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NewTracks New Artist: Rachel Leo

NewTracks New Artist: Rachel Leo

With the backing of a double-major degree and a fun bunch of mates evidently all too ready to go out wearing their matching pink Rachel Leo Fanclub t-shirts, there’s little doubt that 22-year-old Rachel Leo is ready to emerge as a genuine pop star. The choreographed dancing that complements her debut single’s upbeat musical blend certifies her triple-threat status. Conversation is the title of her multi-hook disco-pop song that sees the Auckland singer-songwriter included on NZ On Air‘s NewTracks compilation this July.

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What’s your given name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

My name is Rachel Cammell, I’m from Auckland and I play keys!

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you?

I was quite involved in music and drama at high school and studied a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Music as a conjoint at the University of Auckland. My music degree was incredibly helpful and I can confidently say I wouldn’t have had the tools, skills and confidence to pursue music without it! I owe a lot to my lecturers and classmates.

Any other previous projects might we know you from?

I used to perform under my real name Rachel Cammell.

Who else is directly involved with your music right now?

I recently got the NewMusic Development funding from NZ On Air to work with Alex Wildwood so we have been cooking up some tunes! Also trying to write with as many people as I can at the moment. 

How has your music evolved from your early songwriting to now?

In high school I only wrote one or two songs a year for NCEA, and they were all slow ballads. When I started the popular music programme at UoA it was a massive change! We suddenly had to be writing to different briefs and styles constantly. This really stretched me, and over three years my sound travelled around the Latin, RnB, funk and jazz edges of pop. I’ve settled in my own vibe now, but you will always get quite a mix of genres in one of my sets. 

How and when did you come up with the project name?

I never really felt like ‘Rachel Cammell’ was much of a stage name and it just didn’t click for me. A couple of years ago I was going through a tough time and my Mum got me a mug with a lioness on it, and said I reminded her of it. I loved the connotations of power, grace and passion that came with it and made that my phone background too. When it came to picking a stage name, I considered the Italian translation of lioness (leonessa) but I didn’t want to fully disconnect from my real name. I decided to combine the two and it just felt right. I also love that ‘Rachel’ means lamb in some languages, so together ‘Rachel Leo’ represents the soft and powerful sides of my personality and music. 

Aside from this release, what’s been the highlight to date? 

Aside from this release, my biggest highlight was being a featured soloist at the 2018 Christmas in the Park. My parents used to take me every year when I was a kid and it was always a dream of mine to be on that stage. I had pretty bad stage fright at that point in time but that experience shook it out of me!

What makes Conversation stand out for you as a single?

I just remember first humming the chorus melody in the session and knowing this would be my debut single. It was the best writing session I had ever been in and when we finished the track and played it back I knew it was a special one. It just makes me want to dance and I never got sick of replaying it!

What is the story behind Conversation?

I was pretty pessimistic about love when the song was written. I had decided I wanted to take some time for myself and avoid getting involved with anyone, but I had just met this great guy. The song follows me going back and forth about whether to pursue it or not. Initially, I was pretty stubborn, but I knew deep down I would end up with him. The lyrics are basically me verbalising the internal conflict that was going on, but after playing back the song after the writing session it was pretty clear what I was really feeling. I wrote the track with M Basa and Joseph Corban-Banks. They are so awesome to write with and the session was such a blast! 

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

The chorus lyrics are probably my favourite part of the song. The line “Let’s get to where we’re going,” really sums up the topic of the song.

What would you like listeners to take away from this song?

It’s funny how this song is relevant to so many of my friends’ situations. I think a lot of people are quite scared of love but I would say that it’s worth taking risks and being open to having your plans changed as you never know what could happen. I also just want people to have a boogie to it! It’s such a fun song and perfect for an energy boost. 

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

The hook is super important. If I show friends or family a track and I hear them humming it after, then that’s a good indication that it’s got single potential! I love feedback and always want to be improving so I make sure to send songs to people whose opinions I trust and get their thoughts. Ultimately, I usually know it’s going to be a good one when I’m writing it. 

Who else is in your team?

It’s just me at the moment! It’s been really difficult at times learning all about PR, marketing, music videos, distribution etc., but so rewarding. Would be great to eventually have more people in my team so I can focus more on being an artist, but I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of handling my debut release. I have heaps of incredible creative friends that helped with aspects of the release and am currently co-writing with a bunch of producers – so though I’m independent, I do have this amazing network of support. 

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song.

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for others out there? 

This is my first application so I’m super stoked to be included in NewTracks! I would just suggest that you really invest in your branding and social media. Though I haven’t applied for New Music Single funding yet – I ticked off a lot of the criteria because of my engagement with people on social media. If you need to tick off 1000 followers, jump on TikTok and ask people! People love honesty and vulnerability and are often super happy to help. 

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

I’m loving Sniffers at the moment!

Who did you make the video with?

One of my best friends, Amelia Jacobson, recently graduated from film school and offered to direct it for me! She got our co-director and DOP Calum Lyall involved and we built a team largely consisting of friends and volunteers (Benjamin Donaldson, Jack Briden, Benny Joy Smith & Lukas Faulkner) to help us pull it off! I called up a friend from high school (Emily Dobbs) to choreograph and roped my pals Stephanie Khoo, Danya Rae Malate and Jazzelle Rowell in to dance with me. 

Any last words?

Huge thank you to NZ On Air for including me in this month’s NewTracks and NZ Musician for having me!