Anna Leone: "I've never seen myself as a guitarist per se. It's more like a tool that I use to write songs with"

Anna Leone
(Image credit: Grace Rivera)

Despite her tender years, Stockholm-native Anna Leone is full of conviction. For a start, she’s doing the one thing we all told ourselves we’d commit to over the last 18 months: learning a new language. She’s been determinedly studying Japanese, modestly joking it's the only thing she’s stuck to. But that’s not strictly true. 

At the end of 2020, Leone shared the first taste of her songwriting material with Wandered Away. The EP racked up over 18 million streams and "Ones to Watch" tips from Spotify & YouTube. She also won at the Music Moves Europe Talent awards, alongside fellow Nordic inspiration, girl in red. Since then, she’s been committed to her first full-length record, heading over to Los Angeles to join Paul Butler (Michael Kiwanuka) in the studio to lay down her debut, I’ve Felt All These Things.

She’s even treated us to some stunning spoiler singles from the record, positioning herself and her guitar everywhere from the sunsets of Colorado Provençal to the vineyards of Marseille. More recently, she cropped up at the Azores with director Savannah Setten for her latest single, Still I Wait

The perfect settings for such intimate songs, we find Leone exploring the endless boundaries of Mother Earth with her stripped-back sentiment to accompany the ride. 

So, ahead of her debut release this September and firmly planted back in the suburbs of Stockholm, we speak to the songwriter about stage fright at festivals, folk influences, and how the force is always with her. 

Growing up, you had lots of siblings around, being the youngest of five sisters. Was music always an escape for you or did guitar not feature until your teens?

“I didn't start writing until I was in high school. Before, I'd been doing lots of covers trying to mimic other artists, but I didn't even think about having my own voice. I don't remember a clear starting point or an epiphany that made me start. It was more like a smooth transition. 

I've never seen myself as a guitarist per se. It's more like a tool that I use to write songs with

"My mom played a lot of music. She introduced me to Cat Stevens and this whole folk acoustic guitar thing. That’s what inspired me to attempt to play the guitar, because I've never seen myself as a guitarist per se. It's more like a tool that I use to write songs with.” 

Who were your influences when it came to chord structures and learning other artists’ styles of songwriting on the guitar?

“I've followed Laura Marling for a long time. I was inspired, and still am to this day, because she was one of the first women guitarists that I got to know. I felt she was like me in a way and it felt in reach somehow. I also listened a lot to Bob Dylan. The song survives on guitar and nothing else. I'm impressed by how it can be so stripped-down and still have so much emotion.“

Anna Leone

(Image credit: Grace Rivera)

Your style is very rooted in tender fingerpicking  what is your choice guitar to play when writing those riffs?

I've never been into the technical things with guitar. It's mainly that I've had this for a while and it's worked for me

“The main one is the one that I've been playing live with, this softer-sounding semi-acoustic Cort. We used a lot of steel-string. I don't play a lot with nylon, actually. I've never been into the technical things with guitar and the instruments I use. It's mainly that I've had this for a while and it's worked for me. 

"My manager is like, 'You need to buy a new guitar,' but this works for me. Also, my singing is so soft that sometimes I need a little bit extra, otherwise you won't hear what I'm playing, so we had to double the guitar to strengthen the sound.” 

The record came together in LA and was co-produced alongside Paul Butler. How different was that experience from your traditional Stockholm setting?

“Oh, yeah, very night and day. I wish that we had a bit more time to explore because we were 9-5. Well, more like 9-12! [laughs] First, he had a studio in Santa Rosa and then we also recorded in Topanga and then North Hollywood. I really liked our environment. 

"It was cool to get away from where I'd been writing the songs. It gave them a new light in a way. We took Route One, where you go from San Francisco to LA, and it gave me a lot of inspiration. All those grand views.“

And it sounds like there was a wealth of new instruments brought into the mix by Butler, including some synthesizers (the contemporary OP-1 and the ARP 2600 from the 1970s used to voice R2-D2), which tapped into your Star Wars fandom?

“I don't think it was the actual one – George Lucas probably has that one,– but it was cool to know that it was the same model. We rented a studio and it was one of the big instruments in there. We were just going around looking at things that we could use and it stood out as this big synthesizer that we just had to try.” 

A force, some might say. 

“The force was strong. [laughs]”

Your humble goal of songwriting without ever releasing material is only enforced by the fact that you’re still confronting stage fright. Have you developed any techniques to feel more comfortable performing live?

“I'm definitely not over the stage fright thing. I think that's how it's always gonna be. I've done two tours and a lot of festivals and it's always been nerve-wracking. At the same time, it's a powerful thing when you connect with the audience. 

"If I quit music today, I would still be fine because I already released these songs into the world and that would be enough, in a way. But I still have a lot of creativity in me and I'm strengthened by how people receive the songs. I can always benefit from them by writing them, but it's a beautiful thing if I release them and people are also able to benefit from them.” 

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Cheri Amour

Cheri Amour is a writer, editor and broadcaster intent on amplifying the voices of women and non-binary artists in print, online and on air. During her twenties, she played lead guitar in a touring two-piece, sharing the stage with The Slits and John Peel-approved punks The Nightingales. Formerly Deputy Editor at TGA Magazine, Cheri headed up its Tech section pouring over pedals with everyone to indie icon Debbie Smith (Echobelly/Curve) to multi-instrumentalist Katie Harkin (Sleater Kinney/Waxahatchee/Wye Oak). She's currently working on an upcoming 33 1/3 book on the unassuming influence of South Bronx sister troupe ESG, out in Spring 2023.