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Whenever I return home, I’m always reminded how kind people are", says Cincinnati-raised out music artist Aiden Leslie from his Manhattan apartment. "It’s a much slower pace there than it is in big music cities like New York and Nashville. People are much more welcoming at home."
Emii, who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio but calls Los Angeles home now, agrees. "Not that I didn’t appreciate them back then, but being away has made me think more fondly about my family and friends."
Aiden Leslie and Emii are part of a growing number of young Ohio artists leaving their small-town homes to pursue their big-time dreams of fame and fortune on the gay dance floor.
"My ultimate mission as a performer is to share my story and experiences," explains Leslie. His new single, "Trying to Leave Now", releases this month. Penned by Leslie, the song is about salvaging what is right in a relationship before losing everything. It is the follow-up to his "World’s Away"; a song that nabbed the #1 spot on LOGO-TV’s "Click List" countdown show for four consecutive weeks.
"I aim to inspire people to look closer at their lives and strive to be better," he says. "I also hope they’ll dance their asses off." "I was mesmerized by Elvis as a child," he remembers. "My parents were huge fans and would always play his records. One morning I told my parents I wanted to be a singer like Elvis and they said I could do anything I wanted. Their belief encouraged me."
He attended a rigorous performing arts school in Cleveland that he says thickened his skin and prepared him for what was ahead.
Six days after graduating, at 18, he moved to New York City and was introduced to an underground music world he didn’t know existed. It wasn’t long before he became a fixture in the New York nightlife circuit.
"I saw dance and the underground club scene as another form of theatre", he explains. "Unscripted and self-expressive; an art form in stark contrast to the strict structure of the traditional plays I was performing in."
The one element he found to be lacking in dance was the presence of strong male vocalists. "A lot of DJs are simply not open to playing male artists on their dance floors. I think it’s time that has changed. I want to be a part of the movement to bring more guys to the floor." And he has. The Junior Vasquez remix of Aiden’s "Love to Hate You", a remake of the Erasure hit, ignited floors around the world and introduced Aiden Leslie as a formidable talent.
Leslie describes his sound as Hip-Pop with a strong dance influence. It is a true reflection of his life, he says, but admits it wasn’t
always. In fact, the follow-up song to his successful debut was a song that Aiden describes as "unauthentic to his true self ". It led to him taking a two year absence from music. "It was not the direction I wanted to go in musically," he admits. "Coming off ‘Love to Hate You’, so many opportunities were being offered and I was taken in by it all. Right away, I knew it was a mistake and I learned a hard lesson from it. A fat paycheck is nice, but it’s not worth losing your integrity and your voice."
The release also coincided with the hardest loss Aiden Leslie has ever experienced in his life: the unexpected death of his older sister. "She was my only sibling and the primary care-taker for my parents, who were both ill." Aiden returned to Cincinnati to care for his parents. He also began work on new music. "I’ve learned that in life there are hills to climb," he says. "Its how you manage the fall down and the climb up from the hills that is key." "Life is bittersweet," he continues. "We all have a purpose to find. I am grateful to have found my purpose in music. Being given a second chance to share it with the world is a gift."
Emii, too, believes she has found her life’s purpose and knows that in order to obtain it, she must pay her dues in Los Angeles. "Performing is fun, but if I was just doing it for myself, I'd do it in a basement and no one would hear. I miss home but L.A. is where I need to be right now."
Emii started singing at five and, against her parents' wishes, began fronting bands in her early teens. "Music is in my blood," she
says. "I really can't see doing anything else." While her friends picked out their prom dresses, Emii perfected her studio recordings. She would shuttle back and forth from Youngstown to New York City for auditions and open mic gigs. The dual life ended
the day Emii turned 18 when she bolted to The Big Apple.
In Manhattan, Emii wrote, recorded and lived the bohemian life, performing in dark, seedy venues and collaborating with other underground artists. Two years ago, she re-located to Los Angeles to record with major label artists. Her new song, "Mr. Romeo", is a high powered dance romp that features a rap by one of the original partiers of hip hop, Snoop Dog.
"I am no Juliet," she admits, reflecting on the song’s title. "I am strong hearted, fierce, and independent." Ask Emii about her musical inspirations and she’ll rattle off a litany of female frontrunners and rock n’ roll legends. Though she grew up singing their songs, Emii’s potent blend of pop, rock and dance produces a sound all her own. She belts out lyrics about life, love, and relationships with intense, gut-wrenching emotion. Songs like "My Zombie Boyfriend" unleash Emii's angst over falling for the wrong guy, while "Magic", a song released two summers ago but still playing strong on gay dance floors across the country, is a fun, sexy tune that begs the timeless question: Is he the right one for me?
"I’m thrilled Magic has found a home on gay dance floors," she says. "Gay boys get me because they share my passion for losing yourself on the dance floor, meeting someone, and then continuing the journey at home." "Sometimes we fall too far," she cautions. "But baby, love is worth it." She likens romantic love to her love of the big city. "The moment I arrived, it was my second home. Any negative experiences while transitioning from my small town were drowned out by my passion for music."
Aiden Leslie agrees. "It's hard to explain, but I never had a question in my mind about moving to New York City. It was right." Still, he says he’ll always have a place in his heart for Ohio. "You never can erase your history or where everything begins for you. I
feel grateful every time I think of where I came from."
Emii agrees. "Home is a source of inspiration for me. Whenever I feel discouraged, or harbor doubt about whether or not I will one day reach my dreams, I can look back on my time in Youngstown and feel pride in how far I've come."
Written by Charlie Rockafort, exclusively for Connextions Magazine.