Born in Dublin and raised in Ballivor, Co. Meath, Singer/Songwriter Chris Leonard was enthralled by music from the moment he could walk and talk.
As a young child, Chris was heavily influenced by his father Paddy, a balladeer and prominent performer on the Irish music scene.
Chris recalls “Growing up, my house was always filled with musicians and amazing characters. My dad was friends with The Fureys and Barney McKenna and I used to sit in on their music sessions as a young lad, watching them play Irish trad and ballads until the early hours of the morning”.
Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the exposure to these unique experiences would lay the foundations of Leonard's own musical journey. "It’s mad looking back on it now, I was extremely lucky. I learned so much from watching my dad and his pals perform” he says.
At 3 years old, Chris's mother Trish took him to watch his father's band play.
Moments after snacking on some crisps and a fizzy drink at the gig, Leonard decided he wanted to join in the fun. He jumped out of his seat and hopped up on the side of the stage beside his dad, where he fashioned his empty Pringles can into a Bodhran. "The people who were watching kept trying to put money inside the can but I kept telling them not to because they were stopping me playing. If only I’d let them!” he laughs.
As he grew older, and with his passion for music obvious, Leonard's parents began taking him to more gigs.
"My Father would travel to Irvine, Scotland every year to perform with his band at the Marymass Folk Festival" he recalls fondly. "Every second year he would take me with him as I was now old enough to join the after-show session, where I would play my tin whistle and sing my own songs. That festival is where I really caught the bug for performing.”
Unfortunately, those trips would come to an abrupt halt when, at just 8 years old, Chris was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease.
He spent weeks and months at a time in hospital, undergoing seven major operations across seven years. At 15 he was once again admitted to hospital with chronic pains in his stomach. Only this time was different. Emergency scans revealed his body had begun to poison itself and, unless doctors acted fast, he would only have hours left to live. He was immediately rushed into surgery.
Following a successful operation, Leonard had a long road to recovery ahead of him.
To help pass the time, his brother Stephen bought him a guitar and Chris spent the long and often lonely days in hospital teaching himself chords and learning how to play.
After missing so much school from being ill, Chris felt he "wasn't academically up to scratch. I knew that I was never going to be a doctor or a lawyer, and I didn’t want to be. All I wanted to do was become a musician" he says. So, at 16, he quit mainstream education to focus on his music full-time.
There weren't many obvious musical opportunities for a 16-year-old living in a small village in the midlands of Ireland – he was too young to get into the local bars to play gigs. He did, however, manage to find some local singing competitions run by an ex gig promoter. So, armed with his guitar, Chris began entering as many of these as he could, often alongside some of his friends and cousins.
Following one competition in particular, Chris received an email from a management company in Dublin who were putting together a young band. "They had seen a video of me performing and wanted me to come and audition as they thought I would be a good fit" he says. Chris was informed that the new band would get to perform at the Cheerios Childline Concert at the O2 Arena, Dublin, alongside The Script, Little Mix and other big names.
Chris auditioned and made it into Level 5, but there was just one issue: it was a boyband. "I wasn't mad about being in a boyband but the idea of playing a show like that at 16 was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was certainly better than sitting in my bedroom in Ballivor.”
After a couple of years of playing shows around Ireland, the band came to a natural end. Chris had gained a small following, but knew he needed to grow his fanbase and expand his reach. This led him to audition for the ITV talent show the X Factor in 2014.
“Simon Cowell and Cheryl had returned to the judging panel so I knew the show would get a lot of attention that year. I decided to try to capitalise on that and applied to take part” says Leonard.
Chris sailed through the first round and soon found himself at Wembley Arena auditioning in front of Simon, Cheryl, their fellow judges Mel B and Louis Walsh, and thousands of excited audience members. “I performed an original song with my guitar for my Wembley audition” he muses. “I remember the arena screaming for me, really getting behind me, I’ll never forget that feeling”. And with a “yes” from each of the judges and the backing of the crowd, Chris was sent through to the next stage: Bootcamp.
“My plan was always to try to make it as far as Bootcamp so that my performance would be shown on TV, in the hopes that it would help to boost my profile” says Chris. But that plan took an unexpected twist, when Cowell decided to put together a boyband made up of 8 of the solo male contestants and offered Leonard a place. Chris knew that this would put his hopes of releasing original music on the back burner for a little while, but in his own words “when you’re 18 years old and Simon Cowell tells you he sees something special in you and wants to put you into a band, it’s very hard to turn that down.” Being in another boyband wasn’t quite what Chris had envisioned, but he knew that the exposure he would gain would massively benefit him.
Things got crazy pretty fast. Stereo Kicks, as the band had been named, gained a huge following in no time.
Their fans were dedicated and determined. Chris remembers the lengths some of them would go to just to catch a glimpse of them “Fans would camp outside our house overnight with Stereo Kicks signs. When we were travelling to the studio or an interview they’d throw themselves in front of our car to stop it moving, just so they could get an autograph or a picture with us. It was mental.”
This dedicated fanbase led them through the X Factor live rounds, where they found themselves performing with music royalty - Queen - and ultimately reaching the quarter finals. This secured their spot on the UK & Ireland X Factor arena tour, which was closely followed by their own independent tour. “The experience was incredible” says Chris. “The highlight of the whole journey for me was playing live, be it in arenas or smaller venues where the people are right on top of you.”
But, as much as he enjoyed touring with the other lads, he knew that being in a boyband was not for him. He was singing songs he wasn’t passionate about, being told to dress and style his hair a certain way. He was even once told to change the way he spoke because his “Irish accent was too strong and people wouldn’t be able to understand him”. He was tired of not being himself.
One night after a show, Chris told the boys that he no longer wanted to be part of Stereo Kicks and that after playing the remaining shows he was committed to, he would be leaving the band.
Less than two weeks after this conversation, the band were informed that their management had been not been able to secure them a record deal, which they needed in order to be able to continue. With this news, the band played their final shows and made a mutual decision to all go their separate ways.
Soon after this, Chris went on a solo tour around the UK, but things still didn’t feel right.
“I continued singing the songs I didn't like because I knew that was what people wanted to hear. I was still dressing in a way that wasn't authentic to me, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I’d had enough.”
So, in November 2017, he packed up his London apartment and took the next flight back home to Ireland with the dream of becoming the musician he knew he was meant to be. “I very quickly went back to singing and playing Irish trad, the music I love and care about more than anything in the world. For the first time since I was a young lad at my dad's gigs, I felt truly happy. I knew that I had found myself and my music again.”
Since that moment, Chris has continued to hone his craft. In 2021, he collaborated with BRIT and Ivor Novello Award-winning Singer/Songwriter KT Tunstall and legendary Producer Ted Hutt on a cover version of Chuck Berry’s Christmas hit “Run Rudolph Run”, which went on to reach Number 1 and 4 in the Irish and UK iTunes Christmas charts respectively. The following year, Leonard supported Tunstall at her sold-out show in Brixton, London, and continues to regularly perform live across the UK and Ireland.
Having developed a great friendship with Hutt, the pair have most recently been working together in Los Angeles on Leonard’s new music.
"Working with Ted in LA has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career so far. I’m very grateful to have my debut album produced by a GRAMMY Award-winning Producer; a real privilege and a very unique situation that I’m sure not many people have had the luxury of. Ted is fantastic at understanding who I am as an artist; my visions and ideas, and helping me bring them to life. It was such a chilled and natural experience. From the moment I stepped into the booth to start recording, Ted made me feel right at home. He knew exactly how to push me in order to get the very best performance from me. I’ll be forever grateful to him.”
Eager to capture the hearts of people everywhere with his fusion of Alt Rock and Traditional Irish music, Leonard releases his much-anticipated debut solo album - produced by Ted Hutt - in 2023.