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.
Catch John Legend tonight at the Pepsi Center with Sade
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.