John Legend


Interviews

The 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 with him.


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," he says.


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 of it."


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 a kid."


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.

 

John Legend Interview

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 hip-hop credibility.


"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.

Legend in the making

By MARY DICKIE -- Toronto Sun

John Legend is forging a new path in R&B music -- and yet it's one that's considerably older than he is.

The 26-year-old 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.

"I don't 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."

Legend began 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.

"I think 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."

Legend, who 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.

"We're 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."

 


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