LIO: “My songwriting always comes from a place of honesty”
They’re quick on the rise and looking to change people’s ideas on the pop genre, whilst also answering questions like: is it possible to be an emo kid and play pop? How do you retain honesty whilst song-writing? And what happens when you bring a bit of musical theatre to the stage? We met up with Leonie for some coffee and convo ahead of LIO’s Exposed In Session.
What is LIO and how would you describe yourself to people who don’t know you?
LIO is an alternative pop band. I usually like to put a musical comparison in, so it’s perfect for fans of Florence and the Machine, Daughter, a bit St Vincent-ish type of music. Quite melodic and powerful, also very honest.
So you’d say new pop, or alt-pop, is a good way of describing your sound?
Yes, I think so. When I am writing I try to find that hook. Even though I like a good bit of mainstream pop, I try to give it a bit of an edge. I feel in a way that’s catching on in the regular pop world also, so if you look at Billie Eilish, she’s not your ‘mainstream’ pop, but she’s really big at the same time.
Would you say there’s a judgement about pop? Did you have to fight it?
I think growing up there definitely was because I was a little emo kid, I was a massive Tokio Hotel fan. I’m not afraid to say it! That got me into my teen days where I only really listened to metal… I think being young you’re trying to find your own subculture, so I closed myself off from certain genres. It’s nice to grow older and realise it’s all a bit ridiculous. Since that I’ve opened myself up to many more genres. A good way to describe it is unsigned pop, where things are not created, it’s honest and people are actually into their music and write pop songs themselves.
In 2018 you launched as a four-piece. How’s that been?
Really good. A little bit challenging sometimes because suddenly you’re managing three other people who have their own lives and ways of working. It’s been incredible because it’s been so freeing to explore more types of music. The biggest revelation has been on stage where I used to be quite limited moving around. I was a singer song-writer on my own having to always be behind a microphone, which is really weird when you come from musical theatre, as you go from everywhere on the stage to your own specific space.
What’s the biggest way your sound has changed since launching the four-piece?
I’m not limited to what I can do alone, it’s really changed my way of writing. I’m focusing on melodies and hooks, not thinking: ‘Oh! I can’t do this because I can’t back it!’ It’s made the music very ambient in character but uptempo and upbeat.
How did you meet the other members of LIO?
Chris the key player was the first involved, about two and a half years ago. Chris had joined another band and their drummer [Blakey] messaged me. Chris, Blakey and I started practising together and it was a really good fit. It blended really well. Later John joined. I saw him play at Y Not and knew I wanted him as a guitarist. That’s the nice thing about Sheffield, the scene is so connected, it’s easy to build that network.
And you’re not from Sheffield orginally, so what brought you to this city and get involved in this music scene?
I did my undergrad here which wasn’t actually music-related at all. I discovered the open mic nights about Sheffield; the Green Room was the first one. It’s so good! I’ve not been for ages, because I realised when I go I end up in bed way too late! I started going and played guitar outside of my bedroom for the first time ever. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing but I loved it!
How would you describe the Sheffield music scene?
For a time, I only knew the open mic scene. The gig scene I felt was a bit lacking. I think it went through a dip, mainly I say that because all the bands I loved didn’t come here! Now I feel like the balance has flipped a bit. Venues like Record Junkee are putting on so many bands that beforehand would skip Sheffield. It gives local artists more support opportunities, which is great because it brings acts to that next level, and you can do open mics forever but it depends on what you really want to achieve. Musicians really root for each other in Sheffield. It’s not a competitive scene. Maybe it’s because we all do very different things, we’re all finding our identity and don’t try to be someone else.
Where do you get inspiration whilst writing new stuff?
It’s about how I see the world. I can only write songs that are honest. I can only write about my own experiences. When I started I wrote a lot about break-ups. That’s evolved and now I’m more open. So environmental things, disillusionment with society, growing older and thinking, ‘Oh god! What am I doing with my life?’ My songwriting always comes from a place of honesty; I think that’s particularly important as it’s how you create connections with people.
So your writing has changed a lot?
I’ve recently tried to divert that honesty. I don’t want to write about boys my whole life. I grew up and don’t give them as much time! I try to divert that into broader areas as I was hiding behind a topic which everyone feels comfortable talking about: heartbreak and love songs. Now I’m being honest about the fact that I’m 26 and I don’t know what I’m doing still. I’m writing through that to start understanding it, yet also knowing those feelings are okay to have.
There’s a big theatrical element in your work, seen in your single ‘Growing Pains’. You have a background in musical theatre; do you think this influences your music?
Yes, definitely! Singing-wise, I very actively tried to step away, because musical theatre is such a specific way of singing and using your voice. But I love drama. I love the big dramatic music of Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. So you find that in my pieces. Every song needs to have something big and something which is really pushed out.
That must get into your live shows!
That’s the good thing about not playing the guitar at gigs. I can be that theatrical person again. I’m not waving my arms around like some massive character; I am very expressive in how I talk. Look how I’m talking now, I don’t think I’ve stopped moving my hands! Body language accompanies what you say so much. In musical theatre I learnt to project to the end of the room. If back there can feel it the first row definitely can! Make sure nobody in the audience is left out.
How did you find playing Tramlines this year?
It was amazing! We didn’t know what stage we were on. Two weeks after confirming we were told we were on T’Other stage and suddenly it was very serious! It was so much fun to have a massive stage and to have loads of people help you get your gear on. Everything’s done for you. We were like, is this a thing now? Is this how actual musicians live? We felt giddy all day.
You’ve got a headliner coming up at Record Junkee on 8 November. What else is in store for the rest of 2019?
I love Sheffield but want to play other cities now. We have Liverpool coming up and we’re going to Newcastle. We’re doing another Manchester gig; we’re going to Jimmy’s, so we’ll see how that goes. We’re supporting Martha Hill. I listened to her and it was great. It’s on Halloween as well, so I need to convince the band to come in fancy dress. I love dressing up! The Sheffield headliner is probably the last one for the year, I like to finish with a bang, and that’s a pretty good bang!
Catch LIO at Record Junkee on the 8th November. Tickets available here.