Leilani interview: pre-millennium precious treasure
By Ian Peel | April 25, 2023
As her debut album Precious Treasure is released, we catch up with 90s pop star, Leilani
In the timeline of classic pop, Leilani comes after the anything-is-possible spirit of 80s chart music and the couldn’t-care-less attitude of the 90s dance explosion.
But somewhere before it all went awry with the smartphone-, X-Factor– and iTunes-obsessed 00s. A moment in time where the future looked to be held in the hands of singularly-monikered musicians such as Jamelia, Emilia and Billie.
It’s this era that author Michael Cragg explores in Reach for the Stars (Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party) as “a double-denim-loving time before the glare of social media and the accession of streaming.”
But there was just one problem. After three singles, Leilani vanished off the face of the earth. A tour with Boyzone, Top Of The Pops with her first single, some Curly Wurly-related lyrical notoriety. Then, nothing. Her debut album was trailed on The Big Breakfast but never ended up coming out.
All of this is rectified this month with the release – almost 25 years after it was first scheduled – of Leilani’s debut LP, Precious Treasure, which includes her three singles Madness Thing, Do You Want Me? and Flying Elvis.
To say nothing of a killer ballad in This Is Your Life, and a timeless emotional info-dump named Snail, possibly the only pop track ever to be based on tuba and cello in the verse, and digeridoo in the middle eight.
Leilani came out of hiding to talk to Classic Pop about her fleeting moment as pop’s brightest hope and how it feels to finally release your debut album, a couple of decades years after you recorded it.
How did you come to start recording in the first place?
It’s quite a funny story, actually. I was working with friends of my brother who owned a recording studio in Primrose Hill, and they were doing jingles for adverts. And my brother casually mentioned to them, ‘you should make my sister a pop star’.
So I went down and had a little audition. They were like, ‘yeah, great, but we won’t tell her in case we don’t get anywhere and then she’ll never be disappointed’.
They told me that they were giving me free studio time and I was giving them free vocals to help everyone out. I didn’t realise really that I was actually writing and recording an album.
When it came to the completion of the album, they asked me, ‘would you like a record deal?’ And I was like, ‘no, thank you. I want to be a musical theatre performer and be on the stage, actually!’
You were on Top Of The Pops with Madness Thing, your very first single, but at what point did you realise you were a fully-fledged pop star?
My God, I remember so clearly when I realised I was a fully-fledged pop star, and it was at the record label’s offices. I had loads and loads of papers to sign and they popped open tons of bottles of Champagne. And every single person in the label raised a glass.
I was standing with my production team, and they all stood and cheered me and I was confused. I said to Phil, who used to help me write my songs, ‘why are they all looking at me?’ And he said, ‘because you’ve just signed a seven-album deal!’
I was like, ‘what on earth’s just happened?!’ I was really slow on the uptake of what was happening; I didn’t realise it was all for me. As soon as we’d all cheersed, we sat down and there was this piece of paper put in front of me of the TV appearances. Straight away the next week it said Big Breakfast, CD:UK, SMTV…
Bob Stanley refers to “pre-millennium bubblegum” as “an extraordinarily fertile period for British pop.” How would you describe the highs and lows of those days?
I would say the craziest moment from back in the day was definitely the Smash Hits tour in 1998. Billie and I always used to share a dressing room because were the two solo girls. Everyone was just on a massive high.
Another time, I remember we turned up at one TV and the tour manager, who was my brother, had forgotten all of our costumes. I think it was Fully Booked, actually, or maybe when we did Flying Elvis on FBI?
We were always late and quite disorganised, but we looked at each other and luckily were all wearing pretty much the same thing: 90s ripped denim. So I said, ‘well, we’ll just go on in this’. Touring was always a very dishevelled art.
But it was also quite lonely for me being a solo artist. I had four dancers and in every town that we hit they would shoot off immediately to the clubs and I’d be on my own in my hotel room. After my third single, just before the album was due to be released, I realised that I wanted out.
I feel like This Is Your Life should have been the second or third single and, if it had, it would have been massive at the time. What are the album’s highlights for you?
This Is Your Life always kind of made me cringe a little bit! I suppose it’s because it was one of the slower ones and I just always wasn’t that confident with my voice. I personally always liked Snail. I still love that track, I think it’s a banger.
How does it feel to listen to the album again, and have Precious Treasure out there finally?
Do you know what, I must say that listening to the album now, it sounds not so dated. I mean, it’s been 25 years and I think it still sounds really good. I think back then I was heavily into hip-hop and R&B and I was slightly embarrassed by my pop career. Whereas now I am full-on pop, dancing around the kitchen, so I actually prefer it now. It’s a good little album, lots of tongue-in-cheek, lots of fun. And honestly, what more could you want?
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