“Honestly, it’s been difficult,” Max Leone admits over the phone. When we speak, the world has just gone into lockdown and for a 20-year-old artist who draws inspiration from interactions with others, that’s a less than ideal situation. He backtracks slightly, laughing. “Actually, my life hasn’t changed a whole lot – most of the time I am in my room writing songs anyway!”
There’s plenty to be positive about for the Portland-born artist, however – his dreamy new single ‘The Beach’ is busy racking up hundreds of thousands of streams, while his label Darkroom Records just made Billie Eilish the biggest artist in the world.
“It’s very daunting,” Max laughs when asked about following in Billie’s footsteps. “But she has had the most insane success, so I can’t complain if I don’t achieve that. I’m just really excited to be associated with the team that made all that happen. It feels really special.”
The floppy-haired, guitar-wielding artist is only at the very start of his journey after all. Having passed a million streams on ‘Cautious’, and his latest single ‘The Beach’ moving in the same direction; the early signs are promising.
He fits the mould for what constitutes a future star in this new generation. He has confident-yet-amiable demeanour, an Instagram boasting enviable retro-inspired style and, most importantly, genuine raw talent that seamlessly complements any genre.
Signing with Darkroom felt like a turning point after he ditched his place on a prestigious music course and moved to LA on his own. “It felt like the first solid accomplishment I guess,” he explains. “I was at Berklee College of Music for a year. I felt I could do everything with YouTube and tools available online now, and I was also having a rough time socially. That kinda super competitive nature of music school was not for me.”
For the first eight months, Max struggled to adjust to LA life. He laughs thinking back on not knowing anyone and the feeling of needing to prove he made the right decision, but you can tell the memory comes with some pain.
Max grew up just one state north, 20 minutes outside Portland, Oregon. “A lot of my time was spent at my house and that encouraged me to do creative things instead of just messing around with my friends all the time.” When he started showing an interest in the music his parents were playing, his mum went and bought him the album ‘In Between Dreams’ by Jack Johnson. Max immediately reached for a guitar to try and learn the songs.
“I started out learning very sing-songy campfire songs, so I thought that I would try my hand at writing,” he explains. “That got me excited, and then urban influence came I guess in high school when I started branching out and finding my own interests,” Max’s move into Portland opened his mind to more than just twee singer-songwriters.
He remembers it being the golden era of Kid Cudi and Kanye West, mixed with the beginnings of mainstream EDM that really began influencing his musical style. “That was what really piqued my interest,” he tells me. “There was also a lot of sample-based music, which was appealing ‘cos I could hear a lot of parents’ taste in it, but it was unlike anything I’d heard before.”
To date, Max’s first three singles have broken a million streams collectively. He struggles to pinpoint one phrases that accurately sums up his sound but settles on ‘bedroom pop with an urban, alternative twist’.
You can hear that added edge in his second single ‘Cautious’, which boasts the deeper, darker elements of his range. Ironically, he’s said previously that the track is about ‘isolating yourself from the world in an attempt to protect yourself from it’. It’s a coincidentally-timely, moody bop you’d file next to The Neighbourhood’s Sweater Weather.
His latest single, however – ‘The Beach’ – is a dreamy love song with a catchy hook that gives justice to his ‘sing-songy’ musical beginnings. “This song is about that person you really have an attraction to and something just keeps pulling you back to them, but every time you give them a chance they let you down again” he explains.
Listen to the tracks he’s made available online and, at times, it’ll feel like you’re listening to three different artists. Max explains that this isn’t by accident or a case of indecision. “Especially for this project [his upcoming debut EP], each song lives in its own world, which feels really cool for me,” he explains. “It’s important for my project to feel like there’s a lot of facets to it and a lot of areas to develop so it feels like a cohesive.”
Whatever it is he’s doing, it’s working. New-found fans are flooding to his YouTube and Instagram to chew over why he’s still ‘under the radar’ and it’s obvious that people are connecting with the stories in the songs. “When I write songs I’m not really writing if for someone, but the ones that are most meaningful to me as usually the ones other people relate to as well,” he explains. “It seems like a natural connection between those two things – the most relatable emotions are also the strongest ones.”
So, after a strong start, we ask what his hopes are looking ahead. What will be the pinch-me moment? “My biggest dream has always been just to tour. Once I’m on a tour bus or flying to a different country, that’s when it’ll hit me.” A humble aspiration for an artist who will no doubt be selling out shows across the world in no time. With the bar being set by his label-mate, having seen what’s possible, he might just have to start dreaming a bit bigger.