Danielle Curiel, better known by her stage name DaniLeigh (pronounced DANI-LAY), is no newcomer when it comes to the world of music fandom. Although Summer with Friends is the 22 year old songstress’ album debut, Dani has been dancing professionally since childhood. Backing up such performers as Pharrell and Nelly Furtado were common gigs for the teenager, but her big break came when Prince (yes, that Prince) asked her to write, direct, and star in his music video for “Breakfast Can Wait” at the age of 18.
Things took off for the aspiring singer after that and, with a little help from The Purple One, DaniLeigh went on to sign a deal with Def Jam Records and move from backing up famous performers to giving a go at it herself. Highsnobiety Music sat down with DaniLeigh at Def Jam’s studio in Los Angeles to discuss the feedback from Summer With Friends, what’s next for the singer, and how the South Floridian enjoys playing homage to her Dominican roots by mixing elements of Latin pop with trap and hip-hop.
Your full name is Danielle Curiel. Where did the stage name DaniLeigh originate?
When I started high school, everyone used to call me Dani. My first name is Danielle, but I’m such a tomboy that I think Danielle was too girly for me. Leigh is actually my middle name.
Your fans are called DaniLions. Did you come up with that name or did they coin it themselves?
I was trying to figure out a good name for my fans. First there was “Leighers” and then the “Sleighers”, but I didn’t think those names were cool enough. Guys are not going to want to be called “the Sleighers”. I wanted all of my fans to feel included, so I started asking myself what a powerful, inclusive name would sound like. A lion is powerful. A lion is the king. They’re courageous and confident and that’s what my brand is about. My fans are strong. Their support is strong.
You started your career as a dancer. How did you make the transition to singer/songwriter?
I started off dancing in music videos. I did award shows with lots of artists. Dancing is my passion, but I knew I loved music, and I just wanted to be on tour for my own brand. I was tired of being in the background. I was always doing music, even as a dancer, so the artists I was working with knew I was a singer but that dancing was what paid the bills. It was definitely a struggle, but music was always my number one passion. The ride has been good.
Was music always a part of your upbringing?
Yeah, absolutely. My dad and his sisters sang in church. He and my mom both came from the Heights. My mom was a dancer and a model back in the day so it definitely runs through my blood. Even just having music at family parties… We were such an artistic family. My brother and little sister are also involved with music.
Who are some musicians that you look up to?
I would say my past influences would be Aaliyah, because she was just so cool, and her voice was effortless and beautiful. Rihanna – because she’s just such a trendsetter. She can get on any type of track and kill it. I also really love Drake. I’ve always wanted to collaborate with him. He’s just so international and smart. He says what everyone wants to say, you know?
You directed, starred in, and wrote the music video for Prince’s “Breakfast Can Wait” at the age of eighteen with no prior directing experience. How did that opportunity come about?
That was crazy. Prince reached out to me via email and said he wanted me to direct and write a treatment for his music video. He gave me a whole budget and I made the video happen. That was the peak of my career. It was the first that time that all eyes were on me.
Was Prince a mentor to you after that experience?
Yeah, for sure. I was in a band back then and he would pay for some of our videos. He even put us in the ESSENCE Festival. I learned a lot about the music industry through him.
What was it like for you after he passed?
It was definitely difficult. I thought Prince was invincible. I just didn’t expect it. He wasn’t even a party person. It’s really sad.
Summer With Friends came out in September. How has the feedback been?
It’s the first project I’ve ever dropped and it’s been crazy and really cool to see the ablum come to life. It’s been dope. Everyone likes it, and everyone’s telling me I have my own sound, which is cool.
Tell me more about the album’s unique sound. You have elements of trap, hip-hop, and Latin pop in each song. How involved are you in the writing process?
I feel like my music is so real to me right now. People always told me I should be a certain way as an artist, but right now is the moment where I’m showing who I want to be. I feel like the album really is me. I’m a Dominican girl who loves trap music, who was raised in South Florida, and then brought up in California. I really feel like my music is just a perfect blend of who I am.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m pretty much recording. I was going to drop a new project in November, but I think I’m just going to let Summer with Friends sit for a bit. I don’t want to over-saturate too much at once. Top of the year, I’ll be coming out with something new. I’m also working on a small little EP of Spanish vibes to show some love to my Dominicans. It’s dope. I’m also shooting a movie to show my fans a little bit of my life.
For more of our interviews, check out our Q&A with Bryson Tiller, where he talks Drake, Rihanna, and his hit album ‘True To Self’ right here.
- Text: Rachel Weber
- Photography: c/o of Def Jam