The buildup to Leona Lewis’ stateside debut has been so great that you half expect her to be surrounded by heavenly angels when she appears.
Backed by music mogul Clive Davis, the budding British diva has already drawn endless comparisons to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston for her booming voice. No less than Oprah Winfrey fawned over her talents on a recent show. She even managed to win over Simon Cowell, who fell in love with her talent when she won “The X Factor,” the British version of “American Idol.” Cowell and Davis both executive-produced her debut album, “Spirit,” which was released in the U.S. this week.
“It was blindingly obvious when this girl came on the show that this wasn’t just someone who had the potential to be a good singer, this was someone who had a potential to be a star,” Cowell said.
For a new artist, the attention can be daunting.
“It’s quite scary,” Lewis said in a phone interview and she was told — probably for the millionth time — about comparisons to Carey and Houston. “It’s a massive compliment. Personally I’ve got a lot of hard work to do.”
But early signs show that Lewis, 22, may be able to deliver on the lofty expectations. The album is already a top seller in Europe. Last month, she scored a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with her first single, “Bleeding Love” — the first time a British woman has topped that chart in 21 years.
“Leona is the first vocalist that I have heard in well over a decade that between her voice and her appearance and just presence, she had the different elements that I thought were necessarily to be a world-class singer,” said One Republic’s Ryan Tedder, who co-wrote “Bleeding Love.”
While there are certainly plenty of huge voices, Lewis’ pipes have an elegant tone and impressive range that recall Carey and Houston, two of the most successful pop divas ever. However, Carey and Houston debuted when soaring vocals and dramatic power ballads ruled radio — which is no longer the case.
That’s why “Spirit” includes a mix of midtempo songs sprinkled with ballads like her remake of Roberta Flack’s classic “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Davis, who along with Cowell executive produced “Spirit,” said it was important not to typecast Lewis as a balladeer: “I really see her as a contemporary singer who is versatile and who can do all types of material.”
Her singing background seems to bear out Davis’ assessment: The daughter of a Guyanese part-time DJ and a Welsh ballet teacher, Lewis grew up exposed to a variety of genres. She got the performing bug early, appearing in local talent shows as a child and attending a performing arts school. But in her early teens, it was opera, and not pop, that enthralled her.
“My training is kind of classical, so I’ve done a lot of opera, and I was very interested in Leontyne Price,” Lewis says her in sweet, shy-sounding voice. “As I got older and more into, like, contemporary music and all that kind of jazz, soul and blues ... I kind of found myself shifting toward that.”
At 17, the London native decided to pursue music full-time, leaving school in hopes of realizing her dreams. Early setbacks left her discouraged.
“I was quite frustrated because I really wanted to be able to make a living from it,” she said. “I’d been going into the studio and writing and working with different producers and I’d be auditioning for different shows ... it was quite a struggle.”
Her break came when she auditioned for “The X Factor,” which she won in December 2006.
Her album was an instant best-seller last year in Britain. While she’s had quick success with “Bleeding Love,” Davis expects the build could be slower for Lewis in the U.S.
“There is a whole long litany of those (singers) who have been No. 1 in the U.K. but who have not made it here,” Davis said. “She understands that and she knows she’s got to work for it and she is indeed working for it.”
For her part, Lewis is quick to downplay expectations of her debut, one of the year’s most anticipated.
“You know what? To just get the chance to come over and share my music together is just amazing to me. I don’t know how it’s going to do, I don’t know how people are going to receive it, I can just hope that it will be received well. But to just get this chance? It’s incredible.”
Tedder thinks the incredible things are yet to come.
“I hope she ushers back the era of big songs and big voices and iconic artists, because I think a lot of people miss that kind of thing. The last 10 years have been a lot of random artists who have hit songs and then disappear off the map,” he said. “She can be one of those artists, with that kind of voice and that look, whereas as long as there are great songs to be sung and she’s singing them, she’ll be on the top of the charts.”