Inspired by Portishead & MF DOOM, Lealani’s Outsider Pop Explores New Worlds

Lealani will play Bandcamp’s Oakland performance space on Friday, August 9. RSVP HERE.

“Just be your alien self,” says Los Angeles electronic experimentalist Lealani. “You can be from any planet that you want; you don’t have to be an earthling.” Lealani would know: her full-length debut Fantastic Planet is an otherworldly collection of DIY-minded synthronica, bolstered by eerie vocal melodies that sound, well, alien. Beats lurch and stumble, synths detonate like fireballs, and Lealani’s voice creaks high and sinister over top of them. It’s the soundtrack to Lealani’s very own outsider pop planet.

It’s also something of a coming-of-age document. Lealani wrote Fantastic Planet over the course of seven years, from the time she was 12 until she was 19. “A majority of the album comes from my personal experience, and it reflects and expresses how I feel,” she says. Across 14 warped, beat-driven songs, Lealani explores teenage disconnect and the search for personal identity in Casio-synth oddities like “Broken,” with its booming, arrhythmic percussion and knifelike keyboards. It was one of the first songs she wrote for the record.

In some ways, Lealani has her father to thank for her career. She made her first beat using an iPad app, after being encouraged to do so by her music-loving DJ dad. “I called it ‘Space Revolution,’” she says. “It was basically a drum [pattern] with a sample, and me talking about space. He told me I was pretty good, so I started playing the piano and singing after that.”

Her parents’ taste in music also helped to shape Lealani’s sound. “We just had records lying around the house. My dad would play a lot of underground hip-hop and weird music—things like Portishead or MF DOOM.” Lealani was particularly drawn to Portishead singer Beth Gibbons, remembering a time when her mother would listen to the U.K. band while putting on her makeup. “Beth Gibbons’s voice always used to scare me for some reason,” she says. “It was just so haunting. I think it’s because their music is so emotionally touching it makes me feel a certain way, which is why I look up to them so much. They’re just so different.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, Lealani’s own voice bears a striking resemblance to Gibbons’s.)

She was also inspired by experimental cinema—particularly, Rene Laloux’s animated 1973 sci-fi film, La Planete Sauvage (“The Wild Planet”). Lealani’s own Fantastic Planet started taking shape while she was in high school in La Verne, CA, hosting a weekly radio show for KSPC 88.7FM. She opened each show by welcoming “earthlings” to her “planet,” and promising “intergalactic tunes.” By the time she released Fantastic Planet earlier this year, her extraterrestrial alter ego was already fully formed. “That’s how I wanted to come out into the world with my debut—that I’m this alien from Fantastic Planet. My thing is that this planet is a fantastic planet too—you can turn Earth into a fantastic planet.”

Those ideas find their way into Lealani’s lyrics, which meld the personal with the intergalactic—everything from the moon and the sky to “the trees in the ground” turn up in her writing. On “Seas of Mars,” Lealani is in existential mode; she is feeling “a little overwhelmed,” while also indulging in an extended riff about clones and Mars. “The Night” juxtaposes lyrics about sin (“Sins are little things inside / You know you have to sin the rest of your life”) with an absurdist pre-chorus: “I train my demons flying kites / They’re soft, they’re silky / Soft silk fabric demon spikes / You know that I’m just slow.”

“Most of my lyrics are freestyles,” she says. “They just come out as raw and honest.” That “freestyle” approach can be traced partially to the fact that Lealani grew up in and around L.A.’s fabled beat scene. When she was 17, she performed at the legendary experimental hip-hop night Low End Theory.

Album standout “Floating”—brought to life in a colorful video with an alien star—was one of those impromptu tracks. “I don’t know how I wrote the melody or came up with the lyrics,” she says. “It just came out because that’s how I was feeling, and the universe just let that song out. My process is pretty punk, most of the time. Most of it is very raw and quick; it’s stuff that I’m doing live. I don’t have many tracks that I’ve dwelled over, or spent months perfecting. It’s more like, ‘Let me try to catch and be in this moment.’”

Lealani is currently studying animation at college in Oakland, and hopes to one day “make a beautiful film that will win many awards.” But music will always be her primary focus. “Animation is a tool that I want to learn, but music is my niche,” she says. “It’s my thing. It’s what my heart wants to do.”

-April Clare Welsh

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