Behind the Beat: Paulo Leon
Hamilton-native Paulo Leon discusses the evolution of his music and where his drive to pursue his passion has led
By: Edwin Thomas, Contributor
Music has been a significant influence throughout Paulo Leon’s life. Chilean folk music and poetry was the soundtrack of his childhood. His mother, Nancy, was a guitarist and singer for a Chilean folk band in Kitchener, while his father, Marco, was an avid hip-hop fan and introduced him to Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Gustavo Cerati, an Argentinian psychedelic singer-songwriter.
In the eighth grade, Leon spent a lot of his time around his older brother, Gabriel and his brother’s friends. He admired their ability to freestyle rap with each other. Gabriel eventually took Leon under his wing and inspired Leon to make beats for his raps.
Leon taught himself FL studio using a combination of YouTube tutorials and experimentation. This do-it-yourself mentality became a core value he would carry forward in his music and into his label later on. His beats then were inspired by the music he listened to at the time — Donald Glover’s Because the Internet, Kanye West’s Yeezus, J. Cole’s Born Sinner and Coldplay’s X&Y.
Around this time, his mother also pushed him to write and perform with the Hamilton Youth Poets. Paulo was initially hesitant to participate. He was always a shy kid but had an innate desire to perform. He was encouraged by his first slam poetry performance, which was well received by the audience.
“People were responding to me, to what I was saying on stage,” said Leon. “People snapped and people yelled, ‘that was a bar’ in the crowd. That was really the moment when I was feeding off of it, I liked when people were enjoying my work.”
His time with the Hamilton Youth Poets improved his confidence performing in public and taught him to feel more comfortable expressing his true self.
In high school, Leon would also write poetry during independent study time in class. He found his creative flow was best during class.
“The best part [of writing] for me is when the world feels like it’s going past you,” said Leon.
Over time, he transitioned from writing poetry to writing rap songs. Leon started making beats for his raps, though he would not publish them initially. His first songs were heavily influenced by Kanye’s stripped-down, soulful style. It was also during his time in high school where he released Glass Plates, his first single. He recalled being excited when people in his high school were listening to it.
“That feeling still sticks – getting excited that people are tuning in,” said Leon.
Leon released his first album, Casablanca, in 2017. Casablanca’s reflective storytelling coupled with powerful instrumentals made it a strong alternative hip-hop record. Leon was heavily inspired by Jay-Z’s discography and Kanye’s production style, seen on songs such as Calling it Quits.
Leon enrolled in McMaster University’s Humanities program for English and Cultural Studies in 2019 with plans to become an English teacher. He became more comfortable with singing in public by performing in the half-circle sing-alongs in the courtyard between Matthews Hall, Moulton Hall and Wallingford Hall. During first year, he was surrounded by musically-inclined peers who also helped propel his growth as a singer, encouraging him to try new things and step outside his comfort zone.
During the pandemic, Leon was not able to perform, losing his main source of income. He also struggled with the lack of opportunities to collaborate with other musicians due to COVID-19 restrictions.
At this time, he was at a crossroads with what he wanted his future to look like. On one hand, he wanted to follow his passion and focus on his music career. On the other hand, he wanted to continue studying at McMaster because it was a more secure option for him. Ultimately, he chose to defer from McMaster and this was a pivotal moment in Leon’s life.
“I decided to defer from McMaster to throw myself into my work and spend my time, money and energy into something I was passionate about,” said Leon.
His decision to leave McMaster and pursue his passion was the inspiration behind his 2020 album, Partly Stabilized, Partly Curious.
A typical day for Leon now consists of working all day with fellow collaborators from the label, Whak and Mo, in the home studio of his parents’ house. Besides working on music, Paulo would also work with andthenyoudie’s releases. The consistency in Leon’s work life is a structure he emphasizes.
“Always keep creating,” said Leon. “I’ve suffered from writer’s block. You have to feel the block but also don’t be afraid to keep creating.”
Drawing from his own life, he offered further advice to other future artists.
“Do not hesitate to get uncomfortable, be yourself,” said Leon. “And don’t hesitate to reach out to others around you for help or feedback. A lot of my time was spent not playing [music] for anybody, just because I was nervous.”
Leon is now working on his next album, Mr. Show Missed his Show, a reflective album of Leon’s decision to jump into music. Over the pandemic, he took a liking to folk and psychedelic rock, as well as getting into Tame Impala, The Beatles, Violent Femmes and Joy Division. The psychedelic aspect of Tame Impala’s music will be featured in his upcoming album, along with more singing and guitar production. He is looking forward to releasing and performing the album, which comes out in late September. In the meantime, his prior work can be found here.