Leon Thomas is not Miley Cyrus. While the 20-year-old artist shares some biographical similarities with the teen icon turned twerking sensation—he put in time on a teen sitcom, he worked for Disney as part of the Lion King Broadway cast, he’s moving into more adult territory now—he’s taking a more measured, careful approach to his music career. Working with Rostrum Records, the independent Pittsburgh label that’s home to Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, the R&B singer is hoping to find an audience outside the Nickelodeon bubble, citing artists like the Weeknd as inspiration and teaming up with Wiz for “Hello How Are You,” the first single off his upcoming project.
The young artist stopped by XXL’s Manhattan offices the day after attending the MTV Music Video Awards back in August, discussing his upcoming album, his hyper-musical upbringing—the dude plays five instruments—and transitioning away from his child actor beginnings. He even gave us his thoughts on Miley’s controversial VMA performance. “She’s a really dope chick,” he said. “She’s a rock star so I know she’s gonna pick it up after this one.”
What can you tell me about the song with Wiz?
It’s a fun record. I wrote and produced the song with my production partner Chris Thomas. We have a production duo called the Rascals. After I did a show at the Roxy I was like, ‘Man, I need a radio-type record!’ So we went into the studio and the energy was there. It all came out like that. Ever since then I played the record for Benjy [Greenberg, Rostrum President] and he really liked it. It’s just been a snow-ball effect. I’m just glad to see that we’re finally getting to that release point. It’s been sitting around for just a little bit but I’m excited to see what people think about it.
So how would you describe the new album you’re working on?
It’s definitely tailor-made. I’m a producer and a writer, as well as an artist, so it feels like a together project. It’s all coming from me. I’m just excited for people to hear it. This is a representation of who I am musically and who I am personally. It’s really cool.
Is it tough to transition from being a child actor to an adult performer?
It always feels great to transition into different worlds. It’s all new for me but I’m really excited to just keep moving. Music has always been my passion through my whole life. Everything right now is just leading up to what I’m really excited about, which is touring and doing live performances. That really hits home for me. I’m making sure that all of these records make sense live.
What do you think you have as a live performer that no one else has?
I’m not gonna say no one else has it, but I grew up playing instruments. I love musicianship, just going up there and kinda showing off a little bit. I play five instruments so I’m looking forward to having a moment in the show where I’m playing bass on one song then guitar on the next then drums on another one. I just wanna make it a fun experience. I’m all for artists that can connect with the crowd. When you have that instrument in your hand, you hold the room.
When did you learn to play all those instruments?
My parents are musicians actually. I’ve had instruments all over the house my whole life. I’d just pick them up and play.
That sounds like a great way to learn.
The way my family works is everybody sings and plays an instrument. It’s not pushed on you but it’s one of those things where if you gravitate towards that, they’ll make it happen. My mom saw that I gravitated towards the drums at an early age, around 3, so she got me a little drum set and I would just play out in the back yard all the time.
You just finished a movie too, right?
Yeah, it’s called Bad Asses. It’s with Danny Trejo and Danny Glover. It’s a good time. It was my first action flick. I got to break some bottles over people’s heads and shit, which was cool… I worked with [Danny Trejo] the whole movie. He’s a really dope dude. He’s done some of the craziest films and just hearing about his experience was so cool.