John Legend on the resurgence of soul, touring with Sade and the foibles and fortunes of fame
John Legend considers everything, especially when he's being interviewed. He pauses long enough for you to imagine him considering several inferior answers and tossing them before choosing one that sounds just right. Back in the fall of 2004 at Denver's Club Soul, he displayed a similar thoughtfulness.
On tour at the time as window dressing for Kanye West's burgeoning success, the dude with the most considerable talent that evening wasn't awash in groupie love, or holed up in the V-V-V.I.P. He was soaking it all in, considering his surroundings, perhaps considering the future he saw for himself.
Back then, Legend was a fresh face with a healthy buzz and tons of talent. Even then, you could tell he was going places. And this was before he and will.i.am crafted the smash single "Ordinary People," before he won three Grammys, before his songs were featured in Target ads, and well before Barack Obama asked Legend to contribute a song for his inauguration.
His Solo Sessions at the Knitting Factory album was just making the rounds, and as this particular Denver appearance pre-dated his appearances in videos for "Selfish" by Slum Village and his official guest spots on Kanye's tracks, the cool dude in the blazer and jeans went largely unnoticed by the throngs of fans. And when he was recognized, he seemed surprised and a little guarded.
Legend returns to the Mile High City tonight with Sade, another artist with considerable talent, who, like Legend, won a Grammy for her first album and never looked back. In an era rife with celebrity scandals and tragedies, and pop stars who aren't artists, it makes perfect sense that these kindred spirits are touring together when soul music looks to be coming back. We spoke with the singer recently about the resurgence of soul.
Westword: We're kind of in the midst of a soul renaissance right now, with bands like the Weeknd and Adele -- and even Drake threatening to make an all-singing album. Do you feel like soul music has come back around?
John Legend: I think it's always been there. I just think that, you know, there are times when the radio plays it more than others. There have always been artists out there making soul music and carrying the torch for soul music, but you just have to have the right artists at the right time making the right songs for it to bubble up and stand out.
Honestly, with Adele making what will probably be the best-selling album of the year, that certainly has made soulful artists more high-profile -- or her brand of soulful music more high-profile -- but that doesn't mean that every soulful artist benefits from that. I think you still, as an individual artist, have to go out there and make the best music you can and do something that's gonna make you stand out.
That's what Adele did, and that's what other successful soul artists like Alicia, and myself, and Amy Winehouse and others that have been successful at it do. I don't think it's all about "Oh, now I wanna listen to soul music." I think it's about "Oh, this artist is great, and this is a great song, and this is exciting."
On that, I know you covered "Rollin' in the Deep" earlier back in the spring. Are you getting a lot of energy from the younger artists coming along like Adele coming along?
Well, [laughs] that's funny. I don't think of myself as an older artists and them as younger artists. [laughs harder] I just think of us all as peers in a way. But absolutely. It's exciting seeing Adele making great music, and other great artists. I love Frank Ocean, and I think he's great. And we've worked together for a couple of years now off and on. Whenever I see really talented people that I would like to collaborate with, that's energizing for me. It's inspiring to work with people who are doing something fresh and new.
So speaking of fresh and new, are your currently recording a new record, or are you just on tour and "livin' the life"?
Well I started a new record, and it's halfway done, and we're gonna finish it when the tour's over. I have a hard time finishing albums when I'm on tour, because there's just so much to do. When I get back home I'll finish the album.
Is it gonna be heavy concept like the Wake Up album, or are you just gonna go back to playing your John Legend sort of "lane" -- and that's not an insult; that's a compliment.
Yeah, it's more of a classic John Legend album moreso than a heavy concept album like Wake Up, so it'll be more in that sense a traditional John Legend album. Musically, we're doing some fresh exciting things, but it'll still be kind of a "John Legend" album. As opposed to Wake Up, which was a specific concept, specific meaning, specific era. This is a modern soul album.
I know you're getting a lot of questions about touring with Sade, and how great that is, but I couldn't help but wonder, as I've seen you perform several times, are they stealing anything from you guys as openers? Have their sets changed up, or are they coming with a little more intensity as you guys start to rock stages?
I don't know. I doubt it. They put on a great show. They've put on a great show for many years. Even on this tour. They did Europe before us, so they had pretty much figured that show out before we even were part of it. I doubt if we changed their mentality. They just come out there and do a great show every night. I've seen it a couple of times, and I love it, and I think the people are going to love it.
Interview continues on the next page. There's an interesting parallel I see between you guys. She has had a long career, you're set up to have a lot of longevity, and I think that people have come to expect a certain thing from you, without pigeonholing you. You can do stuff with the Roots or André 3000, and people just accept it as "John Legend music." Just like Sade can explore different styles but it all falls under the umbrella "Sade music." Are you second guessing the decisions you make artistically, or do you just do you?
Well, you always think about the decisions you make artistically. I don't know if you'd call it second-guessing. You just "consider" everything you do. It's not really when you're writing that you over-think it. For me, I start to think more strategically after the writing process is done. Then you think about, "which single do I want to put out first," or about artwork. Then it's more strategic. But when I'm sitting there writing, it's more just sitting there trying to write a great song.
And when I'm collaborating with other artists, really at the end of the day, we're just trying to come up with something beautiful that day. It might make the album, it might not. That's a decision that's made later. In that moment, I'm just thinking: "How do I make this song beautiful"? How do I make this song great. Some days you hit it, some days you don't.
Once you go along through that process of allowing yourself to create and shape, and just create...then you can start thinking strategically later and say, "What do I want this album to reflect from all this creative process? What songs represent this creative process the best? What singles represent this process the best and will help sell the album? What images?" Then, you start to really analyze it and think as a marketer. But in the beginning, when you're just writing songs, I think as an artist. As a creative.
Along that line, one of the things I think that resonates with people about you as an aritst is that you seem to be coming from a place of pure artistry. And you don't seem to be caught in the idea of public image or a lot of celebrity. But when you show up, if you're doing Real Time with Bill Maher or working with the president or something like that, you seem really genuine. Is that a problem in 2011 trying to sell records? Because as I'm sure you are aware, people are way more caught up on the idea of celebrity than artistry or purity.
Yeah, to get back to the Adele example. You don't see her all over the tabloids, but she'll be the biggest selling album this year. You see Lindsay Lohan all over the tabloids, and she tried to sell records and no one bought 'em. Paris Hilton tried to sell records, and no one bought 'em. So, I think tabloid ubiquity can't translate to record sales, ticket sales, anything.
Even Lady Gaga who's all over the press, you don't hear that much about her personal life. The only thing people talk about is what she's wearing and the music she's putting out. I think we don't have to put our personal lives all over the tabloids to sell records. You just don't have to, in fact it might hurt record sales sometimes.
I guess the spectre over all of this is the Amy Winehouse tragedy -- I think it's fair to call it a tragedy. She seemed like the kind of person that wasn't willing to play the celebrity game, but she got forced to live her life under a microscope, and I think she was a pure artist like you are, but you've done a good job of staying away from the microscopic approach. But are you willing to accept it as a trade off? Like, "Ok, I have to live my life in a certain amount of spotlight in order to do what I love."
The thing is, I don't over-think it, you know? At the end of the day, I am famous. I'm famous for making music. That works to my advantage, like I'm trying to get a table at a restaurant, or trying to get in the club. It works to my benefit when I'm asking for a certain price to play a certain event. So me being a famous, successful artist is something that is currency for me. So it helps me. I have no complaints about that.
It comes with some costs, obviously. You lose some of your privacy. You lose the ability to just go anywhere you want and do anything you want to do without people noticing. Your "anonymity," you know? But this is what it is, and I think it's well worth it for the benefits of it. And I love what I get to do everyday for a living: I get to write songs and perform on stage. Like, what can be better than that?
Yeah, I was gonna say, you still must be having a reasonably good time of it?
I have a great time. [chuckles]
How many nights are you actually a fan, after you get offstage and just hanging out and observing the headliner?
I've seen probably three or four full shows, it's a phenomenal show, and sometimes there's an after party. But usually, I'll just go home and go to bed. [laughs]
More Legend: Read our 2005 interview with John Legend in advance of his show with Alicia Keys.