Making of a Legend
by Rex Rutkoski
To John Legend’s way of thinking, some music is "listenable,"
some "tolerable," some "pretty good." Only
a few artists, though, says the critically applauded R&B singer
/ songwriter / performer, actually can move someone. "I want
to move people," he says. "I want people to feel moved
after listening to my music or attending my show."
He is co-writer, vocalist and pianist on Alicia Keys’ "If
I Ain’t Got You," co-writer and pianist on Janet Jackson’s
single "I Want You," and is vocalist and pianist on
Jay-Z’s "Encore" and "Lucifer," as well
as releases by Britney Spears, Eve, Common and others.
He was asked to perform "Uptight" as Stevie Wonder on
the American Dreams television drama series. His interpretation
of Wonder’s "Don’t You Worry ’Bout A Thing"
is on the soundtrack of Will Smith’s movie Hitch.
After Kanye West attended one of his shows, he enlisted Legend’s
help for the College Dropout album and later invited him to tour
Critics have been effusive in their praise for Legend, comparing
him to such amazing artists as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Al
Green, Donny Hathaway and others.
"I’m honored and humbled by that at the same time,"
he says. "I think writers are prone to hyperbole sometimes.
I guess they like to be quoted. But it’s always nice to
be compared to people that you really admire. At the same time,
I know I have a long way to go before I can match their careers
and become a real ‘legend.’"
He describes his style as classic soul that incorporates elements
of hip-hop, contemporary R&B and gospel. "My voice is
reminiscent of old soul singers with some elements of reggae."
His lyrical approach, he says, primarily is just storytelling
that strives to be witty but relatable.
He does not want to be asked what he believes are the distinctive
qualities that perhaps set him apart from other artists.
"I don’t like this question. I think there are a lot
of talented people, some of whom I am similar to in style and
approach," he explains. "We all have some elements of
uniqueness, but I’m not especially unique. My style isn’t
anything brand new. I just try to do it to the best of my ability,
and hope it will stand out for its quality."
Does he feel his quality is part of a group of artists helping
expand the R&B genre in terms of what it is considered to
be, what it can offer, and perhaps showing—even surprising—people
with its possibilities?
Legend: "I don’t think Get Lifted has necessarily expanded
the genre. Most of the elements I’ve put in my album have
been done before, perhaps in different combinations. I think with
subsequent albums I’ll be more adventurous stylistically.
I’ve already written reggae songs, bossa nova songs, dark
dance songs. But I wanted Get Lifted to be more focused stylistically,
so I didn’t put all those songs on this album." Hopefully,
he adds, there will be plenty of time for him to explore these
other ideas in the future.
He is passionate about the craft of songwriting and record making.
"I think people relate to the music because I have a sense
of empathy, and I think I have a good understanding about relationships,
and I talk about them in a real, honest way," he says.
Legend is surprised at how much attention he is receiving at this
point in his career. Trying to analyze it, he says that timing
is indeed critical. "I think Kanye’s success played
an important role in setting me up for success. Of course, if
my music sucked, Kanye’s success still wouldn’t have
been enough. But I think it did open some doors for me earlier
than they would’ve been opened otherwise."
He also is surprised at how well the album has done on the charts
at an early stage. He speculated that the album would start slower
than it did and then build from word-of-mouth. "To my pleasant
surprise, we’ve started really well and we still continue
to back that up with great sales due to word-of-mouth. I’m
really happy with how things have turned out," he says.
The criteria he employs in choosing projects, tours, whom to collaborate
with, is based on artistry. "I only want to work with people
whose music I respect and enjoy. I only want to be associated
with music that is high quality. That’s my main criteria,"
Legend adds that he also just wants to enjoy himself in all that
he does. "If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do
it," he says. "Unless," he jokes, "it pays
really, really well!"
He says he "absolutely" learns from everyone with whom
he works. "Experience is a great teacher. I’ve had
the honor of working with some of the greatest artists in black
music, and I can’t help but be a better artist as a result
Working and touring with Alicia Keys is part of the learning curve
for Legend. "Alicia’s very grounded and confident.
It’s always good working with someone who knows what they
want and has a distinct style," he says. "And she just
knows how to make good records."
He has met Stevie Wonder, but it was before he covered his songs
for American Dreams and Hitch. "Hopefully, he’s not
hating my version of his songs. I tried to do my best to honor
him. It’s hard because you know you can’t top him.
I just tried my best to respect his music," he says.
In getting people to respect his own artistry, Legend wanted Get
Lifted to reflect the best music he had in his repertoire, which
consisted of over 40 album-quality songs. He wanted it to be coherent
and to flow really well. "I think it satisfied both of those
requirements for me. I think I’ll continue to grow as an
artist in the future, and perhaps my writing or recordings will
improve, but, as of now, I’m very proud of Get Lifted. It
was the best album I could make at the time."
He says it is difficult for him to identify his source of creativity.
"I’ve always had a song in my head. I hear melodies
and hooks all day. I’ve always been that way, since I was
This former church pianist, music and choir director says he isn’t
even sure how his spirituality impacts his creativity. "I
feel like spirituality definitely comes through in my music, but
I don’t make any specific efforts to make it that way. I
guess I can’t help it."
He has great memories of working at Bethel AME Church in Scranton.
"The people at Bethel were always like a family to me. They
took great care of me whenever I needed anything. They were my
home away from home," he says. "And I enjoyed playing
the piano there every Sunday. It was my main outlet for performing
as a pianist. I was in an a cappella group in school, so it particularly
helped me keep my piano chops up. And I love performing gospel
music. It’s so inspiring."
He tries to deliver an energetic, passionate performance. "I
have a great band, with very talented players, and we give everything
we have every night," he promises. "I love the interaction
with the crowd. I love to look in their eyes. I love to hear them
singing along to the songs. I love when one of my band members
plays something unexpected that inspires me. That’s when
the magic happens."
Music is his passion. "It’s a way of life to me. I
can’t imagine my life without it," Legend says.
He is philosophical about assessing music within the context of
the business of music. "I think there’s some good and
some bad music out there. There are some very talented, creative
people making great, innovative music, people like Kanye and Outkast,
to name a couple. I think it’s cool that these people are
also at the top of the charts," he says. "Sure, there’s
some crap out there. But there has always been crap. In the 1970s,
for all the Stevie Wonders, I’m sure there were five artists
that were making forgettable music. We don’t hear about
them now because they’ve already been forgotten."
John Legend does not plan on being a forgotten man.
When a friend of John Stephens dubbed him John "Legend"
years ago because of his old school sound, it was a harbinger
of what the singer/songwriter/pianist knew was his calling.
With an opening slot on Alicia Keys' current tour, and his major
label debut, Get Lifted, going platinum in just a few months,
crazy scheduling is the norm for this seasoned performer.
"It's incredible, it's great. Alicia is great, the fans are
great, everything is going perfectly. I couldn't ask for anything
better," Legend told Pollstar.
Legend had barely caught his breath during a marathon day of interviews
when he talked about how growing up in a musical family affected
his career. Until last year, he directed a choir at a Pennsylvania
church once a month, and wrote and recorded his own music.
"My family was very involved in music and church, especially.
My grandmother played the organ at church, my father was a drummer,
my mother was a choir director. So, yeah, it was big. I started
very young," Legend said. "I guess [directing the choir]
prepared me for this because I'm so busy now. But I was always
busy, even in college, even in high school. So I'm kind of used
to having a crazy schedule."
"I think I was already the consummate professional where
most new artists take a lot of grooming and everything. As a performer,
it really didn't take much grooming for me because my whole life
has been grooming for this."
Following his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania,
the entertainer made his mark in New York City and elsewhere with
hard work and support from his friends.
"It took time to build a base, but I already had a lot of
friends in the city from college. Then, I started very early on
building my own e-mail list and Web site and all that. That really
helped generate more and more people and compelled the word of
mouth," Legend said.
"I was selling out shows in Philly and New York, Washington,
D.C., before I ever had a record deal. I think it set it up well
for the underground kind of buzz for my project coming out. And
also for touring; it just set up a built-in audience that knew
I put on a good show."
David Sonenberg of DAS Communications said he wanted to sign Legend
after hearing the performer's music, described as neo-soul, from
the sheer beauty of it. But once he saw Legend in action, he knew
the crossover potential was there.
"I was very taken by the songs that he wrote and by his vocal
ability. I don't even know how to describe his vocals. It's both
retro and fresh at the same time," Sonenberg told Pollstar.
"He certainly harkens back to kind of an old school, legitimate
vocal vibe, but he combined that with a hipness and freshness
and an attitude that just doesn't keep it there.
"We went down and checked out what was going on with his
band, went to S.O.B.'s and saw him a couple of times. But frankly,
we were sold on him before we ever saw him live."
Legend said that after meeting Sonenberg and his staff, he knew
it would be a good fit.
"David was the first one that really jumped on it. They were
really excited about it; they really wanted to sign me. He came
to a few shows and gave me a lot of good advice," he said.
"He's a very smart guy and he knows the business very well.
He's worked with a lot of great groups, including some of my favorites
like The Fugees.
"I've gotten advice from everybody. You have to use, kind
of, your bullshit meter." Collaborations with Kanye West,
Lauren Hill, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Talib Kweli, and
the Black Eyed Peas, to name a few, got the singer/songwriter
noticed and the record labels calling.
"There was interest in him from the get-go. A lot of labels
had interest, but I thought it was going to be a deal with blinders
on it that had that neo-soul pocket. I wanted him to have a lot
more heat going than that, so we took our time," Sonenberg
said. "Record companies from Columbia to Interscope were
seeing that John was with Kanye and the Black Eyed Peas and was
having songs recorded. So, the vibe was starting to be built as
seeing John as a meaningful singer/songwriter with tremendous
"I think John was smart enough to forego early record offers
and build a profile that could be taken seriously," he added.
Once Legend's stint on Keys' tour ends April 24th, he said he'd
take a little break from the road before heading overseas to Japan,
Australia and Europe.
Sonenberg said that break will be "about 30 seconds."
"We're doing extensive touring immediately after Alicia.
We're doing it piecemeal but we're trying to conquer the universe
in a very short period of time," he said. "[John]'s
been incredibly hard-working and sometimes doing as many as three
shows a day."
Plans to perform at major European festivals this summer are already
set, along with a possible U.S. tour starting in June.
in the making
MARY DICKIE -- Toronto Sun
is forging a new path in R&B music -- and yet it's one that's
considerably older than he is.
singer/songwriter's piano-based music avoids the crass and sleazy
cliches of most commercial R&B, blending classic '70s soul
sounds with old-time gospel and contemporary hip-hop production.
And his major-label debut, Get Lifted, is helping make him the
biggest thing in R&B since Alicia Keys -- with whom he's currently
touring and, coincidentally or not, with whom he shares a reliance
on the piano.
think it's necessarily the piano that people are responding to,"
he says, "I think they just like to see an artist that can
play an instrument at all, given today's climate. If I played
guitar, I think they'd still be into it. But I love the piano.
There's a certain sound it adds to a record that feels really
good. It's really crisp, and it has a classic feel."
playing the piano at four, but he was conducting his church choir
by the age of 11, thanks to his organist grandmother and a family
that believes in singing together -- in fact, a whole lot of them
add their voices to his album. And indeed, the gospel elements
underlying his music are perhaps more important to his success
than his instrument of choice, or even his Stevie Wonder-like
vocals. In fact, he maintains that gospel roots are a critical
part of most contemporary music.
it's added a lot to pop music, black music especially," he
says. "The power that comes from a choir, from that style
of music, and the feeling people get when they hear it -- you
can't really duplicate it, it's special. And I'm glad people embrace
it. Also, it's rare that a young person gets as much performing
experience as I've had outside the church."
was born John Stephens, grew up in Ohio and went to college in
Philadelphia, where he was exposed to the inspiring neo-soul sounds
of Jill Scott and The Roots. He began playing his songs at clubs,
put out a few indie albums and contributed to Lauryn Hill's landmark
Miseducation album. He also met hip-hop performer and producer
Kanye West, who signed Legend to his record label and opened a
number of doors for him, leading to collaborations with Jay-Z,
the Black Eyed Peas, Alicia Keys and on West's own Grammy-winning
album The College Dropout.
friends, we've travelled together and we share all our experiences,"
Legend says of West. "And having him go through all this
a year before I did really helped me prepare for it, because I
saw what he went through. Working with other artists helps you
know what you want out of the recording process, and the business
as well -- the experience of dealing with the labels and things."