Dancing Astronaut presents Supernovas 008: Chandler Leighton

Supernovas is a recurring Dancing Astronaut feature dedicated to vocalists in the dance space who, with their own idiosyncratic vocal signatures and unique lyrical perspectives, have played pivotal roles in bringing electronic records to life. Each installment in the monthly series spotlights one vocalist. The serial continues with Supernovas 008: Chandler Leighton.Robin Williams reminded Chandler Leighton of her dad. “It was this Sunday thing that me and my dad did,” she says of the weekly screenings of Mrs. Doubtfire that colored her earlier years. When her parents were in the midst of their divorce, nearly each Sunday, at her request, her dad would watch the 1993 motion picture with her. Mrs. Doubtfire was the last film that they watched together before she moved to Maine with her mom in 2003 and today, it remains her favorite.The screenings begot an association between her dad and Williams that’s hard to pin down. “I think Robin always had some weird connection, like feeling with my dad,” she tells Dancing Astronaut. “I have a super special connection with Robin Williams.”Some say there are no coincidences in life. Whether you believe in fate, “meant to be,” or any phrasal variation of “the preordained,” it’d be hard to chalk up ILLENIUM’s choice to sample some of Williams’ lines from Good Will Hunting on “Angel – Lonely Prelude” to mere coincidence. And as Leighton sat in her car, hearing Williams’ words, verbalized from the perspective of Sean Maguire, filter through the speakers around the anniversary of his death, all she could think was, “how did he know?”But ILLENIUM didn’t have any inkling about the association, and as Leighton recalls, he didn’t even realize that he’d sent the two songs uncannily close to the date on which Williams had passed years prior. The first of the pair would eventually become the penultimate tracklisting on his 2019 album, ASCEND. A 41-second sound clip from Williams’ “you’re just a kid” speech, mingled with quintessential ILLENIUM euphoria, “Angel – Lonely Prelude” builds into ASCEND‘s finale, “Lonely,” written and sung by Leighton. That day in the car was the first time she’d ever heard the dovetailing album inclusions, and Williams’ voice had only added to the surprise of the afternoon. “Nick [Miller] and I hadn’t been talking, which is the cool thing about him. He doesn’t send updates, he just sends it when it’s done—at least that’s what he did with me,” she said. From her perch in the driver’s seat, life was coming full-circle for Leighton in more than one way. When she was 20-years-old, her elder rave enthusiast of a sister persuaded her to go to EDC Las Vegas: “She was like, ‘you’re old enough, I’m gonna take you.’”Leighton had no idea what to expect, but she didn’t need a tenured track record in raving to know that it wouldn’t resemble the Bon Iver, Local Natives, and alternative indie music that she’d grown up on. And like a good sister, she went in with an open mind and came out—in an experience both familiar and relatable to many—”enthralled with the way the music felt.”She hadn’t heard or experienced anything like it, and as she stood in attendance at ILLENIUM’s set, her vision for the future began to take shape. “I remember being there on the racetrack and thinking, ‘I want to sing on these songs,’” she said, citing the Dia Frampton-vocalized “Needed You” as the set inclusion that crystallized this calling. “I think I literally manifested it out loud,” Leighton recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna find a way.’”As with most dreams worth dreaming, the course to actualization was neither immediate nor linear. She was enrolled at San Francisco State University to pursue a Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) degree, with an emphasis on audio and production, but she wanted to drop out. Her parents wouldn’t let her. “They were like, ‘nope, not a chance.’ And I was like, ‘whatever, okay, I’ll figure it out I guess.’”Leighton was in her final year of college when she’d write “Lonely.” Somewhat fresh off of a breakup, BECA conferral on the horizon, and a bowl of ramen on her lap, she sat in her barely furnished living room and wrote a line that would become part of the bones of “Lonely”—though it’s not on the version that streamers hear today. When she was 19, she’d met American singer-songwriter, James Young. They’d gotten together for a studio session, but Leighton wasn’t a songwriter at that time and, looking back, says she “failed miserably”: “I was so starstruck by James because I was such a big fan that I couldn’t get a word out in my session.”But that was then. She had words to share this time, and she sent the line to Young, whose emphatic embrace of what she’d written—”you’re flying out to LA next week and you’re recording it”—brought her to California’s largest city to do just that. Her revelation on the racetrack was anything but out of mind; she wanted to send the demo to ILLENIUM, so she did, relaying her feeling that he could do “something really special” with it.His response was so memorable that today, she can quote it verbatim: “No second guesses.” “I was very confused. I had no idea what was happening,” she says. “It was just like yeah this is great, thanks, it’s going on the album. There wasn’t any debate.”She attributes some of the credit to luck. The rest of it, she says, is owed to the demo’s strategic tailoring:Naturally, the ethos that true artistic fit must exist for Leighton to lend her lyrics and voice has created a culture of selectivity within her catalog. She is, by her own admission, particular about the dance records that she features on, in part because she does not want her artist page on digital streaming platforms to be dominated by songs that she’s written with and for electronic artists. “I’ve tried to protect myself from being pigeonholded by the medium,” she asserts. And though this approach leads her to turn down more offers than she accepts, there’s nothing personal about her efforts to evade the fetters of genre classification. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should has become a guide for Leighton; as such, her presence on a collaboration bespeaks her conscious choice to involve herself as a creative. This is how she maintains individuality and authenticity, and, in a way, this fit-centric mode of thinking is part of the reason why “One More Day” is the most difficult song she’s written to date.In the music industry, it’s not uncommon for songs to be scrapped or indefinitely shelved due to fruitless searches for a voice that aligns with the producer’s vision. Such was the story of Zedd‘s 2018 hit single, “The Middle.” “There were months where we almost gave up, because we couldn’t a vocalist,” Zedd told The New York Times four years ago. 14 demo vocalists later, “The Middle” found its match in Maren Morris. Some productions don’t get so lucky though, and in another life, “One More Day” might have been one of them. When Blanke and Jason Ross’ fully produced instrumental hit Leighton’s inbox, two prior writers had already attempted to pen lyrics. Their words weren’t a fit, but not by any fault of their own; “One More Day” is inherently hard to write to, given its structure. “If you really listen to the melody without my voice, the structure of the song is very unique in terms of chord progressions and where it goes,” Leighton says. “The structure was super confusing for me because I’m used to writing pop songs, which have a basic structure: verse, chorus, first bridge, chorus again, and this has a lot of time in between extra bar measures. I’m not used to writing like that, which made it super difficult.”The level of the instrumental’s production added further complexity to the writing process for Leighton, who writes all of her music using just a guitar and a piano. She doesn’t try to make her demos “sound EDM”; she writes each of them if she is scripting a pop song, leaving the electronic structuring to the producer with whom she chooses to works—if the song is destined for the dance genre, that is. This method leaves Leighton plenty of creative space for her lyrics and vocals in a way that a fully produced instrumental does not. And given that “One More Day” was antithetical to the way she customarily scripts her songs, writing what would become Dancing Astronaut‘s 2021 Track of the Year would take her three months. In Leighton’s songland, that’s a long time. Couple a lack of inspiration amid the COVID-19 quarantine with a maximalist, disorienting song structure, and you’ll have a heady cocktail of scrapped ideas and creative frustration. The demo’s complicated nature was the reason why it had been the only one left on the list of options that Blanke had sent Leighton—”pick one!” The one she’d originally chosen had been taken, but Leighton, a staunch believer that writer’s block doesn’t exist, wasn’t to be deterred. “I don’t think writer’s block is a real thing,” she attests. “It just means you’re not looking inward hard enough; there’s things that are blocking you, like your fear of diving into your trauma, stuff like that. That’s the only reason why writer’s block exists.” Nevertheless, there were challenges associated with writing “One More Day,” so Leighton pulled her friend Jordan Tariff and Heather Sommer, whom she’d yet to meet in person, into a Zoom-supported “writing room.” She was the third singer-songwriter to attempt the instrumental with Sommer, who had worked with the prior two writers in an effort to bring “One More Day” to completion. Buoyed by the idiom “the third time’s a charm,” the three collaborators got to work. And indeed, it was. “It’s crazy to think I wrote that on my computer at my mom’s house during the pandemic on Zoom with my friends,” Leighton recalls with a laugh. Since “Lonely,” Leighton’s gained a significant amount of traction in the dance space. Some might say that’s ample reason to remain focused on the genre, but in a March 21 tweet, she declared her intentions to “no longer feature [her] name on EDM for a number of reasons,” chief among them being her artist project—to which “Lonely” initially belonged. To date, she’s put out a handful of songs under her own name, the most recent of which is a dark alternative pop duet with Lo Spirit, “Let It Go.” Sonically, it stands in stark contrast to something like “Disappearing Now,” co-written with Nurko for his Arrival EP, though Leighton’s head-on lyrics and unmistakable vocal presence command in a commensurate manner. There’s more of this to come for Chandler Leighton, the solo artist; owed to a December breakup, she’s got an album worth of music that will further shape who Chandler Leighton is and what she sounds like on her own, sans synths. But she’ll start with an EP in August, with additional singles to come in May and June.In the latter half of 2022, she’ll debut at L8NCY (pronounced “latency”). “L8N is actually my dad’s email. He has an L, an 8, and an N to spell out ‘Leighton,’ and I’ve always loved that, so I kinda stole that from my dad,” she says of the namesake for the emergent project, which is so…well…latent that she’s only briefly made mention of it. “I can’t wait to show you this L8NCY project guys. Very pop deep house trance…and I can actually play L8NCY sets. 2022 it’s comin. Hang in there with me,” she’s tweeted. Aside from that, though, little has been known about L8NCY, and that’s partly because it was originally conceived as a “secret project.” “In the last couple months, I wrote so many songs for DJs but told them I was ghosting on everything. And I was like, well, what if I put a different name on [the music] and then I could play my own sets?” At first, I was gonna do L8NCY without saying anything. I wasn’t going to put my picture on it or attach my name to it. I was going to wear a wig on stage, like I was going to be completely ghost about it, just so it doesn’t interfere with my artist project,” she says of L8NCY’s early roots in anonymity, adding that she “think[s] it’s kind cool to let people know that [she’s] not leaving.” She’s just doing something else, something “just for fun.”What that is? A crossover between her singing-songwriting and DJing capacities. The latter is currently in development; “I’m gonna have to learn and struggle,” she says when asked if she knows her way around a controller. In the meantime, L8NCY sets—to hit stages in the latter half of 2022—will position her alongside her producer and co-writer on “just about everything,” Brennan Lony. “Basically, he’ll be DJing and I’ll be performing my songs live and DJing beside him,” Leighton says. She’ll debut as L8NCY sometime in November, with three collaborations under the project also set to land this year. In short, Chandler Leighton is in the midst of her sonic bildungsroman. She’s found her voice as a solo artist and as a creative who wants to stay in touch with the electronic genre without being consumed or completely overtaken by it. That’s not always an easy process, but it is, however, always a necessary one, particularly for Leighton, who leaves a piece of herself in each song. “Sometimes, I’ll get mixes back and there’s no changing it, and that to me is just a little disheartening because when you’re pouring these lyrics out of your soul, if the production is wrong, you won’t hear the soul,” she says. Though Chandler Leighton and L8NCY are two very different types of artist projects, through them, Leighton will get to keep these fragments of herself in a way that she hasn’t always been able to. Soul will be heard as intended. And true collaboration remains ever on the table. “Collaboration can be such a beautiful thing sometimes, when two people are bouncing ideas off of each other,” she reflects. “I think I just got a little overwhelmed because I felt like I was getting rid of a little bit of myself when I, deep in my heart, wasn’t agreeing to what was going on, and it just didn’t feel authentic to me anymore, because my lyrical writing has improved so much over the years that it’s just gotten harder and harder to give some of these stories away, because they feel so personal to me.”These days, Chandler Leighton isn’t just writing songs—through lyrics and action, she’s writing her own story.Tags: ,
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