Leah Marlene has been making music since she was big enough to hold a guitar. Taking third place on last year’s season of American Idol gave her career a boost, but she’s been working intently on her music, singing and songwriting for as long as she can remember. She already has two self-produced albums; The Space Between and Many Colors, as well as an EP, Arrow and several singles to her credit.
“My dad was in a band called Honeymoon Suite long before I was born, and the house was always full of instruments,” she recalled. “I had my hands on them before I even knew what they were. I started learning guitar when I was eight and started singing for family, friends and at school. I got my first paying gig when I was nine, doing covers with my dad backing me on guitar and singing harmonies. We played coffee shops, farmer’s markets and the little Circle in uptown Normal [Illinois].
“My mom started a YouTube channel for me when I was eight, but I didn’t write my first good song till I was in high school. I got my heart broken. When a song came out of it, I wanted to keep writing and see what else I could come up with. My dad had been going to Nashville for co-writing sessions. After I had a few songs under my belt, he offered to take me on his next trip.”
By the time she was 14, Marlene was joining her father on regular writing trips. “My dad set me up with some of his co-writers and found me some open mics. I quickly took over booking my own trips, cold emailing people and setting up sessions. After high school, I moved to Nashville and went to Belmont University to study songwriting. I’d always enjoyed learning, but I fell into
a dark time pretty early in my college years. I was deeply struggling. Then Covid hit. A lot of music came out of that time. I produced my first album, The Space Between, as I was in the thick of my healing journey.”
After pushing herself through her second year of college, it became clear that it was time to move on. Marlene dropped out and headed home to Illinois. “I was less focused on music and more focused on my well-being and my desire to escape and travel the world. Then American Idol contacted me about an audition. Being on TV was the last thing I would have considered that year, but I had a really strange gut feeling about it and so did my mom. So I thought, ‘Why not just do it for the fun of it, no expectations?’ and that’s exactly what I did.”
She impressed the judges from her first audition. Luke Bryan said, “You're tremendous. You're just entertainment in a little life form. There's nothing about you that we're going to be able to predict.”
That sentiment remained true for the rest of Marlene’s American Idol journey. She continued to step up her game and reveal the many shades of her artistry with every round, from performances Lionel Richie hailed as “spiritual possession,” to bringing Katy Perry to tears on multiple occasions. Leah “hold(s) the room in the palm of (her) hand,” when she sings, Perry said. “If I could go get a 12-foot ladder and stand on that for your standing ovation, that's what I wanted to do,” Bryan said. The judges all agreed that, “this girl can do anything and she has just begun.”
For the season finale, Perry joined Marlene to perform her legendary hit, “Firework.” “I found out about the duet with Katy a few days before,” Marlene said. “We had one rehearsal and my dad played guitar with us. It was a really special moment.” As her time on Idol was nearing its end, the program released a single of her song “Flowers.” It hit #6 on the iTunes chart and got more than 500,000 hits on Spotify. “Releasing ‘Flowers’ on Idol was a very full circle moment. Having just gone through the hardest few years in my life before the show, then less than a year later, getting to share my song of hope to millions of viewers was surreal.”
Just before she went on Idol, she strategically released her second self-produced solo album, Many Colors. It picked up over half a million plays while she was on the show.
Her first post-Idol release is “Feel Like,” a fun summer song. “It’s essentially my personality in sonic form,” she said. “I got together with Megan (Redmond) and Brett (Truitt) in Nashville and showed them a cool little track I’d made in my basement during Covid. It ended up as the chorus of our song.” Marlene brought the song to Pete Eddins, who co-produced it with her. Her band members, Cory Hale Williams (drummer) and Matt Pittman (guitar), dropped by the studio and added their own musical flavoring to the track. “They understand my musical mind so deeply.”
“Feel Like” combines all the elements that make Marlene’s music compelling. It’s a cheery tune that captures the enthusiasm of infatuation and shows off her upbeat personality. It opens with a quiet acoustic guitar, supporting Marlene’s enchanting vocal, as she welcomes in endless possibilities of new love. Her excitement overflows as Williams comes in with a propulsive backbeat. A wordless chorus of “Da da das,” accented by breathless sighs, swirls around the beat as the energy of the track picks up. Marlene’s multi-tracked, jazzy ad-libs drive home her joy, as she sings about the bliss of new love and the summer sun. “This song is your daily dose of sonic serotonin.”
“’Feel Like’ mirrors my musical approach, moving through genres, sounds and various influences from all the music I’ve absorbed over the years. It’s a bit of a different direction than other things I’ve released, but at the same time, everything I release is going to be different than the last. I will never create music that fits in a box.”
“I’m working toward an album, but this year, I’m mostly building up the foundation for what’s to come. I’m touring a bit and releasing a few singles, but the real push is coming in 2024. I’m writing a lot of music and taking my time. The art is too important to rush.”
Marlene’s music is informed by her deep desire to move souls. “I’m a lover of people,” she said. “My hope is that my music will meet you exactly where you are and help you feel whatever it is you need to feel in any given moment.” On stage, she’s full of quirky banter. “If you come to my show, you’re going to feel like we’re best friends by the end of it.” Her set will transport you on a journey through time, genre, and feeling.