ABOVE: LEAF IN LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY 2015. PHOTOS BY CARA ROBBINS. STYLING BY SEAN KNIGHT. HAIR: NIKKI PROVIDENCE/JED ROOT. MAKEUP: MARIJA KOPILAS.
When you hear New York City's LaGuardia High School mentioned in conversation, some notable musical alumni might come to mind, including recent breakout acts like Azealia Banks as well as more established names, such as Liza Minneli and Suzanne Vega. Having graduated from the music, art, and performing arts school not even two years ago, the most recent name you should get to know is that of 19-year-old Leaf. Born Mikala Leaf McLean, the artist raps in the same vein as Nicki-meets-Iggy while simultaneously retaining an airy, ethereal vocal component. She ebbs and flows between rapping and singing slightly sinister, yet empowering lyrics accompanied by equally as strong beats that make any female nod her head in agreement ("Don't come in my life with that drama," "Who the fuck are you without me," "Hang up the phone and don't call my fuckin' house again / ya hear me?").
After moving to Los Angeles one month ago and releasing her debut EP, Magnet Bitch, last week via Fool's Gold, Leaf is on the fast track toward success. She's already working on her full-length studio album, learning to produce her own tracks, and directing, editing, and shooting her own videos. Oh, and did we mention she also designs clothing?
NAME: Mikala Leaf McLean
BASED: Los Angeles
BORN AND BRED: I'm from the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. I grew up in Times Square until I was about 10, but like, on the outskirts where it was empty warehouses and stuff—on a nice block though, it wasn't fucking crazy! Growing up in New York, you have to grow up a lot quicker than the regular, average kid, so I think without the crazy experiences that I had to go through, I wouldn't be able to make the music the way I'm making it and be in the mind state that I'm in. I've seen so many people destroy their lives or flourish. New York is really the concrete jungle—either you come out of it or you don't. I've faced a lot of people getting addicted to drugs and ruining their lives through drugs. To be able to see that first hand, it really just makes you appreciate life and makes you want to help others appreciate life.
YOUNG BEGINNINGS: When I was like four or six years old, I started writing music, nothing really serious. When I was 14, I started recording music out of my friend's closet in Chinatown. I was in a rock band that I formed with some kids in my school and then I also did—I can't even explain it—a weird pop R&B creation. It was really a sound that we were creating ourselves that was inspired by what we were listening to and going through.
I had a really diverse music taste [growing up]. I would listen to The White Stripes and then I would also be listening to Snoop Dogg and even The Devil Wears Prada—some screamo, R&B, and even some deep house music too. I really liked Calvin Harris, but then there was also all that old '80s house music that was really cool. I was really into punk rock and rock music so I was listening to all types of classic rock, like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. Later on, when I was around 15, 16, I'd listen to The xx and Nine Inch Nails and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I liked a lot of that electric leaning rock music, in a sense.
CREATING HER OWN: My music has always sounded pretty much the same vocally...I think it's become a lot more airy as I've started to learn how to use my voice the way I want to use it. But my music has always had an eccentric vibe. With this project, me and my girlfriend sat together and made these beats. She's creating a sound right now called goth-trap, so I wanted to take my airy vocals and put it over her goth-trap-inspired music. There's all these girls who are doing this weird music, like SZA, FKA Twigs, and there's really no category for it. I think it's just them listening to a diverse type of music and creating what they want to hear.
EDITING AND DIRECTING: I think the amazing thing about 2015 is that you don't really have to know how to do anything to do it. With editing, this is actually the first video I've ever edited as a full-length music video. I've been directing my music videos for a little, at least co-directing them. My girlfriend shot it with me, but editing is completely new to me and I think it came out surprisingly well. [laughs] I'm proud of myself for being able to accomplish something like that.
DESIGNING CLOTHES: I've been selling clothes since I was about 12. I picked it up as a hobby. I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I had an afterschool class—you know, those whack after school classes where they just teach you the basics of the basics? I took a couple of those classes, I learned how to draw and then started just figuring it out—buying fabric and piecing it together and cutting out my clothes. It drove my parents crazy. [laughs]
AU NATUREL: I just started producing, so I only have one song that I co-produced on my EP, which was "Calling Me Like." I've only been producing for three months, going on four, so I'm really still working on my craft. But as far as writing, I write all my music and melodies. For me it's just really natural. It surprises people when they go into the studio with me because I can bang out a song in like 30 minutes to an hour, or even less than that. When the inspiration comes it's just immediate. I don't really sit on things; I just let the music flow out of me and create.
TO VIMEO: I really enjoy watching fashion films on Vimeo, or some of the illustration videos. It's getting so crazy how much you can do with illustration these days. I love watching those short films. I love foreign films a lot. I'm inspired by film a lot, but I guess more of an independent film.
SCHOOL ISN'T FOR EVERYONE: I only took the minimum classes, so I'd leave school at like 1:00 every single day and half the time I would just cut the other classes so I just wouldn't even go to school. I was so bad. All the teachers hated me. But that's life, right? It's usually the bad kid in the corner that the teacher is always kicking out of the class that is actually really creative and just can't express themselves. All the successful people from LaGuardia always say, "I hate that school!" But I don't hate it...I had some good teachers that inspired me. And all the deans—if you just become cool with the deans you really can get passed on a lot of shit. I probably wouldn't have graduated if I was not nice to the deans. [laughs]
GIRL CODE: When I wrote "Drama" I was going through a lot of issues with some of my girlfriends. I wanted to make it clear in that song, if you're going to be around my clique, then you're gonna be an MBM [money before men] and you have to hold your crown up. You have to be a queen. You can't just be coming around doing whatever you want. I think there's a certain way to uphold yourself on any level. There are just girl codes as well, you know what I mean? You don't cross your girlfriend on a certain level and you always try to keep communication clear. So that was just me saying to those girls, "You know what you did and how you fucked up and don't bring that beef around me." [laughs] Who doesn't want to sing that either, like, "Don't come in my life with that drama!" I have a female empowerment brand called MBM, and any girl who thinks they are intelligent and beautiful inside and out should join. But I think every girl is, so every one can join the team.
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