Growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, D’Amontae Breland hated the music his mom played around the house. Or at least he thought he did.
But somewhere in his subconscious, his mom’s ’70s soul and funk records were making an impact on him, and that all comes out when Breland becomes Leone, his musical alter-ego, who released his debut EP Angst on Feb. 1.
Angst is a funkadelic throwback to a bygone era. Beginning with the release of his first single “Cut U Loose” in 2016, the now-23-year-old Breland is following the lead of contemporary inspirations like Anderson .Paak, Solange and Blood Orange to breathe life back into the dance floors of America.
As the title denotes, however, Angst isn’t all about having a good time. Leone’s lyrical content covers heavy themes like depression and anxiety, issues that he has struggled with throughout his life.
Breland, who has lived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, since arriving at Winthrop University in 2014, recently stopped by the Queen City Nerve offices on his way to a .Paak concert to chat about the rebirth of funk, his new life as a musician and striking a balance between dancing and darkness.
Queen City Nerve: Why Leone?
D’Amontae Breland: I really to be honest just love the name Leon. If I could have, I would have had that name. That’s my great-grandfather’s name. But I can’t just go by Leon. I used to tell people that I was from Sierra Leone in west Africa because people thought I was African when I first got to [Winthrop], so I just went with that.
You didn’t start making music until 2016. Had music played a large role in your life before then?
Oh for sure. My mom, she sings around the house, at family events and stuff, and she loves music. I love to listen to music. A lot of my friends that I had in high school, they were singers and musically inclined. But I never played an instrument — I wished I did — or sang. I took choir in my 12th-grade year, and that was my only experience.
What made you decide to finally start making your own music?
I knew I always wanted to. I always wanted to be a producer, but it takes a lot of money to have the computer, the laptop and all that stuff. So I knew I always wanted to do something with music.
I know I don’t have the voice of Luther Vandross, but I always wanted to sing, I always wanted to get it out in that way, so I just was like, “Fuck it, let’s go for it.” I only live once, so I don’t have time to be thinking about what I would’ve done.
What was the process like for you making “Cut U Loose” once you decided to go for it?
That was fun. I worked with [local singer/producer] Jason Jet, and it was the shit. It was a mess, though, honestly. (laughs) It was my first time writing and my first time singing, and you’re hearing it back from the studio like, “Ahh shit, I sound like that?” So I had to practice and do all that.
So it was a process, it took a while for me to make that song, because I ran through so many songs I thought I wanted to do and so many different ideas, and finally ended up with that after a year and a half or so.
What was your mother listening to when you were a kid that made it into your own list of inspirations?
Her mother, my grandmother, was very religious, so she used to listen to a lot of gospel growing up. But [my mom’s] era was the ’70s, that was her time, so I heard a lot of that music. She’s a party animal, she loves to dance, so I heard a lot of dance music from the ’80s, girl groups like Klymaxx. She had a lot of records; she had Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, and Michael Jackson records, so a lot of that stuff, Culture Club. She loves dance music, fast music, so I grew up listening to that.
To be honest, I hated it when I was little. I wanted to hear the music that was on the radio. But then as I grew older I learned to embrace it. And then when I started to hear different artists like Blood Orange, when he first came out, that had that sort of old-school feel, then Solange put out True, and Anderson .Paak had some things out back then, I was like “Dang, so it’s OK for me to make this retro music that I like to listen to.”
Your songs are a really interesting mix of soul and funk that you don’t really see from a lot of local musicians coming up these days, save for Mercury Carter and one or two others. Did that style come natural for you because of what you listened to with your mother?
I love all types of music, and I plan to make different types of music for sure, but as of lately, I just was listening to a lot of funk and listening to a lot of dance track ’80s music. I love how coherent the lyrics were back then.
They were somewhat a little too straightforward, just basic, but then I gravitated toward that style of writing. I would listen to those types of beats on YouTube thinking I could maybe write something to it, and if it sounded good I’m like, “OK, I’mma use this shit.”
Your lyrical content is far from basic, though. You’re covering themes like depression and anxiety. Are those things you’ve dealt with in your life?
Oh yeah, for forever. For as long as I can remember.
Then at the same time, you’re producing music that’s fun to listen to and dance to. Is it tough for you to strike that balance between these two seemingly contrasting themes?
I wouldn’t say it’s tough. I like to put the medicine in the candy. You can enjoy it rhythmically, you can dance to it, but then also when you listen to it, there’s a message. I like sad music. I listen to a lot of sad R&B, sad alternative and stuff like that. When I first wanted to make music back in 2016, when I tried to make that kind of stuff and Jason’s telling me, “That can’t just be the only thing you make.” So I learned to find that balance. I had to lift it up a little bit.
Is songwriting therapeutic for you? Does it help you deal with the anxiety and depression in a way that you didn’t have before you started writing?
It’s a bit therapeutic. I ain’t about to sit here and be like, “Every time I write something all my problems go away and I’m OK.” That’s not the case, but it helps a bit. I suppose a lot people, therapy helps them, talking to somebody, and I don’t do that. I’m usually a closed-in person emotion-wise. I don’t like to speak out to people, so I guess this is a form of me telling people what’s going on with me.
The EP has been online for about three weeks now. What’s the response been like?
So many people like it. I’m really taken back, because I’m a local artist, and I see a lot of very good local artists and they put out good music, and I don’t see it getting as much attention as it should have been, and I see my music getting a lot of attention and I’m like, “Whoa. I’m glad that y’all liked it.” I really appreciate it.
Will you be playing any live shows in the near future?
My first live show will be on March 29 at The Courtroom down in Rock Hill. That’s a small venue where they have live shows, mostly local alternative bands. I just met with the guy Sunday, went there and toured the space and I’m putting everything together to put on a great show.
So that’s your first live performance, not just for this EP, but ever?
I performed “Cut U Loose” once in 2017, and then I performed in a pageant when I was in high school.
Are you excited? Nervous? Being on stage as a relatively new musician is a whole different world from recording.
It sure is. I’m definitely nervous, but I’m excited also because I feel like this will be much better than people just hearing my music. When you go to a live show you expect something more than just the music, and I want to give that to the people that do come to see it. I want them to feel the reason why I do make music.
I’m going to have a lot of different jam sessions — because I’ll be performing with a band, so we’ll have some interaction between, and some dancing. I want people to see my dancing. I used to dance as a kid, I want to bring some of that. I want people to see a different side of me.
How does your mom take to your music, knowing that her tastes inspired so much of the style you use today?
She likes it a lot. She listens on YouTube, her and her boyfriend, they’re real proud of me. When I had my old song out she used to play it every chance she got.
She works at a plant [in Orangeburg], so when she has an opportunity she says, “Here, listen to my son’s song.” She’s real supportive with it. She especially likes “Josephine,” because that’s a dancey song.
What do you hope people take away from the EP as a whole after listening through?
As a whole, first I want them to look at it as a work of art. Don’t just focus so much on the lyrics, don’t focus so much on the singing, because it’s not just one thing that I do.
I drew the album artwork and I wanted that to symbolize the theme of the EP. It was adapted from Roy Lichtenstein of course, but just that feeling of anxiety, that feeling of dread — but in correlation with the music, knowing that it’s not going to be that depressed.