Don’t wanna dance in your backbeat / Just wanna land on my two feet, vows Leah Haywood (going by simply Haywood for her stage persona). In the aftermath of heartbreak, the singer-songwriter shakes loose of the past with a celebratory musical blowout─while also juggling feelings of loneliness and regret. Don’t leave / I didn’t mean it like that, escapes her lips in the last frame.
Her song “Backbeat,” out today (June 11), zooms in on “knowing something’s bad for you and feeling like you’re living in the shadow of someone or something that you want to break out of,” she tells American Songwriter over a call earlier this year. “You almost keep walking into this wall of, ‘why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?’ It’s the push and pull, the cat and mouse game, a mind screw that we’ve all either been the recipient of or done to someone else.”
“Backbeat” comes on the heels of “Cheers to Us,” a collaboration with Loote, which vaults over a million streams with an acoustic iteration. Written on a day when “I wasn’t even working on my project,” Haywood sat down at the piano and nailed out the riff. “The melodies rolled off” after that, she says. One of those “written in like an hour” type of songs, it sets in motion a tremendous opening for her long-overdue new record.
Lyrically, Haywood unearths the emotions surrounding her parent’s divorce. “They did it so well. They kept their kids in mind. They put aside their ego, and they put aside the drama. They’re still friends to this day. And it was like the transition couldn’t have been made easier because of their selflessness. I think that’s my personal connection to it, but I also think that as you go on in life, there’s friendships you need to let go of and things that don’t serve a purpose in your life. It’s almost like you go backwards when you spend time with those people.”
Both songs serve as crucial puzzle pieces to a yet-untitled release, her first album since her 2001 debut, Leah. Of course, Haywood has been plenty busy writing and producing for others, including landing cuts with Katy Perry (“Never Really Over”) and more recently Justin Bieber (“Off My Face”). Her resume also boasts work with Nicki Minaj, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Blackpink, among countless others.
The forthcoming record combs together “a really diverse group of tempos, narratives,” Haywood teases, “and the thread is these big glorious choruses with a programmed undertone─rather than being live. I didn’t want to have live drums. I wanted everything to be programmed, but I wanted to have almost a live track on top of that.”
“We’ve sat in this vibe in pop music for a couple of years where it’s introspective, almost anti-chorus,” she continues. Always drawn to the “grand, inspiring” hooks, “that’s always been what I have wanted to do, if I ever did my own thing.”
A career built on collaboration, Haywood frees herself from particular restraints that often emerge when in a room with three or four co-writers. She explains, “Sometimes, I actually think that collaboration can stop your own flow. Everyone’s hearing their own interpretation. Some absolutely magical things can come out of that, but there is a freedom and a flow that I’m feeling with just sitting down on my own and letting the thoughts come and having it be conversational.”
Occasionally, though, she’ll send a song to a friend or two to get a response. “You have to be very precious because people are so quick and easy to throw their opinion out. As a creative, that can be soul-destroying when something’s really part of your core that you’ve created. If you throw it around to too many people, it can actually be more damaging. I think you need to really hold things close.”
In producing her own vocals, she just knows exactly what she wants to hear. “And I very much produce on the fly. I don’t go in with all these ideas. I sit in the control room. I have a mic set up where my keyboard is and my monitor with my music program in it. I comp as I go. It’s like I have a big jam session with myself in the studio.”
The new music was born out of discovering a journal three years ago. On Instagram, she shared a bit of insight. “I didn’t know exactly how that was going to play out but I knew I had to go at it alone,” she wrote. “Just me, a pen and paper, and the music I have heard in my head all my life. I walked into a bookstore to buy a writing journal and the first one I picked up read ‘First it begins inside your heart. Something moves. Then opens. Then frees itself. And now you feel a rhythm breaking its long silence. It is here where she must begin to tell her story.’”
Haywood’s existence shifted in that very moment. “It was time again,” she says. “You never really completely lose it. You just start channeling it into other people’s stories. Other people become the muse. I really wanted to dig back into my own story and use all the tools that I had learned over the last few years with working with other people and bring into my own project. I just really felt a strong pull to do my own record and then that thing happened in the bookstore and everything got very serendipitous.”
“I live from a very philosophical standpoint. I don’t know if I always did. I was always a big believer in hard work and persistence. Now, I walk the line with hard work and balance, but also there is another element at play. It makes it easier to let the disappointments go, as well, because you believe that the disappointment leads you to something better. I feel like the record I’m doing now is the record that I was born to make.”