John Legend: Back to my roots
Considered as the man who brought soul music back to international mainstream prominence, 31-year-old singer/writer/producer/pianist John Legend this month follows up his three US R&B chart-topping albums (2004’s ‘Get Lifted’; 2006’s ‘Once Again’; and 2008’s ‘Evolver’) with his new, politically-conscious covers album ‘Wake Up!’ - a collaboration with super-credible, live-playing Philadelphia hip hop band The Roots.
Primarily reviving soul and funk tracks from the late-Sixties and early-Seventies that boasted lyrical themes of change, hope and activism, ‘Wake Up!’ musically blends Legend’s expressive, thoughtful vocal interpretations with The Roots’ own unique brand of live funk.
Indeed, inspired initially by the recent historical Presidential election campaign of 2008, ‘Wake Up!’ features fresh takes on 11 profoundly-evocative songs occasionally infused with touches of hip hop, gospel, rock and reggae. Album highlights meanwhile range from covers of familiar tracks like Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ ‘Wake Up Everybody’ (the album’s first single) and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholly Holy’ to new versions of more obscure selections like ‘Hard Times’ by Baby Huey & The Baby Sitters and ‘Hang On In There’ by the mysterious Mike James Kirkland. Meanwhile, the album’s one original composition arrives in the form of Legend’s own new song ‘Shine’, which is featured in Academy-award-winning director Davis Guggenheim’s upcoming documentary film ‘Waiting For Superman’.
Born John Stevens in Springfield, Ohio, gospel-raised University Of Pennsylvania graduate John adopted the stage surname ‘Legend’ after being taken under the wing of superstar rapper/producer 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 Music), Legend has since gone on to sell over seven million albums worldwide, prestigiously winning six Grammy Awards along the way.
With ‘Wake Up!’ currently - and understandably - attracting considerable international media attention, an ever-polite and calm-mannered Mr. Legend happily speaks in-depth to ‘B&S’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis about his already-critically-acclaimed new project.
PETE: What was the story behind you hooking up with The Roots for your new ‘Wake Up!’ album, the original inspiration for which I understand came from the historical Presidential campaign of 2008?
JOHN: “Well, like you said, the whole idea for ‘Wake Up!’ stemmed from me being inspired to do something more political. But because at the time (spring 2008) I was just finishing my last album ‘Evolver’ and was about to master it and put it out, I just thought it would be more efficient to do a covers album so I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to come up with some new songs after having only just written a whole new album… So when I was thinking about this whole idea of doing a covers project, it occurred to me it would be really cool to do it as a collaboration with a great band. And with The Roots, as far as I’m concerned, being one of the best bands in the business, they became my first CHOICE! You know, because I felt they’d really get what I was trying to do, I just thought we could do something really cool together - which is what we ended up DOING!”
PETE; Lyrically ‘Wake Up!’ has been described as “a passionate album representing change, hope and activism”…
JOHN: “Well, like I said, I wanted the album to kind of reflect what was going on culturally and politically at the time. Which meant it wasn’t just about hope and optimism, but also about voicing people’s FRUSTRATION! And by ‘frustration’ I mean frustrations with the system, frustrations with the government, frustrations with injustice and inequality... All of which are feelings people still have NOW! Because, despite winning the election and feeling excited about that, I think people are to a large extent still dissatisfied - because unemployment is high and there’s still a lot of debate about what the right thing is for the country to DO… And so in that way I feel this album is even MORE relevant now than it was two YEARS ago!”
PETE: The album is primarily based on covers of soul and funk tunes from the late-Sixties/early-Seventies…
JOHN: “Well, when you look at the black music tradition, that era is regarded as hugely influential and lasting and classic. You know, it’s a time that’s still looked upon as a kind of ‘Golden Era’. And so, for somebody like me who’s obviously a big fan of soul music and who’s always trying to carry the legacy forward, it’s obviously a very IMPORTANT time. Plus with hip hop being a genre that’s always musically sampled, and been heavily influenced by, classic soul, it’s also a very important time for The ROOTS! So taking all that into account, we felt it was definitely the right era for us BOTH to cover!.. Then in terms of lyrics, because the late-Sixties/early-Seventies was such a fertile time for music about fighting for rights and fighting for justice, the songs from that era did fit in perfectly with what we were trying to get across MESSAGE-WISE on ‘Wake Up!’… You know, it was a very important time for that struggle.”
PETE: In terms of your choice of material for the album, some artists you’re covering - like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers - are definitely better known than others…
JOHN: “Yeah, it’s interesting. Because even though - as you say - some of the ARTISTS are familiar, we still often picked some of their less familiar SONGS! Like the only kind of genuine hit on the album, I think, is Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ ‘Wake Up Everybody’. Because, while some of the other songs we chose were on hit albums by big artists, they weren’t necessarily their big HITS… So yeah, I do think part of the mission was to kind of rediscover some songs that may have been overlooked before - songs that we thought were still beautiful and really interesting, but maybe weren’t hits at the time of their release. Plus of course, when you’re covering songs that are so big and huge that everybody already knows them, there’s always a danger of the original still overshadowing any NEW version. Which was definitely another reason for picking songs that were more off the beaten path.”
PETE: So what can you tell us about some of the more obscure artists you’ve covered - like Baby Huey & The Babysitters and Mike James Kirkland?
JOHN: “Well, Baby Huey was actually signed to Curtis Mayfield’s label, Curtom. So he was part of that whole era that kinda fuelled the music for the blaxploitation films. You know, that really driving soul that talked about what was going on in the inner-cities... But sadly he had a very tragic life. He was this really big guy - like 500 lbs - and I think he died very young of a heart-attack and never got to see his career GO anywhere... But, because ‘Hard Times’ is such a great song, you could definitely still imagine it being a HIT - even though people don’t actually KNOW it that well! Which is why we thought it would be a good song to lead the album off with. Then with Mike James Kirkland, while I don’t actually know his story that well, I absolutely LOVE his song ‘Hang On In There’! I mean, it was actually (The Roots’ drummer-cum-producer) Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson who suggested we do it, and I personally think it’s one of the coolest songs musically on the whole ALBUM! Because it takes you on a journey, plus it has such a great feel-good vibe that I’m sure someone’s gonna want to rap to it pretty soon!”
PETE: With you at various times infusing elements of hip hop, gospel, rock and reggae into the album, was there anything you particularly wanted to bring MUSICALLY to the old songs with your new versions?
JOHN: “Well, it’s hard to SAY - because we didn’t over-think what we were trying to bring to the table versus the OLD versions. I mean, while we did do quite different interpretations of songs like (Eugene McDaniels’) ‘Compared To What’ and (Donny Hathaway’s) ‘Little Ghetto Boy’, on OTHER songs we stuck more closely to the original arrangement while at the same time kinda freshening it up for 2010... Then on some others we added raps, on others we did crazy things at the end... Like with ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed’ - where, though we start out very similar to Bill Withers’ original, during the second half of the track’s eleven-and-a-half minutes there’s this big vamp, this whole explosion of energy that takes it to a whole ‘nother LEVEL! Which is actually something that was grown out of the LIVE performance. You know, because we started performing some of these songs live before we finished making the album, it actually gave us a chance to really develop the ARRANGEMENTS more.”
PETE: With ‘Wake Up!’ being your fourth album for Sony Music, what difference did collaborating with The Roots on this one make?
JOHN: “Well, starting with the album’s formative stage, ‘?uestlove’ was definitely the most important contributor in terms of the actual REPERTOIRE. In that he was really instrumental in selecting the songs, and generally just figuring out what the right material was for us to cover. And the reason WHY he was so useful for that is because he owns like 70,000 RECORDS! You know, because he is this huge music afficionado who knows so much about the history of soul music and of black music in general, he was particularly helpful in picking out songs that the average listener might not know but that still deserved to be HEARD... And then as for The Roots overall, they are of course a phenomenal BAND - in terms of the players, the CHEMISTRY between the players... And so for me to work with such a great band for an entire album was a huge privilege! Plus I also think they brought out the best in my voice - especially in terms of the rawness and edginess that you hear in my singing this time round.”
PETE: The guests on ‘Wake Up!’ include the rappers Black Thought, Common, CL Smooth and Malik Yusef - alongside US-chart-topping R&B songstress Melanie Fiona…
JOHN: “Because we were performing songs that have often been sampled in hip hop and I was singing and playing with a hip hop band, this album - even though it was essentially a classic soul record - was always gonna have a strong RELATIONSHIP with hip hop. So we basically just thought we’d make that more explicit by including some MCs on there. And I think us kinda bringing things back full-circle by having them rap over new interpretations of classic soul songs whose original versions have been sampled heavily in hip hop, meant it all worked very naturally... Then with Melanie, I chose her obviously because she sounds beautiful and because she’d be perfect for the SONG (‘Wake Up Everybody’)! You know, she’s a relatively new talent; she’s from Toronto; I saw her performing at this event in New York… And, because at that time we were thinking of who we wanted for the duet, straightaway I was like ‘WOW! She’d be PERFECT!’… So I got her info, reached out to her, and asked her to DO it!”
PETE: So what was the thought behind you covering Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ 1976 Philly soul anthem ‘Wake Up Everybody’ and essentially making it the album’s centrepiece?
JOHN: “Obviously the song’s lyrics play right into the album’s theme. It basically sums up, in a very concise way, all the things we were thinking about when we were putting this record together - in that it’s about justice and doing the right thing and coming together to make the world a better place. Plus, in addition to tying in with the driving theme behind the album, it was also originally done by a Philadelphia group - Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes… And obviously there is a big Philly connection on the album overall - what with The Roots having been born and raised in Philadelphia, and me having gone to school there for four years and in turn becoming part of the city’s music scene for several years… You know, we all have that Philly connection and the respect for Philly soul. So all in all, it just made sense for us to cover the song, and for it to become the signature song on the album - particularly in terms of giving it its title.”
PETE: The only original composition on ‘Wake Up!’ is your own new song ‘Shine’ - which will actually be featured in the upcoming film ‘Waiting For Superman’, a documentary directed by the Academy Award-winning Davis Guggenheim…
JOHN: “I’ve always believed that, when you talk about equality, when you talk about justice, and when you talk about civil rights in this country (America), a big barrier to that is the fact that there’s an inequality in the educational system. Basically people who live in a good neighbourhood and come from money have access to better schools than OTHER kids do - and whenever that’s the case, it perpetuates injustice and inequality. So to me the civil rights issue of our time is to work on making the educational system more FAIR. Which is basically what the film ‘Waiting For Superman’ is all ABOUT - understanding that the education system in America is broken, and that we need to seriously WORK on it! And so I felt that thematically the song I’d actually penned for the movie - ‘Shine’ - would fit really nicely into what we were doing on the album… Though the version I recorded for the album isn’t actually the version that’s in the FILM! You know, when I originally wrote it for the film it was kinda similar to (John’s transatlantic 2005 hit ballad) ‘Ordinary People’ in its arrangement style, with just piano and strings. Whereas for the version on ‘Wake Up!’ we instead referenced Stevie Wonder’s (classic 1973 LP) ‘Talking Book’ as our musical inspiration, and in particular the track ‘I Believe When I Fall In Love It’ll Be Forever’.”
PETE: So speaking generally, what in your eyes are the main ways ‘Wake Up!’ differs, or represents a progression, from your three previous albums for Sony Music - 2004’s ‘Get Lifted’; 2006’s Once Again’’; and 2008’s Evolver’?
JOHN: “I genuinely do think this is my most soulful and organic album to date! You know, while on past albums I’ve mixed soul with hip hop and soul with pop, this is definitely the most pure straight-up soul album I’ve DONE! Plus it’s the first album I’ve recorded as a full collaboration with one band and one producer (Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson) throughout. Which I think does give it a certain kind of unity and a very thorough concept. You know, when you listen to it, it does pull together very well. Plus it’s also the GRITTIEST album I’ve done in terms of the vocal performance - while as far as the arrangement of the instruments goes, it’s also dirtier and funkier than anything I’ve done!... So yeah, I’m very excited about people getting to hear it! Because I really do think that, for the soul music fan, this is my best album YET!”
The single ‘Wake Up Everybody feat. Common & Melanie Fiona’ is released October 11. The album ‘Wake Up!’ follows on October 18, both through Columbia
Words PETE LEWIS