After Trying On Different Personas, Lenii Finally Settles On Herself
Lenii’s new single 'Yellow' is a moody debut of her matured sound. The Irish singer/songwriter has dabbled in everything from DJing to pop singing in an effort to find her niche. Now, she is focusing on doing what feels like her, no matter what that may be.
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The second you walk into The Music Building in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, it feels like a psychedelic trip. Graffiti covers the walls and the pungent remnants of marijuana drift outside the studio spaces.
Lenii, 22, steps into the grungy metal-walled elevator with Direkt, one of the producers she will be working with that day. Direkt warned that the elevator would lurch several times as it approached their fourth floor studio. When the doors opened, echoes from several studios wafted in along with an even stronger smell of pot.
This warehouse-like building once hosted the Strokes, Billy Idol, and Madonna. Today it hosts Lenii (and a team of songwriters and producers) as she works to write a hit. She wears an oversized Snoop Dogg T-shirt (one of her musical heroes), with black tights and Doc Martens. Over the last year, Lenii has spent countless hours in studios like this one. She has written for both herself and other artists, which has allowed her to discover which sounds best suit her whispery vocals and eclectic pop sound.
'Yellow' was written on a particularly gloomy day for Lenii. It was pouring rain outside and she was lacking inspiration in the studio. At one point, she entered the studio bathroom, which was a striking monochromatic yellow from floor to ceiling. For her, monochrome was a visual representation of that “meh” feeling she had been struggling with.
According to Lenii, 'Yellow' is a song about “settling for the mundane but wanting something else” and “pretending you’re okay.” She sings, “If you want red you can have a nice yellow,” suggesting that maybe you always want but you can’t have, but also that there’s nothing wrong with wanting something different. She closes the song with the line “I lie and say I’m fine,” as her character in the song continues to settle for a world that doesn’t excite her.
'Yellow' is only the first of several Lenii songs that will be released in the coming months. Her next track, 'Stressed' is a mid-paced, pop-rock pondering of self-care struggles and functioning all alone. It will be released early next year, along with a new EP to showcase her authentic sound.
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When Lenii first arrived in the United States from Cork, Ireland in 2012, she was only 15. For six months, she lived with her aunt in Plainsboro, New Jersey and commuted into New York City to attend DJ school at Dubspot. She was known to most as Ellen Murphy, and to the DJ community as LN. She always wanted to sing, but hated her voice, which led her to pursue production.
“I used to record myself when I was like 10 and listen back and be just in tears. It was bad,” recalls Lenii. At Dubspot, Lenii often struggled to overcome a language barrier. She recalls an incident at the DJ school when she needed an eraser. “I asked the guy next to me if he had a rubber,” laughed Lenii.
“It was all 20-30 year old men,” she recalls. But they took her under their wing. “I got really into dubstep and like heavy… bro music? And just DJing, like I wore all black and it was a little ridiculous.”
Lenii certainly stood out in the Dubspot crowd. “I loved that I got a lot of attention for being a girl in that scene, because there were so few of us. So few girls doing the kind of music I was into… I did get asked out a lot… like a lot… because there were no other girls to ask out.”
When her six months were up, she returned to Cork to finish high school. She was enrolled in a Psychology course at University College Cork, but instead she returned to Dubspot for a tech internship. The internship was supposed to lead to a full-time job but the school took a nosedive.
Lenii met her former manager TJ Marsé shortly after Dubspot shut down and she had booked a flight back to Cork. “I really thought it was the end of my musical life,” she said. But then, a mere three weeks before her flight, TJ heard her sing on a friends track and wanted to manage her. Lenii finally traded DJing for her dream of becoming a singer.
When Lenii switched over to singing, she wanted to reinvent her persona. She chose the name 'Eleni' which is Ellen in Greek, as she frequently traveled to Greece when she was growing up. Her listeners found the name difficult to pronounce so it was shortened to Leni, but the name was already taken on Spotify, so an extra “i” was added to the end.
After working with TJ for two years, she decided to go her own way. The split wasn’t easy, but Lenii found that she needed the space to truly find herself. “I tried out so many different things, like I dyed my hair grey to try and be this celtic goddess thing and like bring out the Irishness,” laughs Lenii. “I tried like so many things… but none of them felt like they were me being myself. I felt like I was putting something on top of me.”
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She felt the same way about her sound, as TJ pushed for a very synthesised 80s vibe. The split, while necessary, was heartbreaking for Lenii. He had been the first to acknowledge and support her as a singer and he had grown to feel like family. Plus, TJ’s 80s inspired sound fills most of Lenii’s Spotify, which currently has over 12 thousand monthly listeners. But being independent has given Lenii the control she craved. She now sends her own emails, books her own gigs, and most importantly has complete creative control over her image and sound.
Ever since Lenii became her own manager last December, she has participated in more collaborative songwriting sessions. “In the music industry I’ve discovered recently writing with other people is just the best way to make friends who are doing the same thing as you, to learn about people’s experiences, to make connections.”
That is exactly what Lenii did that day at The Music Building. Direckt led us into his studio - which was decorated with strange psychedelic prints on the walls and creepy figurines on all surfaces. She sank into one of the massive red leather couches along the wall, right in front of a coffee table that looked like a cassette tape. There were built-in bowls in the reels of the tape filled with dum-dums. A second table a few feet away held rolling cones, solo cups, and two ashtrays. The room was like a cross between a waiting room and a dispensary.
The crew included Abstrxkt, a producer with a ponytail, sunken blue eyes, and skull and crossbone patterned sweatpants. Then Mike Cortes (a songwriter who Lenii has written with before), entered the room with his hat on backwards and a guitar strapped to his back. Lenii jumped up to hug him and then sat down on the couch. Everyone in the room took their shoes off. It was about to get real.
Mike pulled out his guitar and started to carefully strum some chords. As a “side-hustle” he makes woodworked furniture with his dad on Long Island. He still had stitches in his finger from a recent chiseling accident. He settled on a chord progression that was “like a top 40 Jason Mraz song but with reggae.” Lenii started to sway in her spot on the couch as she lightly sang a melody over Mike’s chords. She didn’t have all the words yet, but she sang whatever came to her and mumbled the rest.
Lenii is new to these collaborative studio sessions, but for her, they are liberating. “I’ve been doing loads of sessions with other people and that’s really cool because that took the pressure off the image thing as well because I was able to write everything I wanted and just choose the ones I want to keep for myself that feel more like myself, you know?”
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The song that comes out of this session will most likely be pitched to other artists. Direckt and Abstrxkt pay for the studio and work under the name Fast Life Beats. Lenii was invited to the session through a mutual connection, Mike. Lenii pulled out her phone to type out some tentative lyrics. Her phone screen had red dot stickers on the top right and bottom left corners - a reminder to relax. She has recently been to the doctor for her TMJ, which she says is largely brought on by stress.
Meanwhile, Mike requested a guitar pick. Direckt grabbed one, but he only had bass picks because their “idiot” intern got the wrong ones. But Mike didn’t mind. “I want it to sound clunky,” he said. “I don’t want it to sound good.”
He plugged his acoustic guitar in to record the light and summery chord progression. He turned to Abstrxkt, who sat at the computer, “take my shit, turn it into magic.”
Random beats and synthesised sounds filled the room in a chaotic symphony. Somehow in the midst of the commotion, Lenii and Mike tried to decide what the song would be about. So far, Lenii sang the words, “I’ll follow you if you want me to.” “What if it’s a happy song about stalking someone?” laughed Mike.
Just then, a perfect mix filled the room and Abstrxkt shook the walls with a dropping bass. Mike turned to a limbless, sticker-covered mannequin and placed a hand on it’s head. “How do you feel about this song? Do you like it?” Eventually it came time to record vocals. Abstrxkt turned off the lights, revealing glowing blue blacklights. “Now we’re in the Millennium falcon here, we’re cruisin’!” yelled Mike.
Lenii entered the sound booth. She glowed turquoise under the lights in the booth as she started to sing over Abstrxkt’s track. By the time she got to recording harmonies, she had to strip down to shorts and a sports bra from the claustrophobic heat in the booth, exposing her mom’s handwriting tattooed to her ribs and the row of musical symbols on her inner upper arm. She pulled her bleached hair into a ponytail (her mom often tells her to do so to hide her dark roots).
Her upcoming release is the debut of her new sound and authentic brand. “I’ve gone through so many kind of genres to try and figure out what ‘Lenii’ music is. And then I kind of decided recently that trying to box yourself into one genre is such a waste of time,” says Lenii.
After all, why settle for yellow when you can have the whole rainbow?
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Words: Maria Saskia Bocci
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