“I think young people are getting tired of the electronic music that’s being put out there” – Levanna McLean
In the twelve months since Universal’s ‘Move On Up‘ compilation was released, the album’s cover star, ‘Northern Soul Girl’ and YouTube sensation, LEVANNA McLEAN, has become what showbiz types call ‘hot property’ and has had her life completely transformed as a result. The nineteen-year-old Bristol music student-turned-dancer and DJ – whom SJF first spoke to in March 2015 – suddenly found herself thrust into the public eye as the album that she helped to promote struck a chord with the UK public and rocketed to the summit of the UK album charts.
“When ‘Move On Up’ came out it went ballistic,” laughs Lev – as she’s known to her friends – who’s talking from her mother’s holiday home in Spain. “It went to number one and I did a lot of TV and loads of interviews and that was great, really fun. People would come up to me and say ‘oh, you’re on the cover of that CD’ and I got to play a lot of DJ gigs as well.“
With the commercial success of ‘Move On Up,’ in the spring of 2015, later the same year, Lev fronted her own 2-CD compilation, ‘Express Your Soul.’ That, too, was a huge success and now four months on, she returns as a consultant for a second installment of ‘Move On Up’ which is released by Universal on 18th March. Like its predecessor, this companion package features three discs of classic Northern Soul tunes, including evergreens from familiar names by the likes of Edwin Starr, the Impressions, the Spinners, Jackie Wilson and The Four Tops alongside more obscure acts such as Jackie Lee, Shane Martin, Velvet Hammer, Judy Street and The Apollas.
Ahead of the release of ‘Move On Up Volume Two,’ Levanna McLean talks to SJF’s Charles Waring about the new compilation as well as her thoughts on the Northern Soul scene. She also reveals exciting developments in her own career, including the launch of her own YouTube channel, ‘Soul Bug TV’….
What was your highlight of last year?
I did a gig at the Ponent Roots Festival in Barcelona and that was the first time that I’d DJ-ed abroad. That was such an amazing experience. It was the first time that I had been to Barcelona as well. It was so lovely and the Spanish really know how to party. Loads of people were there. It was packed at five o’clock in the morning when I was on. I did two three-hour sets and everyone stayed to the end. It was really great. Everyone loved it. It was an experience of a lifetime.
So what else has happened since then? Are you still a student at Bristol?
Yet, still a music college student and I’ve just recently released my own CD, ‘Express Your Soul,’ that came through Universal as well. That was insane and took about six months to whittle all the songs I wanted on that CD down to about forty-six. And now, of course, we are doing ‘Move On Up 2.’
On this new volume of ‘Move On Up’ you’ve had a greater input with the track listing, haven’t you?
Yeah. A little bit. It wasn’t me that came up with the tunes but they definitely asked me for my advice. They were like: ‘what do you think about this track? Is it good, and what do you think about that track?’ And I’d say ‘yeah, I really like it,’ so it’s mainly Northern Soul classics, which is what it says on the tin. ‘Time’ by Edwin Starr is probably one of the most classic Northern Soul songs ever. I dance to that on my videos and it’s one of the tunes on ‘Express Your Soul’ as well. It’s great, it’s timeless. Another of my favourites is the Pointer Sisters’ ‘Send Him Back,’ it’s great, especially if you’re into that stomping modern soul. It’s an absolute classic. That song probably got me into the disco and the rare modern soul that I’m into now.
So your musical tastes have moved on slightly…
Yeah, it’s totally changed but I knew it would, though, because I’m discovering new tunes every week and I still am. But I’ve fallen in love with disco and the rare modern soul scene. It’s great. I love the oldies and the classics, but it’s not something that I want to hear every weekend. I want to hear something different. Everyone has their own tastes.
You told me last time we spoke that some people in the Northern Soul scene were a bit split in their response to your involvement as a newcomer. Are you more accepted now?
No, it’s still the same. You can’t please everybody and the more you put yourself into the public eye the more people are going to find a way to bring you down, and that’s just the way of the world, that’s what people do. You’ll always have keyboard warriors. What I always say is that I drive what I do by the people that like what I do not by the people that hate what I do because if I drive myself by the people that hate what I do I’ll never please anybody. And the people that appreciate what I do, they’re the ones that deserve to like what I do… if that makes sense. They deserve to be thought about, not the people that don’t like what I do.
Have you noticed any changes in the Northern Soul scene since you actively started getting involved with it? Are there more younger people now than there used to be?
Oh yeah, it has changed so much since I got into it. When I was first into it, there were young people into it but there are probably more young people into it now and I think a big part of that is probably due to the Internet because back in the ’70s and ’80s, when people didn’t have the Internet, the way you heard about it was through word-of-mouth. But now with the Internet, it’s so accessible to everyone. And I think there’s probably a bit of a soul revolution going on, with the increase in vinyl sales and everything… It’s all coming back to that era when soul was big, like in the ’60s and ’70s when there was disco. It’s all coming back down to that and I think a lot of young people are looking for something different now and that they are tired of electronic music that’s getting put out there.
And of course now you can even buy vinyl in Tesco’s of all places…
I know! Exactly. It wasn’t like that last year, was it? So that’s just another way it’s changed, and of course, you’ve always got the big record collectors that have the million pound record collection, which I wish I could afford…
If you could afford to buy any one coveted single, what would it be then?
Oh goodness me! I don’t know. On the first ‘Move On Up’ compilation there was the Frank Wilson one, ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).’ That’s probably the most expensive one on there on the soul scene. If there was one single that I could afford, what would it be? You know what? I wouldn’t know yet. I think I’ll have to answer that question in about sixty years time (laughs).
Are you an avid collector of vinyl yourself?
I’m not obsessive and I’m not compulsive, not like some people, some of these collectors, who spend their lives searching on eBay, going to record stores at 6 o’clock in the morning so they are the first ones to get the pick of the day. I’m not like that by all means, I’m on a student budget, so I wouldn’t be able to afford it, but I do like to buy them when and as I can, and if I see a record that I like and it’s cheap, then I will invest in it because chances are, if it’s really that good, maybe it could go up in value.
What other developments are happening in your life?
I’m going to be releasing two new TV channels. I don’t know if I am allowed to say what the second one is going to be yet, but the first one is being released, Soul Bug TV, and I go to all-nighters and review them. It’s like a blog style thing where I sit in front of the camera and say how my night went. I review all-nighters and there’s a series on it called Soul Line where I talk about all-nighters that I’ll be going to as well, so it’s like a platform for promotion and promoters and I hope to do it with records as well, talking about new releases. Sometimes you get a good story, like Darrell Banks’ ‘Open The Door To Your Heart’… which went up in value last year. It got a lot of attention in the mainstream media when someone found a rare copy…
Yes, the rare London pressing discovered in 2014, which is now reckoned to be worth about 10 grand…
Yeah, so just to talk about stuff like that, interesting news that happens on the scene, I can mention on Soul Bug TV and there’s always a chance that a record might go up in value, because, obviously, of supply and demand.
You’ve got a radio show, too, now.
Yes on Bristol Community Radio on BCFM. I do a show every Saturday and it’s from 7 to 8pm. So it’s just an hour and I play the tracks that I love, tracks that I’ve found, tracks that are classics that other people love. I call it ‘Express Your Soul,’ so I haven’t limited it to anything. I play hip-hop, sometimes a little bit of house music… as long as it’s got that soulful influence, then that’s the main thing.
How difficult is it to find a balance between your academic studies and all your other extra-curricular musical activities?
It is really hard (laughs). I’m not going to lie, it’s really hard to balance it out but, especially with the Soul Bug TV. I try to mix my work with my pleasure and make my pleasure my work. Like they say, if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. So going out to soul nights and reviewing them, if that became my work, well, then I’m going out and loving what I do and then all I have to do is sit in front of a camera and tell how it went. I’d love for that to become my job. Hopefully, in the end, it will just be really easy to balance it out because it will be the one thing that I do, but I think my studies have taken a backseat over the last couple of months. This is my final year of study – I finish in July – and I’m currently figuring out what I’m going to do. Maybe I’m going to try and move to a city. I’m not sure where yet. Somewhere in the pipeline might be Barcelona, because I fell in love with it, or London, although it’s really expensive to live in London at the moment. I’m just trying to figure out what to do because there are a lot of things that are coming up that may change where my path goes in the next year. So I just need to wait and see where it goes.
As well as being a DJ, you’re a singer and studying for a degree in music. Have you thought about making a Northern Soul-style record in the future?
If I did make a record – which we have mentioned as a possibility – I’m not sure I’d try and make it Northern Soul style because it’s a sound that you can’t recreate without it sounding cheesy. What I’m trying to do is something a little bit like what Amy Winehouse did: she took her influences from soul music and made it accessible to a new generation, and that’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m all about. I’m all about spreading soul music and sharing the faith.
The Northern Soul scene has had its ups and downs but why is it still going strong after all this time?
Because the music is timeless and just the ethos of it, I think, is so amazing, especially in this day and age when there’s so much pressure on society now with jobs and money. I think the Northern Soul scene is the only place where you can go and escape from those pressures and I think that’s what people are attracted to it for.
Going back to ‘Move On Up Volume Two,’ you’ve set a high bar with the success of the first album…
Yeah, I did not expect that to happen. A lot of people didn’t pick up on the album before we were doing the PR for it before the release and didn’t think anything of it. So there was no expectation for it to go big but it went massive and got to number one beating the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ soundtrack. I was in Spain at the time when it did and me and my mum were just sat there and we were kind of like, ‘what the hell is going on?’ (Laughs). We were getting photos through saying it’s number one in the Amazon chart, it’s number one in the official charts, and it just went exponential. I received a silver disc for selling sixty thousand copies and there’s a photo of that online. I didn’t even think I’d ever own anything like that in my life, so when I got surprised with that, it was totally out of the blue and I nearly cried. They just turned around and gave it me and said ‘hey, Lev, by the way you’ve got a silver disc.’ (Laughs).
Northern Soul used to be a UK phenomenon but it’s really taking off overseas now…
There’s a huge scene happening all around Europe, like the Spanish scene. That’s why I’m over here in Spain. Tomorrow I’m going to soul all-nighter in Campillos, which is just north of Malaga, and is called ‘Soul Discharge.’ I went last year and it’s just amazing how many people are into soul music considering it’s a UK-based thing. It’s worldwide now and you get Northern Soul in America. I know now there’s a big scene especially in New York and I even think there’s a bit of the scene in Los Angeles. But here in Spain there’s a scene and its massive in Germany and they’ve got huge weekenders over there. And even Sweden. In Europe they are so progressive. They don’t have to abide by the history – they are what like Northern Soul was in the ’70s but now they’re listening to the music that is current and it’s amazing to see.
‘MOVE ON UP VOLUME TWO’ IS RELEASED VIA UNIVERSAL ON MARCH 18TH
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