Max Leone Is Pop's Raw, Existential Ponderer

Written By Sam Murphy on 10/01/2020
Max Leone

2020 has turned out to be quite the year to launch a music career. 20-year-old, Oregon-born newcomer Max Leone imagined spending the year touring and promoting his music in person. Instead, he's released nearly every single to his name during a pandemic and spent his time writing new music.

Thankfully, his songs are strong enough that they're cutting through regardless. Perhaps, it's the perfect music for right now. He's releasing raw pop tunes that touch on everything from existential thoughts to superficial friendships. He's constantly re-evaluating his world and it comes through in his diverse, small collection of songs.

The current single 5 is a woozy, lo-fi production that catches some of his deepest musings. "If I only had 5 minutes to live," he sings, posing a question that he never answers. Instead, it leads to an exploration of relationships and purpose.

Like most of us, Leone is unsure of what the future holds but it almost seems to certain that he's going to be a superstar. We spoke to the artist about spending 2020 in limbo, his songwriting heroes and more.

Where are you at the moment?

I'm just in my room.

Awesome. Is that in LA?

Yeah, I'm in Silverlake. 

So you've stuck it out there during the whole situation this year?

Yeah I've driven up to Oregon, which is where I'm from - Portland, a couple times, yet but I've been here as part.  

That's nice to be able to have home so close if you need it. How long have you been in LA for?

I moved to LA in the fall of 2018. So it's been a couple years now. 

And how have you found that? Do you feel like you've settled in? Most artists I've talked to say that they've had teething problems with LA initially?

Yeah, definitely. It took me about about a year, I'd say, to kind of feel like it was where I wanted to live. But it definitely feels like home now.

Obviously, this has been quite a prolific year for your career but it’s a very different year to launch an artist. How has it felt for you? I imagine you saw this year going very differently.

Yeah, definitely. Um, yeah, I was kind of just reflecting on this year, a little bit a couple of weeks ago. And I realized that I think I had two songs out, and then everyone went into quarantine. So for pretty much the majority of my career as a recording artist I've been in quarantine, which is really interesting. But it's also really cool. Because I think we found a lot of creative ways to make content and just have the music, live in different worlds that you probably wouldn't have explored without the confines of quarantine. So it's been kind of a double-edged sword.

It's such a unique way to launch yourself into the world and not a path that many artists are going to get to take. I guess it’s given you a chance to focus solely on this music? In another world, you’d be touring around from place-to-place right now. 

I mean, for me, I've always wanted to go on tour. So yeah, it was kind of a sad realization, but at the same time, it has been really nice to just be able to sit in the studio, and work on things. Also, that being said, I think I did a lot of my inspiration for songs through being outside and interacting with people. 

Yeah, I was gonna say because it feels like a lot of your music has been taken from your experience with friends and your ponderings on your surroundings. Do you feel your songwriting has changed now that you don't have that same kind of everyday perspective?

Yeah, definitely a little bit. It's...I think people are a little bit more introspective for sure. I've also realized that when I do have like, the one off interaction with someone, that interaction will stick with me and it seems to make a bigger impact on me. So I've started realizing those interactions with more kind of an intense lens, I guess, which is cool. 

Was 5 written this year? Or was it written before this all happened?

5 was actually written on a zoom call with one of my good friends. Eric Leva - the songwriter. 

How has your experience with Zoom been? 

Well, having sessions on it, I haven't really enjoyed a lot. But Eric and I really connect on a songwriting level. So that song just really came together pretty quickly, honestly. 

Obviously, LA can be quite a collaborative experience for artists and put you in rooms with a lot of songwriters quite fast. How have you found having to share your ideas with others and having to open up to others in that way?

It's been interesting, I would say that some people, it just feels natural, and some people, maybe not so natural. But I've also realized that you can choose kind of rely on other songwriters to helps you or take some of the pressure of. But it can also be kind of intimidating, I guess because sometimes you feel like, maybe you're not contributing enough. Or maybe they should be, which can be anxiety-inducing but it just really depends on the session, like sometimes, it just really flows really well. And there's no kind of second thoughts. But yeah, it can go either way. 

Growing up with music, was it something that you did collaboratively, or was it something that you did in your bedroom a lot?

Definitely the most, for the most part, I was alone. I played in a couple bands in high school, I was in the high school jazz band. But for the most part, I was just on YouTube watching production tutorials or just playing guitar and reading by myself. So it was definitely more of a kind of individual experience.

I read that you were given Jack Johnson's In Between Dreams very early on and then as you grew up and started to get into more and more music, you found hip-hop and jazz influences. How influential to you was it to have a singer/songwriter like Johnson as an inspiration before learning the production tricks?

I think it's been really helpful just as I continue to explore production, because I can always just pick up my guitar and write something. And that always feels like the most pure form of songwriting to me. Yeah. And so I value that kind of initial inspiration from artists like Jack Johnson, because I think it really gives me something to always go back to. 

If we're going back to the bones of a song like 5, which obviously has turned out to have quite a psych-pop influence in the end, was it very bare at the beginning? Did you just write it on a guitar? Or were you kind of thinking of the sonic direction you wanted to take it?

We definitely had a vision for how we want it to sound sonically when it was finished, but we wrote it on piano and guitar. So it started out very bare-boned, just chords and melodies. But we definitely were heading towards the psych influence.

I've loved talking to people about the kind of music they've been listening to during this period. Obviously, we can't go out we can't be influenced by what we hear, like in the clubs or in restaurants or with friends and stuff like that. So it's been a really, like an exploration, a personal exploration for everyone. Is there any kind of music that's really stood out for you during this period that you've been going back to revisit?

Yeah, I think definitely going back to artists, and just kind of going through their whole discography. Recently, I've been on a Coldplay kick, where I have just listened through all of their albums. In sequence.

Do you feel like you can listen to music and just be in pure relaxation mode? Or are you just always taking production and lyric tips?

I feel like that driving, I'll just turn on music, and it’s just a relaxing experience. But there are definitely times when I start feeling like, I need to write a song or need to stop listening to music and start writing music, which is never fun. But yeah, it definitely happens sometimes. 

I love the question that 5 ponders. So, if you had five minutes to live do you now what you’d do with it?

The reason that we wrote the song at the time that we did is because I feel like we're all being sort of forced into confronting all these uncomfortable things right now, this year. It's just been kind of a constant confrontation. So I guess the song is about what would you choose to value? And what would you choose to stand for? I'm not sure if I have the answer to that, but it's definitely something that I've been thinking about.