John Legend: Return of the Legend
Considered as the man who in the mid-Noughties brought soul music back to international mainstream prominence, 34-year-old singer/writer/producer/pianist John Legend - having released three US R&B chart-topping solo albums (2004’s “Get Lifted”; 2006’s “Once Again”; and 2008’s “Evolver”) - this month follows-up his triple-Grammy-winning, politically-conscious covers album “Wake Up!” (a collaboration with super-credible, live-playing Philadelphia hip hop band The Roots) with his eagerly-anticipated new set “Love In The Future”.
Indeed, executive-produced by Legend himself, Dave Tozer and (John’s ongoing mentor) superstar rapper/producer Kanye West, “Love In The Future” - which Legend himself has described as “a definitive 21st century soul album” - boasts musical moods ranging from the tough hip hop beats and intensely soulful vibe of “The Beginning” and tribal-style drums of the powerfully urgent “Made To Love”; to the old skool, crackly-soul feel of the hypnotic “Who Do We Think We Are”, deliberately pounding “Save The Night” and rousing, strings-cum-thumping-piano soundscape of the searing “Hold On Longer”.
Born John Roger Stevens in December 1978 to a seamstress mother and factory-worker father in the racially-mixed small town of Springfield, Ohio, gospel-raised University Of Pennsylvania graduate John first got into music professionally by playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s l998 classic album “The Miseducation Of…” before adopting 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, while prestigiously winning an impressive nine Grammy Awards along the way.
… Cue an ever-polite and calm-mannered Mr. Legend happily reacquainting himself at Sony’s Music UK’s buzzing Kensington HQ with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss, amongst other pressing topics, his aforementioned new album.
PETE: Let’s start on obvious ground - what was the thinking behind titling your new, fourth solo studio album “Love In The Future”?
JOHN: “Well, it started when I wrote the SONG “Love In The Future” - which is actually not gonna make the album as a full song but as a little intro/interlude section. And while the lyric is about love, it’s definitely not about the love I LOST! Instead it’s actually about starting from the beginning in a new relationship and the possibilities that lie within that. So because I’m just about to get married, it is actually very relevant to me and my journey in life right now. Which is why it felt like a good album title.”
PETE: So what was your goal musically this time round?
JOHN: “Even before I came up with the title-song I told everybody on my team that my goal was to make modern SOUL album. But while sometimes when you think of soul you just think of people kind of recreating the classics and using the same exact sound as you hear on say the old Marvin Gaye or Motown records, I didn’t wanna DO that. Instead, while I did want to acknowledge who my music ancestors were and respect that legacy, I felt my job was to take that and make it into something NEW... So yeah, for me the goal creatively for this album was to flip that classic feel into a modern context. I basically wanted to make it feel like it wasn’t just a remake but was something FRESH.”
PETE: And lyrically?
JOHN: “Well, while we clearly talk about love a lot, within that context my general take on this album was pretty optimistic and positive compared to the other albums I’ve released which have all been a little darker. Like “Once Again” - even though it was set to very kind of romantic, beautiful music - does talk about loss and pain a lot. While the first album (2004’s “Get Lifted”) I think kind had a YOUNGER perspective and talks about CHEATING a lot more!... So yeah, while this new one does have some moments of darkness in it, the overall mood - as I said - is definitely more OPTIMISITC.”
PETE: “Love In The Future” has been executive-produced by yourself, Dave Tozer and Kanye West - the same team that was behind your first two albums for Sony…
JOHN: “Well, my reasons for that are simply that I’m just comfortable working with those guys. We understand each other, I trust their taste, I know their strengths and weaknesses, I work well with them - and so it’s easier for me to do that than to try and kinda learn the way of a NEW core creative team. Though having said that, I have also worked on the album with some different producers that I HAVEN’T worked with before. Which I guess makes it a kind of good balance of familiar and new. Like we got beats from Bing, beats from Da Internz, beats from 88-Keys, beats from DJ Camper, beats from Hit-Boy... So overall we definitely have some of that young, new energy on the album while at the same time mixing it with some of the guys I’ve worked with for a long time. Which to my mind helps make the record that much BETTER.”
PETE: Arguably one of the album’s highlights is “The Beginning”, which blends tough hip hop beats with an intensely soulful feel…
JOHN: “Yeah, it’s funny because the actual musical bed for that track is this song called “Winter Song” by Sara Bareilles, which I guess is a kind of unexpected thing for us to sample! But what happened was Hit-Boy discovered that song, decided to use it as a basis for the beat, and then expanded on it by adding a great DRUM track to it. And so yeah, it does have a very soulful, almost other-worldly kind of feel, in that some of the instrumentation does kind of take you to another place. I actually always say it feels like MORNING to me, a bit like something you wanna wake up to at the beginning of your DAY! Although in this context it’s actually about the beginning of a love affair that you want to last forever!”
PETE: So can you tell me more about your Show Me campaign - a non-profit organisation that I understand particularly fights to guarantee equal access to quality education in America?
JOHN: “Yeah, our overall mission is to find creative, innovative solutions to fight poverty, to partner with the organisations that we feel are doing things that work, help to fund them, bring awareness to what they do, and ultimately really change people’s lives and give them a chance to help THEMSELVES. Because in America- even though we are a very rich, very powerful country - we do still have a huge amount of poverty. And while much of that is driven by historical injustices and the fact that we don’t have as strong a social safety-net as we SHOULD have, a lot of it is also driven by the fact that a lotta kids aren’t able to go to good SCHOOLS. You know, there is a big disparity between the quality of some schools in certain neighbourhoods versus other schools in OTHER neighbourhoods. And when that happens kids who are already disadvantaged and already growing up with all these challenges do end up getting trapped in that cycle of poverty. And so that’s basically what we’re trying to CHANGE. Which is why we’ve worked with several different schools in the country, as well as some teaching organisations and education reform organisations, in the hope that we can improve the overall education system in America… So yeah, when I’m not making music I do take time out to do stuff like that.”
PETE: Politically-speaking you’ve very much publicly aligned yourself with US President Barack Obama and have performed for him a number of times, including at his 2008 Democratic National Convention and most recently at his Hip Hop Inaugural Ball last January…
JOHN: “Yes, I’m proud to have supported him for both of his elections and I’m happy the country decided to REHIRE him. Because I think he does a great job for the country. He’s a really great leader morally, so intelligent, so wise, knowing the right things to say at the right time to the American people... Plus I also think he’s a good person to represent our country around the WORLD… So yeah, as I say, it makes me very proud to be a supporter and really proud to be an AMERICAN as well - because I’ve ALWAYS been very interested in politics. I read a lot about it and I pay a lot of attention TO it - not only during election-time but also to the issues that are being contested in congress and even state legislation. Because I think it impacts people’s lives so much and I want our leaders to become accountable and to know that we are paying attention to what they’re DOING.”
John performs at the Sound For Change Live concert at Twickenham Stadium, London on June 1.
The album “Love In The Future” is released June 24 through Columbia
YOU CAN READ MORE FROM OUR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JOHN LEGEND IN OUR PRINT ISSUE - CLICK THE LINK BELOW TO GET YOUR COPY NOW.
Words PETE LEWIS