Ask Lesley Roy to reflect on the motivation behind her music, and it becomes clear why the 21-year-old Balbriggan, Ireland, native has a voice and a presence that belie her relatively short time on this planet. “I’m a pretty simple, down-to-earth person, in that I live for my music and work really hard for it,” she begins, brogue well intact despite the fact that she’s called New York City home for much of the past year. “When I think about the musicians who’ve inspired me, they have the same philosophy: I’m talking about people who’ve been able to create something meaningful for 20-plus years despite the odds – artists with real longevity.”
On her Religion Music/Jive debut, Unbeautiful, Lesley Roy proves herself part of that rarified club. Nearly two years in the making, the album runs the gamut from hook-saturated power pop (the breakout lead single, “I’m Gone I’m Going”) to stratosphere-climbing ballads (“Slow Goodbye,” “Thinking Out Loud”), all the while reflecting Lesley’s ability to express a lifetime’s worth of emotion with a voice that’s equally powerful at both ends of the scale. And while she doesn’t discount the chance Unbeautiful afforded her to work with a host of name producers and songwriters – primarily executive-producer Max Martin (Kelly Clarkson, P!nk), whom she credits with “pushing my writing ahead at least 10 years” – Lesley’s heart, soul and skill ring clear through each of the album’s 13 hits-in-waiting.
It should come as no surprise that songwriting and performing are quite literally in Lesley Roy’s DNA. Lesley’s mother, herself a hard-working musician who came up through the wedding-band circuit in Balbriggan and its nearest big city, Dublin, introduced her daughter to a lifelong love of music (especially classic Motown) and the stage. “I’m still very close to my mother, even though we live so far away from each other now,” she says. “She gave me a great foundation—first of all, just with how to approach the music side of things, and second, just with the morals and responsibilities and hard work that come from doing things right. I come from a working-class family, and that drive, that persistence, will always be part of my nature.”
Indeed, it’s just that drive that pushed Lesley to keep going with her music despite the not-always-glossy reality of life back in Balbriggan. “I had a choice to make very early on,” she explains. “Settle for the safe, ordinary path that was available, which likely would’ve meant hanging up music to spend the rest of my days in some factory or shop back in Ireland, or take a chance to realize a dream.” And so she did, balancing long shifts at unrewarding day jobs with late nights in local clubs, and honing her songwriting style both privately (a gifted multi-instrumentalist, Lesley writes much of her material on guitar) and on the decidedly unglamorous open-mic circuit.
“I’m not going to pretend it was fun to get up there and try to win over total strangers,” Lesley remembers of those days, “but it taught me a lot about how to connect with people. I’ve always been inspired by great singers who are also amazing storytellers – people like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Melissa Etheridge – and listening to them has taught me that you can’t be a true storyteller without that connection.”
As she proves on songs such as Unbeautiful’s title track (a huge ballad about a relationship’s dysfunctional ending) or the dark, crunching “Misfit” (an instant anthem for anyone who’s never fit into the status quo), Lesley is making just that sort of connection through her own lyrics. “For me, it’s always been about the big questions: ‘What is this song ultimately going to mean to someone?’ or ‘What does this song tell people about the road you’ve traveled?’” she explains. “When I look at some of the other singers out there, the ones who are just in it for the short term or the party aspect of this whole experience, or the ones who are just singing someone else’s words, I suppose my only response would be, ‘I’m not like those other girls.’”
It was just that sort of gut-level honesty that found Lesley’s songs catching the ear of the Irish independent label Religion Music, who picked her up from the local club circuit to cut a demo and ultimately sign a six-album recording and publishing deal. After Jive took notice of Lesley’s extraordinary potential, the result was a worldwide licensing contract and the kickoff of the process to prime Unbeautiful for its international debut. Before the album was complete, Lesley already saw her profile rising via a U.S. radio tour and exposure (for “Thinking Out Loud”) on MTV’s hit reality series The Hills: “By far the most surreal experience I’ve ever had,” she says, laughing. “I watch that show all the time, and the next thing I know, I’m hearing my song on it!”
Demanding as the writing process for Unbeautiful may have been, it’s the next step in her journey – the process of touring with her band, connecting with fans, and getting to relive these songs nightly onstage – that has Lesley most excited about the future. “Writing is great, but I live for performing,” she explains. “When you’re holed up in the studio for months at a time, there’s always that sense of self-doubt – that worry that no one will hear this stuff, and you’ll fade away – but when you get back onstage, it all comes together, and you finally get the chance to see the impact you’re making.”