Video credit: Leon Thomas official music channel
The first time that Leon Thomas was recognized because of his career, he thought he was being mugged.
“I was on the train in NY. And up until that point, if someone was staring at me for a long time, I thought they were trying to mug me. So this guy kept staring at me the whole train ride. So I was getting my fists ready, getting my moves ready, just in case he made a move.
So he walks up to me, and I’m like ‘its about to go down’, and he’s like ‘my daughter loves your show. Can I take a picture with you?’
I was just like ‘whoa! This is crazy!’ It was a life changing moment,“ Leon said.
But it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Leon had been building to that moment his whole life.
Born in Brooklyn to an artistically talented family, – his mother is a singer and dancer, and his grandfather performed on Broadway – Leon began playing drums at the age of three. By age 10, he was performing in some of Broadway’s most popular performances. At 13 he signed a development deal with Nickelodeon, where he has appeared in shows like iCarly, and True Jackson VP. He is probably most popular, however, for his role as Andre Harris on the Emmy nominated, Nickelodeon sitcom series Victorious.
Obviously talented at a young age, Leon knew he wanted to be in show business and saw Broadway as a progressive move forward. His grandfather had been a Broadway actor, so Leon says “Coming up, I always wanted to be like him and do the things that he did. So for me to audition was a big deal, and then once I got it and started doing other Broadway plays, just one thing lead to another.”
That is an understatement. Leon’s talent and desire lead him to roles in Caroline, or Change, The Color Purple alongside Oprah and Quincy Jones, and The Lion King as young Simba. “I got the opportunity to chill with some really awesome people – some legends,” he says, “For me, it was just a playground of creativity.”
That playground lead him to a performing arts high school on the set of Victorious, which aired from 2010-2013. His role on Victorious came as the result of the development deal that he signed with Nickelodeon at the age of 13. On the show he played Andre Harris, a student musician at a performing arts high school with a case of stage fright and an immense amount of talent.
“It was just a dream come true for me honestly,” Leon says of signing with the company, “To know that so many people have signed off on believing in the fact that I have talent, and believing in my vision is just a dream come true for me…Nickelodeon was everything for me.”
And they did a lot for him as well.
Victorious became the ideal platform for Leon to showcase his talent as an actor and a musician. The parallels between himself and his character on the show, Andre, allowed Leon to express his personal journey in a professional way. “Just about all the songs that I sang [were mine]. It was a really cool opportunity for me to be that young and be producing and writing for a TV show was dope,” he said.
The creators of the show were very open to featuring Leon’s music, and encouraged him to submit material. “I think if you have really good material, its hard to turn down. I just worked as hard as I could to make sure that everything I presented was just the best of my abilities. I think they really responded to that, and it all worked out,” says Leon.
On set, he was also able to form relationships with other up-and-coming Nickelodeon stars. Victoria Justice, Ariana Grande, Elizabeth Gillies, Avan Jogia, Matt Bennett, and Daniella Monet, who were all co-stars, have been great supports for Leon since starting on the show. He says that being on set “was cool. It was like one long jam session, we never stopped singing.”
Which was a good thing, because while he was working on the show, he was simultaneously active in his music. While he was acting, and writing, singing and producing music for the show, he also began working on other personal musical projects. In 2012 he released his first mixtape called Metro Hearts. That was followed in 2013 by his co-authorship of 4 songs on co-star Ariana Grande’s album Yours Truly. Leon, along with his production partner Chris Tines, received production credit for 5 tracks on Grande’s album. Then, at the start of this year, he released a new mixtape called V1bes.
Leon says that when Victorious wrapped in early 2013, it was the most popular show on Nickelodeon. The popularity of the show had surpassed most everyone’s expectations, and the show’s cancellation came as a surprise to cast and crew. But Leon says the experience was unique, exciting, and amazing. “It was crazy. I didn’t expect for it to go as big as it did. But just to know that people loved it so much. Its weird for me, meeting grown people, who are saying ‘I grew up with you dude.’ It’s a blessing to be a part of peoples lives like that,” he says.
Leon was sad to walk away from the project, but knew that it was time to move on to the next chapter in his life. He plans to keep a balance of acting and music, but lately, has been focusing on his forthcoming debut album, which is currently in the final stages of production and is due out before summer. That album, which is being created under his Columbia contract, is being co-produced by Kenneth Edmunds, or Babyface, as he is known musically.
“I’ve been working with Babyface, who’s an amazing producer,” said Leon. Kenneth Edmonds, better known as Babyface, is an 11-time Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter, and music producer. Leon continued, “He’s a legend in the game and he’s been mentoring me as a producer and a writer and an artist.”
With mentors as high up in the industry as Babyface, it’s no wonder where Leon finds his inspiration, or his work ethic. Between Babyface, and a roster of co-stars, and co-collaborators stacked with their own talent, Leon is challenged to put out his best work all the time.
This upcoming album is something that Leon has been working on for a long time, and like any artist, he wants to make sure its perfect before he puts it out in the world. When creating this album he said, “I like to picture it like a movie.” This way he is able to create a cohesive beginning, middle, and end, and give listeners a true experience.
Leon says that in creating this album, he really tried to tell a story, and lead by example and get back to basics. “Usually an album from track 1-11 is just a great experience. I don’t think we should lose that. And I think that moving forward, a lot of people are going to get back to the basics. At least I hope so, because this single-driven market is kind of whack. Its tough because I feel like the attention to detail has been lost knowing that its more important to just sell a great single. I’m really just looking forward to musicians and creative people taking the time to create an album that works from track one to … whatever.“
Dedicating the time is the hardest part. For Leon, finding that balance between music and acting, and still leaving time to be a teenager (and now a young adult) has been challenging, but well worth it. Leon says of the struggle “I’m just trying to be successful in both. I’ve seen my heroes like Will Smith and Jamie Foxx have the ability to do a great movie and then release an awesome single, or even a great album. And if they can do it, I know that I can do it.”
And like his idols, he wants to do it all. Leon hopes to keep producing music, and creatively creating his own work. But he also wants to work on his acting and maybe get into production on that side as well. Of his aspirations, a number one album, and a Grammy someday are just a few.
“I feel like for me, as an artist, I have to be my own entity. I have to be my own thing. And whatever that success is going to be, its always something that I will be proud of, I have put my heart and soul into it. I cant really compare myself because I’m just a different thing.”
Leon Thomas has talent and he knows it. He’s passionate, he’s eager, and he hustles. He defines triple-threat. But he’s not done. He says “I’m just looking forward to 2014 and years to come because I just have a lot to give you all.”
**A version of this story was published by Naked Magazine in March 2013