with the rhythm section.
There had always been an upright piano in the house when he was a kid, but he’d never really committed to learning how to play, until now. “I began to really focus on the instrument,” he says, painting a picture of an aspirant musician playing in romantic little dive-bar jazz clubs around LA.
“I was that guy in La La Land,” he laughs. “I played places like Harvelle’s in Santa Monica. Every artist who played there was a virtuoso, and there were celebrities constantly - we had Laurence Fishburne and Jeremy Renner come to see us a lot. It was a really hip little spot.
“Soul singing is the hardest form of singing,” he asserts, although he’s no ordinary soul man - this one has a big UFO tattooed on his bicep. “I like the big philosophical questions: are we alone? What happens after we die? What happens at the end of the universe? Maybe I should have been an astro-physicist…”
A fan of scat-singing and impromptu free-association, the R&B-philosopher continues, “There’s no room for error. If you’re going to improvise like I do, you better nail it or not fucking do it.
“Technically,” he adds, “I'm at the point where I can really sing.”
And play - just don’t stand too near the stage.
“My legs are everywhere, I’m sweating, there’s a lot of energy,” he says of his live performances. “I have my foot up on the piano… It’s pretty intense.”
Once he’d learned the rudiments of writing and performing, and fearing that LA was “phoney as fuck”, it was time for another shift of locale, this time to New York.
There, he ran into Gramatik, as well as Richard Gottehrer, the music executive and composer of 60s pop hits I Want Candy and Hang On Sloopy turned producer in the 70s of Blondie and in the 80s of The Go-Go’s. Gottehrer introduced him to chat show king David Letterman’s erstwhile sidekick Paul Shaffer, for whom he wrote and recorded a track.
“I’m just getting started, to be brutally honest,” says Napier of Mind Up. “This is my first real record. I made it on my own accord, by my own rules.”
It’s an EP of powerful, melodic, soulful electro-funk, featuring a blend of real musicians and programmed rhythms, some of which were provided by DJs and producers. It’s classic songwriting meets beat science.
Smile is an example of how Napier “can go off on tangents because I’ve got a weird imagination” while the title track finds him sing-rapping and Can’t Change Crazy is “just a super hooky tune - I wanted to write a big fat hook.”
Napier’s songs can be flights of fancy, but the first single from the EP, Before I Go Away, is deeply personal, concerning opioid abuse.
He sings on the single, “Without pain, the song I sing ain’t got no feel.”
The song is about heroin use, and the point where creativity and self-destruction meet.
“Luckily,” he admits, “I’ve been able to dip a toe in here and there, but I’ve never been capable of throwing my life away to drugs, although many of my friends have, and have lost their lives. I feel lucky to be able to write about these experiences from a comfortable distance.”
Leo wouldn’t be where he is today without those experiences. And he wouldn't be as accomplished and authentic a musician. As he says, “The only thing that has got me through is staying focused on the music: how I was going to write and sing the next song. Because it’s truly all about the song.”
What’s the nicest compliment he’s been paid?
“Robin Thicke said, ‘He’s a Picasso, he paints with his voice.’”
Not bad. But how to categorise him? There’s the rub.
“A lot of people don't know how to deal with me,” says the Incredible Hybrid Man. “I’m difficult to pinpoint. They can’t tell if I'm a classic soul singer who belongs in the ‘vintage’ pocket, or if I fit in the electro-funk pocket.”
He’s neither, or both. Let’s just say Mind Up is a modern classic.
“Expect the unexpected,” Napier says finally of what’s to come next. “Be prepared for anything. And then, just when you think you’ve got me nailed, I’m going to be somewhere else.”