American Idol second runner-up Leah Marlene is in the passenger seat talking with us on the phone, as her dad, Honeymoon Suite guitarist Derry Grehan, takes his turn behind the wheel, bound for Los Angeles. The Toronto-born, U.S.-based singer-songwriter is moving to Hollywood, after the public fell in love with her voice and infectious personality each week on season 20 of the national TV talent search.
“I sure am. Yeppers. We’re about to go into Colorado in the next hour or so. We’re getting there,” says the bubbly 20-year-old, who joined SOCAN as a young girl when her dad registered her song “Someday” with his band’s performing rights organization of choice, even though she lived in Normal, Illinois, from age three to high school.
“I still have deep roots in Ontario, but didn’t live there for much of my life,” says Marlene. “Obviously, my dad plays shows all the time, so we’d come to see his shows and visit family.”
She attended Nashville’s Belmont University for two years, but dropped out in 2021 and moved home. In September of that year, the SOCAN Foundation recognized her talent – before she was chosen for Idol – as one of five recipients of its Young Canadian Songwriters Awards. Marlene already knew she was auditioning for American Idol producers when she won the $5,000 cash prize for her song “Spacesuit.” “That’s one of those songs that was so instrumental in my journey as a producer, and a writer, and an artist,” she says. “I’m really proud of what that was at the time.”
Marlene has written other songs since, including “Flowers,” the track she penned right after Idol’s “Hollywood Week” round in December of 2021, when she found out she would be in the program’s Top 24. “I wrote it from a place of ‘I can’t even believe that this is happening,’ and then that song kept applying to my journey,” she says. “Every step of the way, it just got more and more real.”
When she performed it on the Idol finale, she struggled to hold back tears, overwhelmed by “everything,” she says, not just the lyrics:
Where there’s a way out
There’s another way in…
The new life is growing in the layers you shed
Even the pavement gives way to the flowers
“That was a really hard night, because you’re going full speed for weeks and weeks and weeks, hustling so hard, and you’re just exhausted, but it’s the best experience of your life,” says Marlene. “And then all of a sudden, you’re about to get onstage, and I’m, like, ‘Oh crap, this is it. It’s all over after this episode.’ I didn’t care at all where I placed. And so it all hit me right before the episode started.
“It was already really emotional, and the entire time when I was onstage I was trying to hold it together. But on the side, I was sobbing the entire episode. I’m not even a crier, but I just could not pull myself together… It was just crazy to be where I was in that moment, and singing that song to so many people, whereas a year ago I would’ve never dreamed in a million years that I’d be on that stage. It was just the epitome of what that song was about: that moment on Idol.”
When she was done, Idol judge Lionel Richie said, “Props to your songwriter side, that was a great song.” His fellow judge Luke Bryan said, ‘The song is just tremendous.” And their colleague judge, Katy Perry, was moved to tears, and gave her Marlene of the best compliments that could be paid to a songwriter: “You are a brilliant messenger.”
“All I want to do,” says Marlene, “is make something that means something in this world, and to people. I don’t want to create recycled sounds, and the recycled words, that you’ve already heard a million times before. I want to create something new, and meaningful, and important. That’s a really deep drive.”
She brings up a comment made by one of her favourite artists, Madison Cunningham, who apparently said she didn’t want to write something somebody wouldn’t want to get tattooed on their body. “That is it right there. I don’t want to write something unless it’s worthy of getting tattooed. I don’t achieve that all the time, but that’s what I’m always constantly striving for.”
As she looks to the future, Marlene says that when Idol ended in late May of 2022, “you’re kind of falling off the edge of the earth, and you’re trying to figure it out as you go.” Still, she’s taken some major steps in just two months.
“The first week after Idol, I was, like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell do I do right now?’” she says. “I was ready to work my ass off like nobody’s business. Never had so much fire… But there’s so many directions you can go in; I needed to get together a game plan. So, I just called every single person I knew in the industry and got advice, and feedback, and connected.”
She decided to spend June of 2022 in Nashville, writing songs and taking meetings, and now has a booking agent and attorney on her team (though no manager or music publisher yet). By the time the interview concludes, she’s one state closer to her new home, in middle of Kansas.
“I’m moving out to L.A. to write my ass off,” she says. “Just write, write, write, write, write. I want to put out a project that really is everything I could have ever dreamed a project to be. So that starts with a song. That’s really what I’m focusing on.”