Being different is Leah Marlene’s superpower
Idol runner-up to perform Wednesday at Gather on Broadway
By Kira Doman
Drawn to music at a very young age, singer and songwriter Leah Marlene always knew what her purpose would be in this world — to make the music she dreamed of hearing.
Marlene grew up in Illinois, following her father’s footsteps in music and learning all she could from his experiences.
Her father, Derry Grehan, spent a large portion of his life as a guitarist for the Canadian band, Honeymoon Suite.
Marlene watched in awe as he wrote music and rocked out on his guitar, and she wanted to be like him.
“I started learning guitar from my dad at a very young age, and that’s when things started to click for me,” Marlene said. “But around 8 years old was when I started really seriously playing music, learning songs and performing.”
Marlene said when she was in kindergarten, her dream job was to be a popstar.
While many of her classmates went on to be teachers, doctors and cooks, Marlene never outgrew her dream of singing for the world.
“I always knew that this is what I had to do 1,000%,” Marlene said. “That’s sort of a childish dream when you’re 5 years old and getting asked what you want to do, but I just never really grew out of it. I knew I had to find a way to make it happen.”
Marlene tried her hand at writing original music for years before the 2014 release of “Someday,” her first song on Spotify.
She traveled to Nashville after her first year in high school and later earned her degree in songwriting, which helped propel her dream to a reality.
When she first began writing music, Marlene focused mostly on finishing a song for the sake of having it blow up on social media.
Now, she focuses more on what she wants out of her music and what the music brings out of her.
“There was a conscious flip within me to where I was no longer gonna sacrifice anything in my writing,” Marlene said. “I used to focus on the end result of the song, trying to get through it, and now I am so passionate about creating pure art. I don’t want to skimp out on a lyric. I don’t want to skimp out on a melody. I view it so much more as crafting a sculpture than just whipping out a song just to do it.”
The art of creating a song that’s never been heard before, one that resides in Marlene’s heart, is a vital piece of her writing technique.
“I was able to really go into Idol with the purity of my artistry being such a priority,” Marlene said. “The number one thing is creating pure art, not just not just making commercial music just so that more people will listen to it.”
Because Marlene’s father was in a band while she was growing up, she was exposed to a variety of music.
This set up the way Marlene’s albums came together in her adult years.
Her two albums, The Space Between and Many Colors, which she self-produced and wrote, draw on multiple styles including folk, funk, rock and even indie.
“I never want to be forced to make one thing and stay in one tiny little box or one tiny little lane,” Marlene said. “The songs naturally flow through me and they are going to sound like what they’re gonna sound like. I’m so passionate about creating music that is just whatever it needs to be. I’m just the body which it comes through — I don’t want to tell the music what it should sound like.”
Marlene has spent anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours to even years before she feels as if a song is finished.
Her cellphone contains numerous original voice memos and lyric ideas that she pulls inspiration from when the moment hits her.
The instant an idea pops into her head, whether it’s a guitar riff or lyric, she records it to come back to while she’s in a creative headspace.
Typically she won’t spend more than three hours at a time working on a song.
Nashville is an incredibly collaborative city, and while Marlene studied to obtain her degree in songwriting, she also learned how to work with multiple people to create beautiful music.
“When you’re co writing with people, you never know who’s gonna bring what to the table,” Marlene said. “I am capable of bringing every realm of writing a song to the table, and so are my co-writers. Someone might come in with a title and I might have a small instrumental melody that might go well with that title, and then we take it from there.”
“American Idol was the last thing I ever thought I would be doing this past year,” Marlene said. “I had just dropped out of college and I just moved back from Nashville and I was just figuring out my life.”
Like many after Covid-19 hit, Marlene experienced strong and confusing mental turmoil.
She was unsure of what she wanted to do with her life post-graduation and decided to go back home to Illinois to figure things out.
Marlene debated traveling the country and making money freelancing when an American Idol casting director reached out about the audition for Season 20.
“This message just came at a really weird transitional time — I was trying to figure out my life, and I just had this weird gut feeling that maybe I should try it and see what happens,” Marlene said. “And so it was just a completely off-the-cuff action — I didn’t expect anything out of it, but I knew it would be a cool experience.”
She completed the Zoom audition round in July of 2021 and was approved for in-person auditions soon after.
After successfully making it through the in-person auditions, Marlene went on to place as second-runner-up of Season 20.
“I was just there to have as much fun as I possibly could because you don’t know whether you’re going to be one of the lucky few that get to experience a large portion of it, or with the rest of the crop that don’t get aired,” Marlene said. “I was so lucky to have the experience and outcome that I had on the show, and go as far as I did on the show. It literally could not have worked out any better. Everything unfolded exactly how it was meant to and I’m so grateful.”
While Marlene is incredibly thankful for her experience and placing on the show, she admits that it became quite alienating the first few months after it wrapped up.
“Nobody understands the experience unless you’ve been in it, and even if you’ve been in it, all of my friends that were on the show had very different experiences coming off of the show with what their life and music career looked like,” Marlene said. “It became difficult to see my friends getting signed and booking gigs when I was completely confused about what my path forward would look like. The first two months after the show were really intense. I experienced culture shock in a certain way, not just with friends but with everything.”
However, after a few months of reorganizing her life, Marlene began to appreciate what a launching pad American Idol truly was for her.
“As a songwriter and musician, you can spend years and years and feel like you’re getting nowhere,” Marlene said. “But you’re slowly climbing the ladder, and it’s amazing because now I feel like I have so much more access to opportunities that I’m so ready for, that I would not have had without the show.”
Once Marlene found her footing, the path to the world opened up.
She performed one-off shows in Greece, Italy and even on a Navy base in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
She is even scheduled to perform at California’s iconic Troubadour venue.
Marlene said she missed performing in front of crowds and seeing the excitement on their faces as they listened to her voice.
“There’s just something so beautiful about being in a room full of people and all experiencing the magic of the music together, I definitely missed that,” Marlene said. “Being on Idol and singing to a TV camera is a bit jarring. It’s so special to be able to look at people’s faces and feel the energy in a room and really connect with people.”
Marlene has been performing primarily solo and duo shows while she commutes between Illinois and Nashville, but she looks forward to planting her roots in Nashville soon and forming a more permanent band.
One of her favorite songs to perform is “All Right,” an original she wrote after American Idol.
“It’s not even recorded yet, but it’s one that has kind of been my life song post-Idol,” Marlene said. “I wrote it in the midst of all the mental turmoil of coming back to reality, and it’s been my lullaby. I played it every day, multiple times a day for the first two or three months. It still comforts me so much and means the world to me every time I play it.”
While “All Right” might be one of her favorites to perform at the moment, Marlene said the two songs she is most proud of herself for writing are “Spacesuit” and “Flowers.”
“Spacesuit” is on her first album, The Space Between, which is where Marlene feels she found her sound as a music producer, writer and performer.
“It was such a breakthrough in so many ways in my artist’s journey,” Marlene said. “I look back on it and I’m proud of having grown so much since then.”
She released “Flowers” as her final song on American Idol, which saw many different drafts before it became what Marlene was searching for.
“That song is just my life song,” Marlene said. “I think it really articulates everything that I wanted it to. We had to record it and put it together in such a crunched timeline, which is hard for a song that you care so much about. I’m just really proud that I stuck with my gut. And to see the way that it genuinely changed people’s lives is mind boggling to me.”
Sticking with her gut is something Marlene prides herself on.
“I think it’s the most important part of my journey — always is just going with my gut and not being afraid to do something different. Being different is your superpower,” Marlene said. “It’s learning how to understand what your gut is telling you in the midst of a lot of noise and a lot of opinions because there’s always going to be a ton of that.”
Leah Marlene will be performing at 7 p.m. Sept. 21 at Gather on Broadway, 139 N Broadway. There is no cover charge for this event.