House music has been enjoying a three-year chart and club reign in the UK, Europe, and beyond. But a darker pattern's emerged: the producer has become the artist, "who actually sings that?" becoming the all-to-common question asked by fans, critics and the A&Rs themselves. In a genre still dominated by men, the impact this has on the often-female songwriters and vocalists hasn't gone amiss. Take Kelli-Leigh, for instance. She isn't necessarily a face you'll know—but if you've listened to the radio or been to a club in the last eighteen months, you'll definitely know the voice. Having sung on No. 1 global anthems, including Duke Dumont's "I Got U" and Second City's "I Wanna Feel", among others, the talent is more than evident. With plenty co-writes on the go and sessions with SKT, Zeds Dead, MK, Kokiri, Javeon and more under her waistband, the real question is: who's that girl? Complex meets the south London-based singer-songwriter at her local café to find out.
BBC Radio 1's Danny Howard recently dubbed you the "voice of UK dance music", but then I clocked you starring in the new Lord Of The Mics advert. How did that come about?
That would be my manager. She recently started working with Jammer and he was about to film his new LOTM clothing advert for the 10-year anniversary. We're all about family, so she told him about me and he was interested in what I'd achieved. I was also blown away by the brand he's built and the integrity he has behind all of it. We met and got on really well; he actually taught me how to use one of those Swegboard things. I think he was pretty impressed with how fast I picked it up! [Laughs] I'm a bit geeky like that, in that if I get given something new to try, I just want to smash it. Let it be noted that I'm totally not cool, and I am totally not grime [laughs]. I tried to be cool with one of the MCs on the shoot, Fusion, and the first thing I said to him was: "So, what is your birth name?" He looked at me like I was a moron! But that's just me—I'm cool with being un-cool.
We think you're cool. Don't worry. Being around all this grime stuff, have you attempted to spit any bars? Will you be letting off on a track with Jammer someday soon?
[Laughs] Hell no! My manager heard me try that and we've agreed those bars shall never see the light of day.
You've been on some massive tracks over the last 18 months. A lot of people will know your voice, but have no idea who you are or what you look like. After seeing you smash up a club performance, I know the levels, but how does it feel having had the success without the glory, so to speak?
In a word: frustrating. I've been busting my ass and I've come very close to having things tip over the edge for me; I hear my voice all over the place, which feels amazing. But yes, if my name was attached to more of those tracks, I'd probably be in a stronger position right now musically.
So is it a real problem in dance music, this apparent lack of desire to credit the vocalists?
It does seem to be an ongoing theme. The producer has very much become the focal point, and while that is totally cool and totally deserved, there are definitely some who use vocalists unfairly to advance themselves. Often you'll find these vocalists are songwriters, too, so what's the big deal about shouting someone out? What I don't get is, it's not like a vocalist is competing with a producer... Sometimes, there's this slight "they just sing" vibe, however, when your fans are singing those very lines back at you in your DJ sets and that's how you connect to your audience—there really needs to be some more respect. Not every producer is on this wave, though—thankfully!—and I've made a few good friends over the last year or so.
My voice has been streamed on SoundCloud, alone, over 100 million times—and that's a pretty big achievement. But that is just the beginning.
It seems that the path you take to "break" in dance is quite different to how a pop artist might approach things.
Most definitely. Dance is prolific and it's a window of opportunity. Look at Sam Smith, Jess Glynne, Becky Hill, Karen Harding—a pop artist needs a brand, and then a sound. Dance tracks are more about the music, then the brand follows. If dance music isn't what you're really about, the problem can come when you try to cross over from being a dance artist to a general pop artist. The good thing about working in dance, for me, is that if the track is credible, connects, and people are dancing to it in clubs—you've pretty much won.
You've worked closely with Duke Dumont, most notably on "I Got U", "The Giver Reprise", and new EP track "Melt". Is that the end, for now, or can we expect more collabs between the two of you soon?
There's one in the pipeline and my voice hasn't been pitched down this time [laughs]. People who know my sound will know it's me. I also co-wrote it, and it's one of my faves of the Duke tracks that I've sung on. I seriously go for it on the end ad-libs of the track; my passion comes through a lot on that one. I'm looking forward to it dropping—soon, hopefully.
What was it like touring Europe with Duke?
The tour was wicked! We had such a lovely family. The crowd were so up for it, and they went on a journey with the music. I loved PAing all the tracks with Duke in that environment—The Blasé Boys Club was strong.
You've been to some mad places as a solo artist—you performed to 15,000 people on a beach in Beirut, earlier this year. What have been the highlights of 2015 for you?
I was really scared before that trip to Beirut. The government said there are red zones that basically mean, 'do not travel unless absolutely necessary.' I told my parents that if I was to die in conflict out there, at least I warned them so don't be too sad. I actually said that! Turns out though, that Beirut is incredible. The people we met were amazing, warm, open-minded, fun, happy... It made me more aware of what I take in from the media if I haven't experienced it myself. I really want to go back, actually. My other highlight was walking the red carpet at the Grammys for the "I Got U" nomination. It was a dream come true, and completely overwhelming.
More recently, you've worked with Low Steppa, A Minor, Ferreck Dawn—is there anyone else that we're missing?
I've got a wicked track with SKT that I'm sitting on right now, and the general feedback on it is that it's hot so we're working out the logistics on that one. I've had some brilliant sessions with Kokiri and Javeo too, where we've made something very cool and a bit more laid-back. I love writing with Boy Matthews and Rob Harvey and, between us, we've made some future hits. I hope! I've also had the pleasure of working with Adam F this year—he's such a legend, a really cool guy with an incredible ear, and a lot of wisdom. There's also an upfront dance track with Krystal Roxx due out next year, which is wicked. When her and I get together, we're mischievous—so watch out.
Do you think the dance bubble's going to burst?
I think people in the bubble of knocking out what they think is a quick hit will burst, yes. People are getting bored of the old skool vocal sample, and formulaic sounds. Dance will never die, but more honest creativity is needed. Definitely.
Before the hits with Duke and Second City, you were on some massive world tours, right?
Yes, I was on tour with Adele for her 21 tour, which was such an incredible experience. I've also toured with Leona Lewis and Jessie J. All three of them were completely different to one another. Adele's tour was a life lesson; I was 25 going on 26, breaking up with someone and going on my first ever tour. So many emotions were had, especially when she sings "Turning Tables". I remember just trying not to bawl my eyes out before coming on for the next song.
How did your career really begin then?
I'd say my first industry break happened when I started working for Replay Heaven with Richard Adlam, and then moved on to work with Hal Ritson... I'm very fast in the studio and I've learnt a lot of vocal discipline in nailing a sound, tone and style, and that's because of these two guys. I recorded "I Wanna Feel", "I Got U", "Cry Just A Little", "Love Too Deep" and more with Hal. He's got a mad scientist vibe about him and he doesn't give out too many compliments, but when he does, you know you've actually killed it.
Do you prefer songwriting or singing?
I love both, but with singing, I get more freedom as not having to write in a specific genre or vein. But the feeling when you've written something you are truly proud of, and have it on repeat in your headphones strutting round town like you own the street, is a feeling unmatched by anything else.
What's the biggest lesson you've learnt along the way?
Don't take things too personally. I'm very open and honest, and that isn't always going to be the case with people you meet in the industry. I've had a few nasty surprises with people I thought I'd made genuine friendships with, but people are people, and there are quite a few who will do what they can to get ahead. On the flip side, I wouldn't change myself. Your reputation speaks louder than your talents and I've never gotten a job based on an audition—it's always been word of mouth—and people can see through the bullshit. So just be you, and if it happens for you, the right people will support you throughout your journey.
Word on the road is that you're now building up your own arsenal. Where are you heading, musically, in 2016?
In 2016, I'll be releasing some heavy-hitting dance tracks and then it's onto my first single. Still keeping it accessible to the dance market, but getting a bit more of me in there; some darker lyrical content, some more open emotions. Now, I'm starting to allow myself to breathe a bit more and move with the flow. Yes, I want to achieve a certain amount and yes, I want to be a household name in 2016, for myself—not as the girl that sung x, y, z. I've had a long-term goal since I was a child; sometimes the pain and frustration of not achieving what you told yourself you would for so long is exhausting. My long-term goal is to enjoy myself and the journey more. I've achieved so much this year, but when you’re constantly looking ahead, you forget that you've done certain things. My voice has been streamed on SoundCloud, alone, over 100 million times—and that's a pretty big achievement. But that is just the beginning.