Interview: John Legend
Thu, 05 Feb 2009 12:31:09
John Legend knows how to play well with others. In fact, the platinum-selling R&B crooner is so good at bro-ing down in the studio that his talents have landed him two big Grammy nominations in collaboration categories. His song with Al Green, "Stay With Me (By the Sea)," is up for "Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals," while his cut with Andre 3000, "Green Light," grabbed him a nod for "Best Rap/Sung Collaboration." We spoke to Legend about the difference between soul and R&B, working with the late Bernie Mac and giving back.
Having personally collaborated with various hip hop and R&B artists, do you feel like soul music has particularly evolved in the 21st century?
It's hard to say exactly. First of all, you'd have to define what "soul" is, and you'd have to figure out if there is a difference between "soul" and "R&B." Honestly, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the different terminologies and categorizations, and I don't listen to much when it comes to so called "R&B" or "soul" from the 21st century. I generally stick to listening to older soul music. I listen to plenty of current music, but not much that fits the R&B/Soul category.
What aspects of soul music and R&B haven't or will never change? In other words, what's the recipe behind it?
I think soul music tries to tackle matters of the heart in a raw and honest way.
Evolver is truly a standout album. Do you feel like you've grown on it?
I experimented with different sounds and production styles on this album.
“It's always good to work with people who are great at what they do.”
Would you say the new tunes are particularly visual or cinematic?
I've always been a storyteller. I think any good songwriter should be. If you tell a good story, people should be able to visualize it, but I think they should also be able to see themselves in the situation. They should be able to relate to it emotionally. I try to write lyrics that connect to people in that way.
Was it a fulfilling and fun challenge to collaborate with Kanye West, Brandy and Estelle? Do you have any good stories about the collaborations
It wasn't particularly challenging. It's always good to work with people who are great at what they do. All of my featured artists on this album were my first choices for the songs they were on. And they each added their own flavor to the songs, and I couldn't imagine the songs without them.
Congratulations on your Grammy nominations! What was it like working with the legendary Al Green on "Stay With Me (By the Sea)?" Was that a real dream-come-true experience for you?
I was honored to be included on the Al Green album. It's a beautiful album. He worked with a great team, and it really came together nicely. He was a pleasure to work with. He seems like he really enjoyed making the album, like he truly loves making new music. I hope I can always feel like that.
How did your other Grammy-nominated tune with Andre 3000, "Green Light" come together?
I wrote the song with Rick Nowels. He started a guitar groove, and I wrote most of the lyrics and melody. We recorded the demo that day. Then it was produced by Malay & KP. KP was also my A&R for the album. He and I thought it would be great to ask Andre to be featured on the song. So KP called Andre and sent him the track, and Andre loved it and wanted to be a part of it. He nailed the verse and added a lot of energy to the song. It wouldn't be the same without him.
Onto Soul Men, how close was your experience in the movie to the real thing? Conversely, do you feel like any of the actors could've really made it on the road in real life?
Shooting Soul Men was very different from being on the road. I did all of my scenes in a day and a half. I spent most of my time in makeup and wardrobe to get into the various costumes that I needed to reflect the different eras. It was a lot fun. Bernie Mac andSamuel L. Jackson were great to work with. I think they could make it on the road. Bernie was a stand-up comic, so he probably was on the road as much as musicians are, and I'm sure Sam could handle it too. He's a pro.
Would you be interested in doing more movies?
Sure. Music is my priority right now, but if something interesting comes along, and I think it'll be good for my career, I'll do it.
You've always been active in charities. Which charitable organizations are you currently working with?
I co-founded an organization called the Show Me Campaign. It's an anti-poverty campaign and it's the initiative that is highest priority for me. (Click for more info here)
What's next in your immediate future?
I'll be touring overseas after the US tour is done. We're going to Dubai, Europe, East Asia, the Caribbean and South Africa in the next few months. I'm very excited. I love going around the world, and I'm particularly enjoying the new tour. I think the band is better than ever, and my show is better than ever.