July 23 marks a pair of firsts for Eugene musician Elena Leona: her first gig back since the coronavirus and her first performance since she quit drinking. “I don’t know how it’s going to go, to be honest,” Leona admits. “I feel like it’s going to be OK.”
Uncertain feelings about performing live are nothing new for the self-taught musician, who’s built a following playing post-hip-hop acoustic blues and soul music originals as The Elena Leona Project, accompanying herself rapping and singing with acoustic guitar, live-looping and pre-recorded beats.
Leona says she has struggled with stage fright since her first time on stage at an 8th-grade talent show. She calls the terror she feels on stage “crippling.” In the past, she managed her fears with alcohol, but she quit drinking early on in quarantine.At the time we spoke, she’d made it nearly 100 days alcohol-free.
Leona’s latest studio release, her 18 EP, came out last year. It features the first song Leona ever wrote, “Hey Baby,” with acoustic guitar and minimal digital percussion, showcasing Leona’s effortlessly soulful and confidently raw singing voice. There’s also some light reggae on the song “Infected.”
Born in Florence, Leona lived for a time in Michigan before moving to Eugene at the age of 15. She grew up listening to ’90s-era hip hop and R&B like TLC and Salt-N-Pepa as well as metal and pop-punk bands like Metallica and The Offspring. These influences merge, she says, in her guitar playing.
“When I do live loops,” she explains, “introducing my acoustic guitar, my rhythm, it seems more rock-y, and folky and bluesy than it does hip hop. Then, if I put the beat on it and start rapping to it, it’s got this fusion going on.”
Leona was drawn to rap early on, but rap was only for the boys, or so she thought. “That’s not really true,” she quickly adds, “but that’s what it seemed like.” It turned out Leona could rap, of course; she was just too afraid.
Leona’s first release, 2018’s Baby Steps EP, is a straight-ahead hip-hop record, with songs like “BBW” about body positivity. In it, Leona rides the “B” in BBW with the signature bounce of ’90s-era rap’s golden age. While elsewhere, “I’m the Boss” could be a hustlin’ Cardi B jam.
Leona dabbled in writing her own material right away, but took a long time to build up the courage to perform any of her originals live. She continues to write, mixing autobiography with topical subjects, but inspiration comes and goes.
“I don’t want to be too much ‘I-I-I,’” she says, of her subject matter, and at the same time, she doesn’t want her music to lack what’s going on in the world.
“The music has to have a certain vibe or feeling,” she continues. “If I’m not in that mood I can’t write to it. Sometimes a song can be complete in under 24-hours, but sometimes it takes — ah, shoot, I’m still sitting on choruses that haven’t been put to stuff.”
Leona is currently working with a producer on new material with a “digital cosmic hip-hop R’&B sound,” she says, something like Erykah Badu or Ms. Lauryn Hill. She’s also started coaching a young Eugene musician on her stage presence and self-confidence.
The irony of someone who suffers so badly from stage fright providing pointers on stage presence is not lost on Leona. It does prove, though, that just like songwriting, the best teaching material is often lived experience.
It’s all advice she could direct back toward herself, Leona says, adding: “I know what I’m talking about.”
And is she nervous about performing mid-pandemic? “Wear your masks,” she says.
The Elena Leona Project performs 7 pm Friday, July 23, at beergarden; all-ages, FREE.