“I learned a lot at Berklee and I don’t want to discredit that experience, but I probably taught myself more by just looking things up on YouTube and figuring them out myself. No one is looking up your music degree before they add you to their playlist.”
When Max Leone dropped out of Berklee College of Music – one the most prestigious music colleges in the world – after one year of studying, many may have doubted his choice. But after subsequently moving to LA to pursue his music career and becoming label mates with Billie Eilish at Darkroom, those same doubters might think a little differently about his decision now.
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It wasn’t all smooth sailing when Max first moved to LA though. A self-proclaimed introvert, he found it hard initially to settle in. “Moving [to LA] was a rough experience,” he tells us. However, like most creatives would do, he channelled his feelings of anxiety and isolation into his debut EP ‘Malleable’ which allowed him to uncover more about himself.
“I think it’s important to recognise that we are never stagnant as people and how we change over time is reflected in our actions and what we create. I’ve never been an outward person, but I’ve realised that my songs tend to deal with topics that I would be afraid to talk about otherwise.”
Resonances of Elliott Smith flow through Leone’s musical demeanour. The lyrics in ‘Cautious’, the second track on the EP, harken towards Smith’s characteristically dark and emotive psyche as a songwriter: “Nothing ever hurts me anymore / Cause I was sick of being miserable / And now I never feel emotional / Too afraid to lose any control.”
Yet, Leone admits that Smith didn’t figure in his life while growing up in the same city (Portland, Oregon) that they both spent their formative years in. “I didn’t know much about Elliott Smith until I left Portland, oddly, although he has definitely been an inspiration since.
“I started playing guitar when I was six years old and it was kind of central to my identity. Jack Johnson was probably the sole reason I was so invested in learning guitar as a young kid.” Violins, drums and flamenco guitar were all dabbled in from an early age before Leone later transitioned to writing his own music.
He also taught himself via Youtube after school hours some music production techniques, a DIY spirit evidently evolving from an early stage. In more recent months however, TikTok has been a pivotal digital platform in his career, especially during the pandemic. “I never thought that TikTok would be as helpful as it has been this past year,” says Leone. “It was pretty much the only way for me to reach new people organically with shows being off the table. It feels like a little community where I can share ideas and get instant feedback.”
For someone who’s biggest musical ambition is to go on a world tour, surprisingly, the lack of live gigs over the past year doesn’t seem to have hindered his career progress. “Our world is only becoming increasingly digital,” Leone tells us, and if anything, his profile as an artist has gone from strength to strength during lockdown by focussing on digital content and amassing a 240k+ TikTok following.
With the same team behind the world’s biggest pop star also behind Leone’s back, it’s hard to envision him putting a foot wrong any time soon. For any Berklee students out there, no hard feelings. But sacrifice, determination and a dash of Youtube clearly goes a long way for upcoming Gen Z artists of today.
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Words: Jamie Wilde
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