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Leona Lewis hopes "Echo" will resound

By Craig McLean

LONDON (Billboard) - Violence and theft. Not words one would normally associate with Leona Lewis, the squeaky-clean winner of "The X Factor," who went on to stunning worldwide success with her debut album, "Spirit."

Nor, one imagines, exactly how Clive Davis, Simon Cowell and Sony Music Entertainment envisaged the comeback push for the British singer.

While the promotional campaign for Lewis' debut was hitch-free, the setup for its follow-up, "Echo" -- released November 16 in the United Kingdom on Cowell's Syco Music and a day later in the United States on J -- has been anything but smooth.

First, in mid-August, three songs from the album sessions leaked onto the Internet, reportedly after Syco's IT system was hacked.

Then, more dramatically, Lewis was assaulted October 14 during a London book signing for her autobiography, "Dreams." The man accused of punching her in the head was committed under the United Kingdom's Mental Health Act.

"It was a shock," Lewis said of the attack, which left her bruised. "I was very sore. The main thing is that I'm still alive."

By the time Billboard caught up with her, two weeks after the incident, she even was able to smile about it, particularly the tabloid reports that Lou Al-Chamaa -- the childhood sweetheart with whom Lewis still lives in her working-class home neighborhood of Hackney in northeast London -- rushed in to tackle her assailant.

"He wasn't even there," she said. "That makes me laugh. I'm sure if he was there, he would have. My dad and my brothers weren't there (either). They're usually at different things that I do. But I'm so glad that they weren't. Because, oh, my God ..."

In the immediate aftermath of the assault, Lewis canceled promotional trips to Germany and France, and pulled out of a high-profile U.K. TV appearance on BBC 1's "The One Show."

The Internet leak was dealt with in similarly succinct fashion, as the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's anti-piracy unit teamed with law enforcement agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. A criminal investigation is ongoing, according to Syco head of media Ann-Marie Thomson.

DEBUT SUCCESS

Lewis' "Spirit" sold 6.5 million copies worldwide (according to Sony), including 1.6 million in the United States (according to Nielsen SoundScan) and 2.8 million in the United Kingdom (according to the Official Charts Co.). It also earned Lewis three nominations at the Grammy Awards and four at the BRITs.

The international breakout single, "Bleeding Love" -- co-written by Jesse McCartney and OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder -- hit No. 1 in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Billboard's European Hot 100 Singles chart.

Such success had been a long time coming for Lewis, who attended the United Kingdom's BRIT School for the Performing Arts and spent much of her teenage years writing and recording in search of that elusive break.

When it came, it catapulted her to unprecedented heights for a U.K. talent show winner, but Sony Music chief creative officer Clive Davis has no doubt she deserves every bit of her success.

"Leona has one of those very, very special voices that's expressive and has an incredible range," said Davis on why -- of all the new artists who regularly cross his desk -- he chose to back her so wholeheartedly. "But she also can feel the lyric very sensitively. You look for that in a singer. She's also passionate about music -- it really runs in her soul. That combination made me feel that she was a special new talent."

In a central London broadcast studio on a sunny October morning, Lewis was doing a good job of keeping her own excitement in check. Little wonder, as she had to pace herself: During the next seven hours she would be conducting 25 back-to-back interviews with U.K. regional radio stations.

She pointed out that the release dates for "Spirit" were staggered internationally, but "Echo" was being released simultaneously worldwide, hence the compressed press schedule.

In person, as on TV, the 24-year-old is glamorous but demure. As befitting her committed vegetarianism and stated intention never to undertake raunchy photo shoots, her knee-high boots are a man-made version of suede and accessorized with cozy tights.

"I wanted something that showed my growth, that showed where I was as a person and as an artist now," she said of "Echo," recorded mostly in Hollywood's Henson Recording Studios. "And I think I did that quite well."

In practice, this meant telling the titanic figures of Cowell and Davis -- both credited as producers on "Echo" -- that she wanted a greater hand in songwriting.

WRITE STUFF

She co-wrote 10 of the U.S. version's 14 tracks (including hidden track "Stone Hearts & Hand Grenades") as compared with two on "Spirit," although the U.K. version replaces the Tedder/Lewis composition "You Don't Care" with a show-stopping cover version of Oasis' "Stop Crying Your Heart Out."

For "Echo," Lewis wrote a wish list of "everyone I wanted to work with." A fan of his 2008 hit "Let It Rock," she sought out Kevin Rudolf to co-write the uptempo "Love Letter." John Shanks, who has written for Bon Jovi and Kelly Clarkson, was recruited for "Broken," co-written with Alonzo "Novel" Stevenson.

"I wanted a song that was just massive," Lewis said. "That one for me is the most vocally crazy."

As Lewis puts it, the music on "Echo" is less "conventional" R&B. "Outta My Head," co-written by Swedish pop powerhouse Max Martin, is a Euro-club banger that, with a couple of strategic remixes, could do healthy business on next's summer dance charts. "Don't Let Me Down," co-written with Justin Timberlake and featuring him on backing vocals, is strings-drenched, midtempo, taut funk.

And then there's Tedder. He and the rest of OneRepublic guest on "Lost Then Found," while he and Lewis also wrote "You Don't Care," working on it in Tedder's Denver studio and London's Abbey Road -- the latter location enabling Beatles enthusiast Tedder to channel the spirit of "Strawberry Fields Forever" in the opening bars.

"We've got a good chemistry together," Lewis said. "He really gets me as a person."

"Leona's still learning as a writer, but she has some definite God-given talent," Tedder said. "To some degree she's my muse. All that matters to us is putting really meaningful lyrics with really meaningful melodies. When she sings a song, you know you're going to be hearing it 10, 15 years from now at weddings."

With "Echo," Lewis was determined to be front and center of that creative process. Was Cowell, the man who effectively discovered her, supportive of that?

"Simon doesn't really care whether I've written it or it's by Max Martin or Ryan Tedder," she said. "He just wants the best song. So when I sent him 'Happy,' I was like, 'I hope he doesn't actually see that I've written it.' But then he was like, 'Oh, this is amazing.' Then he found out I co-wrote it, and he was just like, 'Well done, I really rate you for that.'"

STAGE VETERAN

Lewis' world tour -- projected to run for nine months -- will kick off with nine U.K. arena dates in May and June. She starts May 28 at Sheffield Arena and will include two shows at London's O2 Arena. A summer tour of the States will follow, with dates in Australia and Japan in the works for late 2010 and early 2011.

Production details are still in the early stages -- contrary to some Internet rumors, Michael Jackson's choreographer Travis Payne hasn't been hired -- but fans should expect a large-scale show.

Despite the lack of headline concerts, Lewis is hardly a stranger to the stage, having performed everywhere from the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics (with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page) to Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday party in London's Hyde Park to the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards (with Lil Wayne and T-Pain).

A week after Billboard met with her, Lewis performed her first full live show. It was a homecoming gig, at the 1,500-capacity Hackney Empire, a grand Victorian theater that was also the venue for Lewis' first talent competition.

"I sang 'My Heart Will Go On' by Celine Dion, which is a big song for a 13-year-old," she said with a laugh. "And I won, which was cool."

(please visit our entertainment blog via www.reuters.com or on http://blogs.reuters.com/fanfare/)

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