Sean Leon is perched atop a stool on the balcony overlooking the festival grounds he’s just performed on. His large entourage of creatives surround him, pointing their cameras and attention in his direction as he fidgets with the backwoods between his fingertips. He doesn’t notice the yellow butterfly fluttering right over his shoulder.
It’s been a long time since Toronto’s rising artist took the stage in his own city and the first since the release of this year’s intricate and nuanced project, I Think You’ve Gone Mad (Or the Sins of the Father). And it’s clear now that more than just his own inner circle is interested in hearing what he has to say.
The city that raised him, challenged him and pushed him is finally listening.
You had an MMVA nomination and a huge slot at Manifesto. Tell me about how 2017 is going for Sean Leon?
2017 is all about making power moves and putting my team in a position to win. Not only banking on the quality of the work, which will still be maintained, but making these albums that I make. Putting the time into making these albums and then putting them out independently on our own and hoping someone bites onto it, it’s such a risky way and dangerous way of being a musician. Especially if you’re working towards getting to a point where you can make enough money to sustain family life or to move up into another tax bracket. There are a lot of things behind the scenes that happen on the way to becoming the most successful rapper on the planet so this year is all about lining things up and putting myself in a position and putting my guys in the position just so that we can prosper.
“Life Goes On Without You” is a pretty huge statement that has been plastered around your socials recently. How has life gone on since the release of your latest project earlier this year?
What’s funny is, I Think You’ve Gone Mad was a lot of reflection. Especially that first half was a lot of looking back. And that was under Life When You’re The Movie. And the sequel is all being put under this umbrella that is Life Goes On Without You. Being who I am to my city – and I can say this now because I go out to places and I talk to people and I run into people that I don’t know and they show me so much love and we have conversations and they tell me how I’m affecting them in positive ways or how I’ve helped them. But still being in the city and not even having left yet. Not even having gone on tour yet. Certain things that I feel like I’m more than ready to do and my team is more than ready to take on, we haven’t been able to do yet but I see my friends doing that and doing it successfully and I’m happy for them. But there’s that artistic thought in the back of my head sometimes where I wake up and my bank account isn’t where I want it to be or my notoriety isn’t where I feel like it should be just based on when I listen to other rappers and compare the product, I think that life really can just go on without you. I could wake up one day and be 40 and never have accomplished more than being this local legend on my block. And as much as that’s so important to me and I’m so happy to have earned that respect, to have moved from the 905 to Parkdale and just how I feel when I’m in a room now. How people address me and how they approach me. Sometimes it’s what they say and sometimes it’s what they’re not saying. At the bottom of that, I always feel like a king now. I feel much more certain in myself and in my moves. It’s that sentiment that I could potentially die here and never move away from here. JAY-Z has a line on a song called ‘This Can’t Be Life’ where he says, “Damn, I’ma be a failure surrounded by thugs, drugs, and drug paraphernalia.” And before that, he’s referencing just how people are able to leave where they come from and not feel trapped.
It sounds like you’re interested in being the best across the board, not just in your own city. So in a way, are you saying life goes on without you to Toronto as well?
For sure. It’s always more than one thing. And that’s why I can live and die by my words. I’ll say something and somebody will interpret it one way and someone else will have a completely different interpretation but it is that. I’m also saying to a lot of people in my life that I’m ready to be alone. I’m ready to suffer and be lonely in order to achieve what it is that I want to achieve. That comfort of being around people that love you and that you want to be around. To me, it’s losing its value in comparison to achieving the things that I want to achieve. To prove certain people wrong. And also proving a lot of people right as well.
Yeah, there are definitely people that believe in you in this city.
There is. There’s a tremendous amount of love. And every time I step out, I go to the movies or walk down the street or I go shopping, there’s a certain level of respect that I get and people are inspired and then I get inspired by them. It’s beautiful.
Creatively, how will we see you transition from the ITYGM to the project you’re leading up to, which is King & Suffering. Is there a sonic shift we’ll be hearing?
Well, on that first album I Think You’ve Gone Mad, and I don’t even like calling it an album, because it’s just artistic expression. I didn’t give a fuck about any rule. I didn’t care about length. I didn’t care about whether or not it was digestible. I didn’t give a fuck if it was too much for you. I didn’t care if it was something you had to take in in segments. It was a story that I wanted to get out. It was how I wanted to introduce myself by showing you where I came from and where I was at now. This album, where it’s at right now sonically, without giving too much away, I think it’s a much more refined I Think You’ve Gone Mad. I learned from Kanye West, those first three albums where you’re just introducing yourself and the world is about to embrace you, are all about refining on the follow-up. So to me, I always say that Late Registration is a more refined version of College Dropout and Graduation was a more refined version of that. So, I think that’s the case with this album. As of now, it’s slated to be half as long. Like ten to twelve songs. And sonically it’s different, because it’s much more Parkdale. It’s where I’m at now. And I’ve seen more and experienced more so that’s all gone into the music.
Is that a healthy space for you?
Yeah, I feel great. Mentally, I feel like I’m in the best mental health of my life. Physically, also. I have a certain amount of optimism. That’s why originally, the title of that album was I Can See A Blue Sky From Here, because I was working in my basement in Parkdale just being in there. But out of this window on the side of my desk, I could see a blue sky. Like, that’s where I’m headed right now. I can do it but I’ve got to do a bit of work. I’ve got to commit. I’ve got to suffer. I was never afraid of struggle, as far as not having the right amount of gold or not having the right clothes. I didn’t give a fuck about that. I really just cared about making my art. And I wanted it to be right. And I felt like in order to do that, I had to invest so much into it. And not just money, but time. The time I had to go make money, I didn’t have, because it was invested into making this product. That’s why 10 years from now, I think you’ll still be listening to this project or I Think You’ve Gone Mad and just everything I make from this point on. 10-15 years from now, I feel like they’ll be real moments in time. And regardless of if they get that critical acclaim in their time. They’re real.
Do you have a timeline?
Where I’m at in my career, everyday I’m being offered a new route to where I want to be. So, without giving away too much, I’m just trying to give it time. I’m ready and the music is ready, but I’m just waiting to see what the best way to get it out is. I don’t want to put it out the way I’ve been putting it out. It’s painful. It’s fucking painful. We pay Tunecore directly to put it up and any blog that picks it up, picks it up because they want to. Anybody who writes about it or tweets about it, it’s because they want to. They weren’t given money on the side. They weren’t told, “this guy’s really cool, trust me man. This guy’s next.” It’s because, I fuck with this shit. Not that we’re going in that route at all, but we have exciting offers and we’re just waiting to see how they develop before we put out more music. But it hurts. The fans get mad at me every day and I want them to know that I want to put the music out. But to be fair to the music, I want to give it a chance. That’s why I say I’m multifaceted. I can’t put out a song but we can do a movie. We can go do an exhibit. There are other ways that I can free myself and liberate myself and stay busy and keep our minds working. And not just have this music that we stack up like nuclear weapons.
Since you’re optimistic now, let’s leave it on an optimistic note. What are you most excited for?
I’m most excited for people to see my growth. I think a lot of people have underestimated me. I think a lot of people are going to realize that maybe they were wrong. That’s exciting. And Xylo talks more every day. That’s my daughter and more than anything, that is just the best thing going for me.
Catch Sean Leon live in Toronto at The Mod Club Theatre on July 26th.