At first you might not expect such a gutsy and booming voice from L.A.-based singer/songwriter Ivy Levan. Maybe it’s her willowy frame or delicate features that belie the controlled power and rich tone of her delivery. Maybe it's her unassuming smile, or her “it’s-just-what-I-do” ease behind the microphone. Maybe it’s the way she so effortlessly swings the rhythm of a killer melody with both immaculate precision and fierce, unbridled joy. But take a listen to the Arkansas-bred vocalist’s full-length debut album, and all expectations instantly get swept away by the full force of her show-stopping pipes and undeniable command of sleek, yet gritty pop.
Built on the bold and brash sound Levan first revealed on her 2013 EP Introducing the Dame—a sound that she likes to call “swamp hop” her debut album, (title to be announced soon), finds Levan snaking her soulful vocals around smoky, R&B-soaked pop tracks along with fired-up party anthems and heart-stopping ballads. As on Introducing The Dame, Levan made the album in close collaboration with producers and creative partners Lucas Banker and Patrick Nissley. This time around, she’s also joined by such artists as Tomo Milicevic of 30 Seconds To Mars, world-renowned DJ/producer Diplo as well as Sting (who invited Levan to join him in a performance of The Beatles’ “Drive My Car” on the Late Show With David Letterman in early 2014).
“The album’s a mixture of dark and light and everything between,” says Levan of the album. “My intention was to create timeless songs that were fun as well as vulnerable. I connected to so many songs like that growing up, and I wanted to continue to carry that torch.”
That growing up happened in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Levan showed a love of singing right from her earliest years. Raised on the soul, new wave, dance, big band, and rock & roll records that her mother constantly played at home, Levan expanded her musical palette with artists as eclectic as Depeche Mode, Etta James, and The Misfits. “I’ve always been drawn to unique voices,” says Levan. “So my biggest musical inspirations were Whitney Houston because of her power and presence, Portishead because of Beth Gibbons’s distinct and haunting tones, and Wu Tang for the pure fun and raw energy.”
When she was 16, Ivy Levan left Arkansas and moved to Los Angeles to launch the singing career she’d long coveted. “I didn’t have any real plan,” she admits now. “I just knew I needed to get out of there as fast as I could, so two weeks before I was supposed to graduate high school, I took off for L.A. with my mama.” Levan breathed new fire into her musical pursuits with gritty but beat-heavy sound that flaunted her Southern roots. Teaming up with Lucas Banker (a producer/songwriter who’s also worked with Selena Gomez and Junkie XL) and his partner Patrick Nissley, Levan released her harmony-powered hangover anthem “I Don’t Wanna Wake Up” in 2012. Soon enough, her music caught the ear and won the adoration of everyone from Diplo to Sting.
In creating the album, Levan made a point of keeping her songwriting process spontaneous and loose and fueling each track with unabashed passion. “An idea would hit me in the moment and I’d just go with it,” she says. “And the lyrics are the same way—it can be something as basic as being stuck in traffic or a deeper self-reflection about past relationships.” The result includes the urgent, rollicking lead single “Biscuit,” a personal manifesto that finds Levan belting out lines like “I think you might have missed it/When I told you to kiss it, my biscuit.” “I really wanted to make a song that summed up my attitude and the way I was raised in the South,” she explains, adding, “Southern Belles don’t take no lip”. On “Killing You,” her smoldering, bass-driven duet with Sting, Levan takes an honest look at “the self-sabotage that can happen when blinded by love.” An arresting meditation on the “live-fast-die-young” mentality, “27,” her pulsating collaboration with Diplo, pays tribute to “all the musical legends that left this world far too early—like Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Jim Morrison—and the how the world really lost a lot of great music that was never made.” And rounding out the album are tracks like “It Ain’t Easy,” a stirring ballad and glorious showcase for Levan’s masterful voice, “Best Damn Thing,” an R&B-kissed club banger which Ivy collaborated on with Tomo Milicevic of 30 Seconds To Mars. Tomo and Ivy also teamed up on “No Good,” a slinky but melody-laced number that Levan says “brought out a sense of femininity and sexuality that I’ve never written about before”.
Bringing the album to life was a whirlwind and dreamlike experience for Levan. “Some songs felt like a party with my best friends,” she says of making the album. “Others felt like time was standing still while we were all getting lost in the moment.” And in sharing her new batch of songs with the world, Levan hopes that the uncompromising honesty of her music will have a similarly powerful impact on those who tune in. “I really want the listener to feel like these songs are their songs—as much as the songs are the stories of my life, I want them to be the soundtracks of their journey as well,” she says. “This music that has helped me so much, and I hope it helps others too,” she continues. “What makes me the most proud is that I get to do something that I love, and in a way that has the utmost sincerity.”