At a very young age, it was apparent that John Legend was destined for stardom. By his early twenties, his strong foundation in gospel music developed him into one of the industry's most in-demand studio session musicians. His multi-platinum 2004 debut release, Get Lifted, resulted in eight GRAMMY nominations and three wins: Best R&B Album, Best New Artist and Best R&B Single for the song "Ordinary People." His second album, Once Again, proved to be another stunning testament to his skillful musicianship and dedication to his craft. Legend recently took some time out of his busy touring schedule to speak with Ticketmaster about his musical roots, the evolution of his sound and his current U.S. and European tour. I know that you took up the piano at a very early age. Yeah, I was 4. How old were you when you wrote your first song? I think my mom said I was about 10 or ll. Do you remember what it was about? I don't remember, really. Who were your earliest musical influences? It was mostly gospel music growing up, because I grew up playing in church and my grandmother was a big influence. And the gospel music I grew up listening to was the most influential to me as a young kid, and then I expanded into everything else after that. But as a young kid, that was the first thing that I knew very well, and that influenced my singing and playing. Any particular gospel artists? The Winans. James Cleveland. Commissioned. So let's fast forward a bit to your college days when you were an English Major at the University of Pennsylvania. Looking back, were there any authors or works of literature that helped shape who you are as an artist today? I have a hard time tracing that back because I read a lot of stuff, but I don't know if there are any specific authors that influenced my writing.
Alright. Any favorite authors then? I love Toni Morrison. James Joyce, I thought, was great. So, tell me what it was like at 19 to get offered a job by Lauryn Hill as a session musician? It was cool, you know. I didn't know what was going to happen. I was in the studio that day just hanging out and I didn't have any expectations of the day, how it was going to turn out. But she asked me to play on that record (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) and even then I didn't know if it was guaranteed that she was going to use what I did. Finally when the record came out and I saw my name on there, I was ecstatic. Nice bragging rights at school when everyone's listening to the Lauryn Hill album and you're able to say you're on it. How did your family feel about it? They were excited. Everyone was excited—all my friends at school—it was a pretty big deal. While you were working as a session artist for some very big names in the industry (Kanye West, Alicia Keys Jay-Z, just to name a few) was it always your intent to become a solo artist? Always. I mean, I didn't even see it as becoming a solo artist. I always saw myself as a solo artist anyway and the session work, working with other people, was always a side thing. It was never the center of what I was doing. My solo writing and recording was at the center, always. What kind of places were you playing at that time? Just clubs all over New York and Philly. Like S.O.B.'s, Joe's Pub, Jimmy's Uptown, Downtime, Elbow Room, Knitting Factory. Everywhere you could think of in New York. Did you have a favorite small club to play at the time? I love Joe's Pub. That's such great club. S.O.B.'s is great too. How do you feel you've evolved as an artist between the time you recorded Get Lifted and the new album, Once Again—and how is this reflected in your sound? I think in a few ways. Just living two or three more years since I wrote all the songs on Get Lifted. In some cases, some of the songs on Get Lifted were written in 2001, so that's like five years ago. I think when you grow up, you have a more nuanced view of life. It makes your lyrics more complex and more interesting. It makes your stories more layered. I think music-wise my taste is more eclectic than it was when I was producing and arranging Get Lifted. And so you'll hear the influences of that broader, more eclectic taste on this album. Are you a fan of any artists that, perhaps, you think people might be surprised to hear about? Well, I already talked about it in other interviews so I don't know if people will be surprised. I mean there's the obvious people I like, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. But also people like Jeff Buckley, Nina Simone, the Beatles, Sufjan Stevens...Fiona Apple. Do you have any favorite tracks on the new album? My favorite is "Show Me," track number four...I just think it's the best record I've made so far. When it comes to overall songwriting and production. The feeling of it is very ethereal and the lyrics are very heartfelt and sincere. The arrangement is something very different for me vocally and musically and I think it's really interesting in that sense.Yes, definitely. So let's talk, now, about your tour. Do you have any favorite cities you're looking forward to playing? Wow. I mean, I just love going out there every night. There are certain cities that we do really well in like D.C., Atlanta, Houston, L.A., Chicago—those are big cities for us. But I think the whole tour's going to be exciting. And then when we go overseas—London, Paris, Amsterdam—those are really big cities for me too. Are there any guest artists on tour with you? Robin Thicke is opening. Do you have any surprises in store for fans on this tour? Well, I can't tell you about them! But there are surprises? Not a lot of surprises—but just continuing to evolve as a performer. And people will see that. What would you like your audiences to take away from your shows? I want them to, first of all, just enjoy the music. Enjoy my interaction with them so that they get an experience they just can't get on the album—that experience of being close to the artist, having me narrate them through the story of the album. And, really, just give them all my energy and have them be able to sing along and give that energy back. Have that two-way experience. Interactive. What artists or bands, in your opinion, put on an incredible live show? Aww man, I wish I could see more live shows, I'm so busy. I haven't been to a live show in so long. (Pauses to think) Prince—I love seeing him. When was the last time you saw him? '04. And what was the last concert you went to? That was like the last major artist I went to. I'm just so busy I never get to go to shows. Now, if you could collaborate with any other musician, living or dead, who would it be? Your fantasy collaboration. Nina Simone...We could do a duet. Something interesting, something different. Sounds awesome. Too bad we won't get to hear that. So one last question—on your website's journal, you often focus attention on current world issues and encourage your fans to take action. Do you feel that with fame comes the responsibility to be socially conscious? No, I don't think that. I don't think that everyone who's famous needs to speak out about something. But I do think that if you know something and you have information that could help people, if you have a perspective that could help people and you have a forum to deliver that and an opportunity to deliver it in an effective way, then you should do it. That doesn't mean that every artist should speak out about everything because most artists don't know about everything. I don't know about everything, so I don't speak up unless I feel that I have something to say that's important or interesting or helpful to the situation. And I always try to move it toward, not just complaining, but move it toward action. So if I speak out about something, I suggest something people can do about it. Thanks so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. My pleasure.
In-depth Biography Neo-soul singer and pianist John Legend combined the raw fervor of contemporaries Cody ChesnuTT and the burning precision of D'Angelo. Born John Stephens, Legend was a child prodigy who grew up in Ohio, where he began singing gospel and playing piano at the tender age of five. Legend left Ohio at 16 to attend college in Philadelphia, and it was there that he first found a larger audience. Not yet out of his teens, Legend was tapped to play piano on Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything" in 1998. After completing college, he moved to New York, where he began to build a loyal following playing in nightclubs and releasing CDs that he would sell at shows. He also became an in-demand session musician, playing and occasionally writing for a wide array of artists, including Alicia Keys, Twista, Janet Jackson, and Kanye West.
It wasn't until West signed the young talent to his new label that the Legend name was adopted with 2004's Solo Sessions Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory. Get Lifted, Legend's first studio album, was released later in the year. On the strength of enduring single "Ordinary People," the album reached the Top Five of the Billboard 200. This led to three Grammy Awards: Best R&B Album, Best R&B Male Vocal Performance, and Best New Artist. Once Again, which peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 and number one on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, followed in October 2006 and eventually went platinum. Live from Philadelphia, sold exclusively at Target stores, was a successful stopgap release -- a Top Ten album, despite its limited retail presence. October 2008's Evolver spun off the sprightly crossover hit "Green Light" but managed only gold-selling status. Legend followed it with September 2010's Wake Up!, in which he was backed by the Roots. The album featured covers of still-relevant, socially-aware songs like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody" and Donny Hathaway's "Little Ghetto Boy." ~ Wade Kergan & Andy Kellman, Rovi