SZA, Ariana Grande and ‘Insecure’: Everyone Wants a Piece of Producer Leon Thomas

The musician (and former Nickelodeon sitcom star) created the music that made Grande a superstar. Now he’s has graduated to Grammy nominations, THR’s senior music editor reveals in his latest The Download dispatch.

Ariana Grande’s 2013 debut album, Yours Truly, not only marked a seminal breakthrough for the former Nickelodeon actress, but it also helped launch the careers of its creators behind the scenes. A decade later, two of those acts are taking center stage at the Grammy Awards.

Victoria Monét co-wrote two songs on Grande’s debut and has written on every Grande album since. She’s competing for a whopping seven Grammys, including best new artist and record of the year with “On My Mama.” Leon Thomas, who starred on the Nick sitcom Victorious alongside Grande, co-wrote and co-produced four tracks on Yours Truly, and he’ll likely add Grammy winner as a prefix to his name. SZA’s megahit “Snooze,” which Thomas co-produced, is the frontrunner in the best R&B song category.

Leon Thomas center collaborated with from left Ariana Grande, Drake and SZA, whose Snooze was co-produced by Thomas.

“I respect everybody who was involved in [Ariana’s first] project. To this day, we’re all very close and really look out for each other,” Thomas tells THR. “This industry’s almost like a high school — nobody’s going anywhere, which is dope — and it’s just really nice to see everybody evolve and grow.”

Winning a Grammy has been top of Thomas’ mind for the past 18 months: “Currently on my phone, I have a picture of a Grammy as my lock screen. Every time I check the time, I see it.”

Manifestation has worked for him — but he’s also put in the work. On his own and as half of the songwriting-production duo The Rascals, with Khristopher Riddick-Tynes, Thomas has written and produced for Drake, Post Malone, Chris Brown, Zendaya, Jack Harlow, Meghan Trainor, Toni Braxton, Ty Dolla $ign, 6lack, Ella Mai, Kehlani, Giveon, Jessie Reyez and legendary singer-songwriter-producer Babyface, who has been a mentor. Thomas even earned his first Grammy nomination, for best rap song, at the 2020 show for co-writing Rick Ross and Drake’s “Gold Roses.”

But music is just one of his many talents: He started his career as a preteen on Broadway, appearing in The Lion King, The Color Purple and Caroline, or Change. And his acting credits include Insecure, August Rush, Detroit and Rising Stars.

In an interview, Thomas discusses his work on SZA’s “Snooze,” Drake’s funny demeanor and finally releasing his debut album.

When you meet people, do they put the pieces together and recognize that you’re André from Victorious, Eddie from Insecure and also a singer-songwriter-producer?

It’s interesting you say that. I was in Atlanta; I had to do this show for Morehouse and Spelman, and when I was walking around, it was interesting to see the different pockets of my career that people would recognize me for. Surprisingly, a lot of people who know me from music have been on this journey with me for a while.

Leon Thomas III and Ariana Grande

And if they are just coming to the party, they’ve also seen me on TV. So it’s hard for them to put the pieces together at first, but I’m meeting a lot of people who know all aspects of my career, which is really, really, really surprising for me, man. That’s been a blessing to be able to populate so many different industries. It’s definitely been hard at times, but I’m glad that I gave myself an option to just attack whatever my heart desires.

Did you always write and produce music?

At a certain point in my 20s, I focused on writing and production because it was paying more. And sometimes in the acting space, as you saw with the writers strike, you could do a lot of work on a TV show or a movie but not necessarily get paid Will Smith prices or anything like that. I was definitely looking at that off-season like, “Hold on, y’all ain’t about to have me broke out here.” So I was definitely hustling, trying to make sure I got some placements to balance everything out.

It’s funny because some people will say it’s hard to make music from songwriting …

Production though. You get a producer’s fee and then you get those royalties. And that’s residual income, passive income, money I don’t really have to think about. It just comes after you do the work. So that’s what I was chasing. I read this book called Rich Dad Poor Dad, and it talked about royalties and publishing and catalogs. And I was like, “Oh, let’s go. Let’s do it.” So I’m currently on my second catalog now. And I’ve been building this catalog for a long time, man. I got a lot of songs under my belt, and I’m looking forward to being able to pass something down to my future generations.

Babyface also worked on Ariana Grande’s debut album. Did you introduce him to her?

Yeah. I threw a party at his studio and Ari came by, Taco from Odd Future. We had a bunch of people there that night. And we had some drinks and everybody’s hanging. And I brought her to one of the studio rooms and I said, “I want to play you some songs. I know you’re working on your new project.” And we played her “Baby I” and I think one other joint, and she played me “The Way” at that time. It was still a demo. And it just genuinely turned into an amazing, creative relationship. I then invited her back to meet Babyface. I heard the ’90s vibe she had on “The Way,” so we really took that energy and added it on to a bunch of other songs she had previously recorded, and also some songs that we helped write for her as well.

You’re nominated at the Grammys for co-producing SZA’s “Snooze,” which has spent 52 weeks on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, and is in its 19th week at No. 1 on the R&B charts. Why do you think it’s doing so well?

That melody that SZA wrote and those lyrics are just so poignant. I’m such a fan of how she wrote that record. I feel like it’s just such a strong song. It’s the kind of song that you could sing just on an acoustic guitar and it feels good. And I definitely respect the fact that people are showing so much love to it. It’s a good feeling. This is probably one of the biggest records I’ve ever been a part of, so I’m just blessed.

SZA wrote the lyrics for “Snooze” — what was your role in making the song?

I did the chords and played a bunch of instruments on it, like bass and guitar, and I had my boy, BLK, doing keys, and Khris did the drums, and Babyface came in and added some licks on the guitar as well. We really just formatted the record out and made it work. I also do this thing where I pitch my vocals up, where I’ll slow the beat down and I’ll sing a melody-pass over it, and I’ll speed it up and my voice feels like a sample. That way, we don’t have to sample actual old soul records and stuff. We can just use my voice to give that vintage aesthetic.

You’ve worked with Drake a ton. What has that been like?

Really dope. Drake’s a cool guy, really laid-back, really funny, witty. I feel like sometimes we don’t get to see his personality as much because he doesn’t do a lot of interviews, but he’s a funny guy, man. He was just very open when it came to a lot of my ideas, musically. And I’m a huge fan. I grew up on Drake. Drake got me through some of my first breakups and shit like that, so to be in a position to add to his musical story was a real blessing.

What was it like being a Nickelodeon star with the success of Victorious?

It was insane because I think I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t quite realize it until it was probably the second season when it started to hit me. That’s when my face was on cereal boxes and McDonald’s Happy Meals. And it was like pop culture success in a way that was really, really different. And I’m so thankful for that opportunity because it really gave me an opportunity to see the world from a different lens. But it’s definitely a tough gig evolving out of that young image.

Thomas co-starred on Victorious Grande is second from left

But I found solace in writing and production, and even with some of the films and TV shows I was able to book directly after that. It was just really helpful to keep the ball rolling. My grandfather [was an opera singer] in this industry and he said the key word to it all is, “Next? What are you doing next?” So the second I was done with Victorious, I was like, “All right, what’s next? And how am I going to build it?”

Did you have to audition for the role of Eddie aka “Neighbor Bae” on Insecure?

I did a film called Detroit right before that, and the casting director, Victoria Thomas, also did Insecure. She called me in for an audition for Insecure and I’ll never forget it because there was some pretty big competition in the audition room. Trevor Jackson and a lot of these really big actors at the time were all there.

And I just remember going in there and I was just ad-libbing a lot. I was doing a lot of improv and I was making Issa Rae chuckle, actually laughing, just real quick on my feet, and I got it going. I was real hungry at that time, too. Like I said, the acting world at that time for me wasn’t really paying the bills super well, so I really needed that role, and I’m forever grateful to Issa for allowing me to grace the screen with it.

How does it feel to finally step in front of the public, musically, with your debut album, Electric Dusk, which dropped in August?

It’s really cool to see people [feeling] the songs and lyrics and my stories. This is the album I lived life through. I went through a lot, from being dropped from my label, from having issues, just trying to figure my way out in the acting space. Writing and production was doing pretty well, but I still wanted to get this artistry off. There’s such an ebb and flow of emotion that goes from feeling like you’re so close to your dream, but not quite there yet. I feel like a lot of my emotions lived in Electric Dusk. Also my love life was up and down, so these are definitely different scenes in my life.

Do you still plan to write and produce for others?

I’ve been flying around, working with everybody. I can’t tell you who I’ve been working with for the past couple months before I did my promo tour because I signed an NDA. But one of the ones that I was working with, that I didn’t sign an NDA for, was J. Cole. And I don’t know if those songs will make it to the album, but they were amazing, man. We did three songs and they’re really, really, really dope. Been working with Wale a lot. He’s like my new big bro. He just invited me to the crib for dinner.

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