JOHN LEGEND: An Evolving Legend
Credited as the man who brought soul music back to international mainstream prominence, 29-year-old singer/writer/producer/pianist/label-head John Legend this month follows up his two award-winning, multi-Platinum albums ‘Get Lifted’ and ‘Once Again’ with his eagerly-anticipated new set ‘Evolver’.
Pioneered by its upbeat, catchy offshoot single ‘Green Light’, ‘Evolver’ boasts guest appearances from the likes of London-raised R&B songstress Estelle (the first artist signed to John’s new HomeSchool Records); quirky Outkast rhymesmith Andre 3000; plus John’s original mentor, rapper/producer Kanye West. Its varied musical moods meanwhile range from the reggae lilt of the Estelle duet ‘No Other Love’ and Kanye-featuring club-banger ‘It’s Over’; to the slow ballad ‘This Time’ and the big, Obama-inspired political anthem ‘If You’re Out There’.
Born John Stevens in Springfield, Ohio, gospel-raised University of Pennsylvania graduate John was given the stage surname ‘Legend’ by the aforementioned Kanye West, with whom he first began collaborating in the studio after moving to New York in 2001. With Kanye in 2004 making him the first artist signed to his then-fledgling G.O.O.D. production company (which in turn led to his current deal with Sony/BMG), Legend has since gone on to sell over seven million albums worldwide, prestigiously winning five Grammy Awards along the way.
As Central London life rushes by in the view from the window of his plush Soho hotel suite, a polite, calm-mannered Mr. Legend relaxes over late-morning drinks while discussing his latest project with ‘Blues & Soul’’s Pete Lewis.
His uptempo new single ‘Green Light, which features a guest rap from Outkast’s Andre 3000
“Initially I was working in the studio with a guy called Rick Knowles, who’s not known for making a buncha dance songs but is a good writer! And one of the songs we worked on turned out to be ‘Green Light’. He started playing this guitar groove, put a beat to it... And, because it was uptempo and felt good, the melody and lyric came to me pretty quickly. So I played it for my A&R guy, who then helped me re-produce it with this producer named Malay. Then, after we listened to the finished track, we thought it would be really cool if Andre 3000 became a part of it. ‘Cause it just sounded like something he’d do! So we played it for him; he loved it; he wanted to get on it right away... So he wrote and recorded his rap very quickly. And, from the moment I heard Andre on it, to me it straightaway felt like the album’s first single! It seemed like the kind of thing that would grab people’s attention, it sounded like a great record, and it felt like it would be a big hit... And to me it STILL feels like that!”
Why John titled his new LP ‘Evolver’
“Well, I think people sometimes come to expect certain things from certain artists. They expect you to kind of stay in the same place you were at when you started out. Whereas I feel I want my career to be defined by the fact that I’m NOT gonna stay in the same place, and that I’m always gonna try new things and experiment. So, as I think this album represents a manifestation of that, I came up with the title ‘Evolver’.”
What he wanted to achieve musically with ‘Evolver’
“I wanted it be diverse. So I basically just wanted to make some great records that together covered the whole gamut of the various forms of expression I feel comfortable doing. So we have a couple of club tracks; we have a reggae song; we have a few really strong ballads... and kind of everything in between. Plus we have a political anthem at the end as well. So, while there are some elements that people have heard in previous albums of mine, I also think there are some things people HAVEN’T heard from me before. And I think that’s what makes the album interesting. In particular I feel I’ve made different arrangement and production choices this time. While I don’t think my writing style itself has changed significantly, sonically the main difference is that we chose to use more electronic instruments on this record.”
The new album’s lyrical themes
“When I’m writing songs it really is a spontaneous exercise, and I do try to write about things I feel I can tell a good story about. So, a lotta times I choose to write about relationships and love - and that hasn’t changed! And, while I do try to have a new take on it each time so it remains fresh, this album still has a lotta universal, classic themes. Like trying to get a lover back, trying to pick up a girl in a club, or even songs about morning sex! But, while some of the album’s themes are fun and lighthearted, some are definitely a little heavier. Like ‘If You’re Out There’, which is an overtly political and social rallying song. It was inspired in part by Obama’s candidacy, and also by the increased level of optimism and involvement of my generation. Because I”ve been inspired by it, I wanted to encourage it. Which is why I wrote the song.”
The big-name producers John brought on board this time
“will.i.am, Pharrell (Williams) and Kanye (West) are people I’ve known for a long time. They’re all different, and each of them is obviously very talented in their own right. So working with them on this record for me was an easy decision, a no-brainer. Then the reason we brought in (UK super-producer) Trevor Horn was basically to tweak a few things, and help me maximise some of the songs I’d already worked on. He was recommended by my manager - who’d worked with him before on previous projects - and obviously his body of work (Seal, Lisa Stansfield etc), speaks for itself. And the difference between working with him and hip hop guys like Pharrell, Kanye and will is that, coming from the pop/rock realm, he has a whole different school of thought. With hip hop it’s more beat-driven, where the producers make beats and you write TO them. Whereas what a lotta pop/rock producers do is take songs that have already BEEN written, and then try to give the best rendering of those songs. Which is a totally different kind of methodology. And for me it was very interesting to see, and experience, the difference.”
Signing Estelle to - and releasing her international breakthrough album ‘Shine’ on - his own new label, HomeSchool Records
“While I try it say this as objectively as I can - ‘cause I’m obviously biased - I really do think ‘Shine’ is one of the best albums of the year. I think the kinda variety Estelle brought to the album - and the charisma, the quality of the songwriting and the production - is just really strong. When I first met her and I heard the style of music she was doing, I believed that she was capable of making this album. Which is why I signed her. So I’m excited that it’s really come to fruition, and that it’s succeeding so well - ‘American Boy’ being Number One on the pan-European singles chart was HUGE! And, while America has taken a little longer to come on board, I think that’s because she started from a stronger opening position here. People here already knew who she was from singles like ‘1980’ a few years back. Whereas in The States she started from scratch with ‘Shine’. But, you know, we’ve just got be patient. Because the RECORD is there, the SONG is there - and, as an artist, her performance ability and her ability to really win fans on tour is there. So I think she’ll be fine.”
John’s launching of the Show Me Campaign “to fight economic and spiritual poverty”, following his 2007 visit to Ghana
“It started with us visiting millennium villages in Ghana and Tanzania. Millennium villages are kind of like pilot-programmes happening in various villages across Africa. There’s about 90 of them that are run by an organisation called Millennium Promise, in co-operation with the U.N. and the local governments. And the idea behind the villages being set up is to prove that extreme poverty is solvable, and that there are clear ways to make that happen. That it doesn’t have to be chronic or irreversible, and it can be alleviated in ways that are trackable, measurable and scaleable across the continent. So, through the Show Me campaign, we are currently helping fund one village in Tanzania and we’re hoping to expand to more villages throughout Africa, while at the same time creating a higher awareness around the world about the work that’s being done so more governments can be involved. And it is all linking with the music. In that I wrote the song ‘Show Me’, which became the inspiration for the campaign’s name. Plus ‘If You’re Out There’ was written partly in response to the work we’ve been doing in Africa, while at the same time to try and rally more people to the cause.”
His rarely-discussed early background
“I grew up in Springfield, Ohio - a racially-mixed small town with a population of around 70,000. It was by no means a ghetto, more a solid working-class neighbourhood of folks with regular jobs - factory workers, bus drivers… And I had a pretty religious upbringing, where a lot of my family’s life - and a lot of my community’s life - was centred around the church. So I actually sang in church from around the age of six. You know, my family upheld a lotta traditional American values. So that’s basically how I was raised.”
How he first got into music professionally by playing on the 1998 classic album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’
“With me coming from a very musical family, music was always my life. And I actually met Lauryn through somebody I was working with in a church choir, who’d grown up around her. She took me to the studio to meet Lauryn, and told her she should hear me play. So I played for her and, as she was working on the song ‘Everything Is Everything’ at the time, I ended up playing on the track right there and then! Then, following that, I also auditioned for Lauryn’s tour. But I didn’t make it. So I decided to finish university and concentrate on a solo career. And, around that time, I actually did a couple of independently-released albums (2000’s ‘John Stephens’ and 2001’s ‘Live At Jammy’s Uptown’). And, though I’ve certainly changed a lot musically since then, I’m still proud of them. They were good for where I was at in my life at the time. They were the beginning of my recording career, and they helped me build up my confidence and build a fan-base.”
The impact Kanye West has had on John’s career, since the two first hooked-up in 2001
“He’s always been a great collaborator, and he’s always been an inspiration. I think it’s ALWAYS good for me to work with a trailblazer and an innovator like Kanye, who is such a leader and a strong, creative force in the music business. You know, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from him. He worked with me before it was hip to work with me - he had the foresight! He’s been a good critic and a good advisor for me to have, and that continues to be the case. And, while obviously we don’t spend as much time working with each other now - we’re both busy working on our own, and establishing our own identities - I am still influenced by him and I appreciate the start he gave me. Because I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now without him.”
How he feels now about his first two, multi-Platinum major-label albums - 2004’s ‘Get Lifted’ and 2006’s ‘Once Again’
“’Get Lifted’ was like a hip hop/soul album that leaned more towards soul than hip hop... And it did very well! It certainly established my identity, it sold lotta records, got me a lotta acclaim, and was definitely a good start! It was a legitimate big album both here and in the US. But, while I was really pleased with the success of that first album, you always wanna continue to do better and exceed that... And we actually DIDN’T when it come to ‘Once Again’! We were a little bit less successful, though I thought I’d clearly progressed as a musician on the second record! You know, I’d expanded the definition of who I was as an artist, I’d explored some different styles, and made an album that still - to this day - I’m really proud of from start to finish! The only disappointment for me with ‘Once Again’ was that there wasn’t that one defining massive hit song that grabbed the public consciousness, even though I felt as a whole it was a great album.”
How he feels ‘Evolver’ compares to its two predecessors
“I guess ‘Once Again’ - compared to ‘Get Lifted’ - was a bit more mature, mellow and romantic. It was a little less hip hop, and I think some of the swagger from ‘Get Lifted’ was toned down. Whereas, like I said before, I feel this new album ‘Evolver’ is trying to find the best of both of those worlds, as well as taking risks by me doing different things this time. So, while you have some of the elements from ‘Get Lifted’ and some of the elements from ‘Once Again’, it also has some new elements you didn’t hear in either of its two predecessors.”
John plays Bloomsbury Ballroom, London on October 13
The single 'Green Light Feat. Andre 3000' is out now. The album 'Evolver' follows October 20, both through RCA Label Group
Words PETE LEWIS