When she was 16-years-old, Ivy Levan hotfooted it out of her Arkansas hometown and moved to Los Angeles to launch the singing career she’d long coveted. “I didn’t have any real plan,” recalls Levan, now 26. “I just knew I needed to get out of there as fast as I could, so two weeks before I was supposed to graduate high school, I took off for L.A. with my mama.” After a few false starts—including a stint at a major label that tried to refashion the fabulously brash singer-songwriter as a Celine Dion-esque balladeer—and a foray into acting and modeling to make ends meet, Levan breathed new fire into her musical pursuits by returning to her Southern heritage. From Benjamin Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan to world renown DJ, Diplo, Ivy's blossoming talent has been recognized by some of the most respected players in the music community. Now, with her debut EP Introducing the Dame on Cherrytree Records, Levan serves up a brand of blues-infused pop that boldly flaunts both her larger-than-life voice and gritty-yet-glossy, in-your-face energy.
With a sound that Levan alternately dubs “swamp hop” and “punk-rock Motown,” Introducing the Dame is a four-track powerhouse built on fiery-sweet melodies, bright but dirty beats, and Levan’s endlessly smoldering vocals. Made in collaboration with her writing partners in the L.A.-based Blood Money Inc. and featuring guest musicians like Tomo Mili?evi? of 30 Seconds to Mars, the EP also reveals Levan’s brilliantly roughneck wit as a pop lyricist. Whether delivering an ode to the almighty dollar (“Money”), a harmony-kissed hangover anthem (“I Don’t Wanna Wake Up”), a heart-on-sleeve serenade (“Hang Forever”), or a growling come-on that name-drops the Son of Sam (“Hot Damn”), Introducing the Dame keeps it high-powered and passionate but never skimps on good, filthy fun.
In shaping the sound of Introducing the Dame, Levan mined a lifetime of wildly disparate musical influences. “There are so many different elements to the music, all these different bands and artists I’ve loved over the years,” she says. “When I was a kid, I adored Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. And then in my preteen and teen years I got into a lot of darker stuff, like black metal and Portishead and Siouxsie and the Banshees.” Counting Stevie Nicks as a key inspiration for her songwriting, Levan first and foremost aims to channel raw emotion into her music. “I just try to write honestly about what’s going on in my life,” she says. “When I started writing as a kid, my songs were about boys and heartache and sadness. Now they’re more likely to be about killing boys, but it just depends on whatever I’m feeling at any given moment.”
Born in Tulsa and raised in Bentonville, Arkansas, Levan grew up on R&B/soul superstars like Ray Charles and Tina Turner. Claiming that she “popped out singing and hasn’t stopped since,” Levan seized on every opportunity to take the stage all throughout her childhood. “I did tons of talent shows, pageants, anything that would allow me to get up there and sing and steal all that attention,” she says. Prompted in part by a school suspension (after a misunderstood incident involving a bottle of cough syrup stashed in her bag), Levan headed for Hollywood just before her seventeenth birthday and soon began landing major modeling gigs. By 18 she’d also scored a recording contract with a major label, but ended up bowing out of the deal quickly after recording a demo. “Everyone seemed to have a different opinion of who I should be,” she says, “so I just walked away.”
Ditching both music and modeling, Levan devoted the next few years to working as a club-promoter. “I’d kind of given up on music at that point,” she says. “My experience in the music business was so awful, I just thought, ‘If that’s what it’s going to be like, I don’t even want to do it anymore.’” Then in early 2011, Ivy met someone who would reignite her fire- Lucas Banker of Blood Money Inc., a producer/songwriter who’s also worked with artists from Selena Gomez to Junkie XL. “Lucas and I just clicked right away and never turned back,” says Levan, who now lives with Banker and their fellow collaborator Patrick Nissley.
In culling material for Introducing the Dame, Levan drew on dozens of tracks that she and her writing partners had developed over the last few years. “We live on top of each other, and we’re always bouncing ideas off each other,” says Levan. “Mostly the songs come from whatever I’m bitching about that day. Like with ‘I Don’t Wanna Wake Up’—that happened because Pat asked me, ‘What do you want to write about today?’, and I was just like, ‘I don’t wanna fucking wake up!’ That’s how it works with us. We’re like three people sharing one brain, and we’re very free with our writing.”
For Levan, that freedom goes a long way in fostering the honesty and authenticity she considers crucial to killer songwriting. “I sing about what I’ve lived, in a way that’s completely real and harsh but also quirky,” she says. “It took a lot of years of being beaten down to get there, but I think I found a certain empowerment in all that.” Above all, she adds, Levan’s journey to shameless self-expression has hinged on reclaiming her deep-South roots. “With my music before, it was like I was putting on a mask, trying to conceal my accent and hide where I was from,” she says. “I was always fighting who I really am, but now I’m embracing it and being 100 percent me. This is the music I was born to sing.”