From “Lion King” on Broadway to Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” Leon Thomas grew up in front of us, but he matured in the rooms where music is born. As a student of Babyface, protégé of Ty Dolla $ign and creative confidant of Ariana Grande, Thomas has grown into a musician whom the biggest artists trust.
“[SZA’s “Snooze”] wasn’t even originally for her album. It was a collaboration she was doing for Babyface’s new album, Girls Night Out. We were essentially just getting creative and having Babyface walk in and out of the room and lay parts,” Thomas reveals to REVOLT. “We did the beat that same day, and she recorded the song on the same day. That was a year and a couple of months ago.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the Grammy-nominated producer/songwriter/artist explains the real-life vulnerability of his latest single “Breaking Point,” how Ty Dolla $ign records like a rapper, getting three placements on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, and more.
Check out how some of your favorite records were made in our exclusive REVOLT interview with Leon Thomas below.
You and Babyface helped co-produce “Snooze” from SZA’s SOS album. What is it like to work with her?
She works by having a separate studio room for us, and she has her own room because she needs space just to build and do her thing. I respect that because I’m very much like that myself as an artist. She was so gracious to have us in her space when we were there. The collaborative process was still there, but it was beautiful to have her in her own space, and we were feeding her ideas to work on. That song wasn’t even originally for her album. It was a collaboration she was doing for Babyface’s new album, Girls Night Out. We were essentially just getting creative and having Babyface walk in and out of the room and lay parts. Building the whole thing from scratch was beautiful. There was no ego; we were trying to make something cool that day. We did the beat that same day, and she recorded the song on the same day. That was a year and a couple of months ago.
What’s your identifiable contribution to the record?
For a lot of the tracks I’m on, you’ll always be able to recognize if it’s me based on a technique I use where I’ll sing in a different key a lot slower, and I’ll speed up my vocal. Then, I’ll do what they call “vocal chops” and chop it up throughout the beat. It may be kind of scatting. It may be ad-libs. It’s like when Kanye West would speed up those old samples from Michael Jackson or Aretha Franklin. So, on “Snooze,” that’s me singing [near the end].
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In the Summer of 2022, you signed with Ty Dolla $ign’s label, EZMNY Records. How did you first get on his radar?
A friend of mind — a very talented pianist and producer — was playing keys for Ty on tour and producing certain records with him for his album. So, he invited me to the studio to hang out with Ty. We just hit it off, man. Ty’s a real musician, and there was definitely immediate respect and camaraderie there. Over time, [we] built an amazing friendship.
What is your dynamic with him in the studio?
There’s a song that just got placed on a new record Ty’s doing with DJ Mustard that’s a great example of how we work. He’s in there, usually, recording close to five songs a day. He’s a singer, but he records like a rapper. That was one of those days when I was kind of hanging out at the studio. He finished recording a song and asked me if I had some beats. I played him this track idea I did, and he enjoyed it. I called a friend of mine, Sevn Thomas, to come in. Sevn did the drums over. My role is usually the melody guy. So, I play keys, bass, and guitar, and I’ll sing vocals on things and work with the format. Then, I’ll usually get a drum programmer to add that slap to it.
Ty went into that booth and cut that song in less than two hours. It was an immediate vibe. Sometimes, when you’re writing a song, you might get stuck at the moment, but that was a stream of consciousness, and I was really excited to see him in there. Ty’s one of those people who doesn’t need a vocal producer, so I’m just kind of checking the vibe out. And if I hear something, I might say something, but for the most part, he’s just such a master at his craft.
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The studio is a safe space for vulnerability. What was a particularly emotional session you’ve been in?
I have a new single out right now called “Breaking Point.” This was a song I was writing for myself. It was like a journal entry, to be honest with you. It was a time when I was going through something really deep with my ex-girlfriend, and we really weren’t seeing eye to eye. I wasn’t sure if somebody I spent 2 1/2 years building with would end up being my forever or if this was possibly the end.
I wrote a song that explained all of that. It was one of those songs I couldn’t even play for her because I was so emotionally attached to it. I didn’t play it for a lot of people when I first made it. I pulled out some genuine emotions, and it’s hard to say goodbye to a real friend. Being in that emotional place made that song one of the most vulnerable records I’ve ever put out in my life.
From your work together on the Nickelodeon series “Victorious” to producing her album, you’ve collaborated extensively with Ariana Grande. What’s her creative process like?
First, that’s my friend, and she’s funny (laughs). We’re definitely in there goofing off for probably 2 1/2 hours before we get any work done, which is fun. We’re comfortable with each other, so we can just talk about things that are going on in our lives [that] you might not be as comfortable sharing with the producer you just met. That’s turned into some cool songs. There’s no process to it. We’re scrolling through tracks I’ve already made and then trying to see how we can get the best song. She’s a great writer, so she doesn’t need too much guidance. It’s about letting her guide the room and find that concept that sticks.
“Safety Net” is a good example. At that time, I had just started dating my now ex-girlfriend, and she was also dating her current husband. We were just talking about relationships and where we were at in life. I feel like the conversation just really flowed very naturally. Sometimes, it’s just hard to really open up to people — especially in her position. Even being on TV as long as I have, it’s hard to kind of fall for somebody with no safety net, knowing that it could go left. So, we just decided to write about that feeling.
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You said she’s funny. Give me an example of that Ariana Grande humor.
One of the funniest moments was early on when I was like 21, and we were working on her first album, Yours Truly. We were listening to the mixes, and she just got up on the island of the studio table and was dancing and vibing out. She was sitting up there the whole time. I remember thinking about how much of a character she was. People see her as very reserved in public, but I know how funny she is.
I can’t let you go without asking about the story behind you getting three placements on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy — “Pipe Down,” “Love All,” and “In The Bible.”
This is the story: I produced the Drake song “Gold Roses” with a really good friend of mine, Oz. We also did a song called “Love All” for Drake that he put JAY-Z on. That was the first official record we did for the album. At that time, a version of the album leaked online. So, a bunch of songs that were going to be put on the album leaked. He had to start over because people were essentially listening to the whole album during the pandemic. So, I get a call from my manager saying, “Yo, Drake wants you to fly out.” My passport was super beat up, and I didn’t have any ID. My passport was so beat up, the airport wouldn’t let me fly to the Bahamas. I’m running around LA during COVID trying to get a new passport to have this life-changing opportunity. Luckily, it worked out. There was this lady I called who could push the process forward, and I got a brand-new passport rushed to me. I fly out to the Bahamas and kick it with Drake, making beats and getting to know the guy.
All the records I did for the album were made on that trip. We did a version of “Pipe Down” in the Bahamas, but he changed the beat around. I co-produced another track, and he then put some of those lyrics on the new track. The original version sounded like a J Dilla beat with old-school, neo-soul boom-bap drums. But we switched it around to something more modern.
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What can we expect from you in 2023?
I’m doing songs for other artists. I’m finishing my album, Electric Dusk. I’m also getting back in the gym and getting ready to get back in front of the camera for acting. It’s important for me to access that gift. I am just looking to have more records on other people’s projects and [for] myself and more content. That’s the mission.