By Pravin Nair

Leaism is Taking Her Music From the Streets to the Big Stage

A personification of street smart.

The rasp in her voice is reminiscent of Lauren Bacall: titillating, salacious, and resounding amidst the noise permeating from the set so close behind. “I began my career in music on the streets,” she says between laughter. She is cheeky, exuberant, and full of life. Perched on her chair, adjusting her shawl as she gets ready to stand before the camera, she begins answering the questions posed to her. She takes a moment and ponders out loud, elucidating her thoughts in her most recognizable Malaysian inflection: “How ah?” She clears her throat, but the honey-like rasp in her voice dings with clarity in the space around us. “I’m Lea but I’m known by most as Leaism. I’m 33 this year and it also happens to be the 10th year of my time making music in the industry.” Her stage name, however, is one that is still in its infancy. Only five years old as of 2023, “Leaism”, as the performer puts it, “is young and fresh.” At 33, her lust for life is reminiscent of the adjectives she’s chosen to describe her stage name.

The performer draws a vivid timeline, dating her first release back to 2019. “We came into the scene as Leaism a year before the pandemic. Looking back at it all now, it’s been so much songs,” When asked to describe the theme of her music-making, without hesitation, in a single breath, she explains her craft. Writing songs that delve into relationships, the complexities of mixed emotions, and uncertainties is what she does best. Lea, as it happens, has been penning her feelings onto paper since her days in high school. “Since I was 19, actually!”


Sonically, her tunes imbue vulnerability—a trait that has since bled into her personal style. “The clothes I wear are an extension of the emotions I am feeling on a particular day. It’s also a great way to allow the people around me to perceive me.” Applying a maximalist ethos to her wardrobe, Lea affirms her need in wanting to have a “little of everything” in her daily outfits. This sprucing up of her daily personal style, alongside the music she creates, is how she stays true to herself. The start to her career, as she mentioned early on, really did begin with her on the streets. Having seen her family delve into the hospitality industry from a young age, Lea pursued a career in a similar fashion. The chain of events leading up to her music career came from a much-needed, six-month sabbatical, one that she took on before her intended departure to Singapore for her tertiary education. “Funnily enough, in my time of rest, I began busking on the streets of KL after watching some performers do it. It happened really quickly and before I knew it, I was a live street performer for three years.”

She credits this moment in her life as being a pivotal moment in her personal growth as a musician. “Unlike my peers in the industry who have dedicated their lives and careers by taking part in an education in music, I came in with the knowledge I had from my time as a performer.” To the songwriter, any experience is valuable when it involves the collective process of making something, especially of your own. Working closely with her peers, she is ever present in the studio, crafting her songs from scratch and then co-producing them.

Finding her way back from her prominence to her time as a street performing artist, Lea explains how she began her songwriting journey. Approached by her busking peers, Lea was asked to perform an original piece at their behest. “To be fair, I had already accumulated so many songs,” she explains. Taking a chance on herself, Leaism was born—a play on words from her name, Lea Ismail, she clarifies. “The shift was instant and imminent. I remember, in almost a beat, I went from performing on the streets of KL to open mics and then to having what I have now. A career in the industry.”

Regarding her music and songwriting process in the vein of poetry, a similarity she only came to coalesce in her late teens, Lea reflects on the inspiration behind her musical work. Having admired bands like Bring Me The Horizon, Juliet The Orange, Maliq and the Essentials, and Dance Gavin Dance—music that she regards to being in the vein of wailing, a personal favourite of hers—she began picturing different melodic outcomes for them. “I grew up between Pulau Pangkor, Cherating, and Bukit Tinggi, living on the resorts as my father was a hotelier. There was always instrumental music playing around me,” she recalls. Thus, by paying homage to her past, and having a conversation with it through her songwriting, her music has become a mosaic of the things she’s held dearly to her. Explaining how her music has yet to air on mainstream radio stations, Lea teases her upcoming album release. She is brimming with excitement, ready to hear her songs from car speakers and have her music act as a bridge between her and her audience.

Photography: Wee Yang
Styling: Sarah Chong
Art Direction: Shane Rohaizad
Coordination: Nikita Nawawi
Hair: Juno Ko
Makeup: Jenn Teh
Photography Assistant: Adrean Wong
Styling Assistants: Lorraine Chai & Astrid Zulhaime