Music interview: John Legend on light, love and '˜La La Land'

Over the course of a dozen years and six albums John Legend has become one of the biggest stars in modern American soul and R&B.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 13th April 2017, 8:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 7:09 pm
John Legend
John Legend

During a recent visit to the UK, the 38-year-old singer songwriter, from Springfield, Ohio, who plays at the First Direct Arena in Leeds in the autumn, spoke to the YEP.

It was great to see your impromptu set at St Pancras International this morning. Do you enjoy doing those sort of things?

It was so much fun, I loved it. I don’t do them that often but that was truly impromptu, no one knew that we were coming. We knew we were gonna do it, but they didn’t know, so the fans that were there were truly surprised, and they seemed pretty happy and I was happy to do it!

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John Legend

You’re coming back in September obviously to play slightly bigger venues…

Yeah, we’re gonna play these big venues with all this production, it was nice to do it stripped down today.

So have you started thinking about the production?

Oh yeah, ’cause we’re gonna tour in the US first. We’ll be well seasoned by the time we get to the UK! We’re practising on North America for you guys.

John Legend

I guess your set can change per venue, so when you do something at St Pancras where it’s very intimate, then you’re taking the same songs but to an arena setting. Do you think about how you’ll perform songs differently in comparison to what crowds that you’re performing to? 
Well, once we start the tour, a lot of the audience will be around the same size, so we won’t have to think differently when it comes to audience size, but there are certain differences like the US audience like certain songs, and the UK audiences might like different ones to the European audiences. So, there’s some minor differences in kind of, what songs resonate more, but mostly it’ll be a similar set because we know what songs were the most important songs from each album and we try to play those and then of course we want to play songs from the new album as well, so we’ll have a mix of both.

You’re going to be visiting nine different UK cities, which is a little bit more than when you were last here.
Yeah, this is my biggest UK tour, bigger venues and more cities than I’ve ever played. Dublin is very upset though! I was reading my Twitter and it’s like ‘Why you not coming to Dublin?’ I’m like all these UK shows and not going to Ireland!

So do you reckon you’ll be able to do any sight seeing whilst you’re over here?

I will do a little bit. I rest a lot when I’m on tour because my voice needs rest and I try to get as much sleep as possible. I just like to rest ‘cause it takes a lot of energy and vocal rest to give a good show and so I try to store up as much of that as I can for the actual show.

Your album ‘Darkness and Light’ came out at the tail end of last year. Was it nice just to finally get it out there?

It was! Y’know, I’d been working on it for a little over a year and I was so proud of it when we were finally done. I was excited for people to hear it and now I’m excited to play it for people finally.

The title of the album, you explained it previously as describing joy through pain, light in the darkness. Do you think it’s important to be someone that gives hope through your music?
Yeah, I’m an optimistic person and even when I talk about uncertainty and pain and conflict I’m always trying to find redemption. I write about those things and I think hopefully it can help people when they’re going through something like that to get through it and find the light and love and enjoy that they want to find.

Now your debut album came out 13 years ago I think…

It was the end of 2004 so it was 12 and a half years ago!

As you’re in a different headspace now as an artist and personally, when you listen to the songs that you wrote back then, do you find it hard to relate to how you were then?
It’s not hard to relate, I know that person, I know who I was then and I’ve clearly grown up and I’ve had different experiences. I’m married, I have a baby now. Like, certain things change and I think I’m more emotionally mature now and I’m also more confident in expressing my own point of view lyrically than I was then and it makes me feel good as a creative person being able to put all that on an album.

Touching on the movies that you’ve been involved with – arguably two of the biggest movies that have come out recently, La La Land and Beauty and The Beast…
Two big musicals!

Speaking of La La Land, was there a point that you realised ‘This is actually like a really big thing”?

When we were starting to play the film at festivals like Telluride and Venice and all these places, the reviews coming back were amazing and when I would speak to some of the critical press, some of them were just floored by the film and so excited about it and then when the film first went out to theatres, it did really well but it was in just a few theatres, it was only a limited release, so we weren’t sure how well it would do commercially at the time, but per-screen it was doing really well. Once we released it wide, press just kept building and the buzz kept building, and of course the awards kept building! It became a global hit, which I don’t know if we knew that was gonna happen but we hoped it would and we hoped that people would love the film and I felt confident that Damien [Chazelle, Director] had made a beautiful film. He’s a great film maker, he had a great script and he has a great vision for what he wants to accomplish on the film and he executed it beautifully and I’m just glad people saw that and enjoyed it.

As it was also your first major acting role, how did it feel being a part of such a juggernaut?
I feel proud to be part of it and honoured to be part of it and y’know, I didn’t have to do a lot of the heavy lifting as an actor! Emma [Stone] and Ryan [Gosling] did most of it but it was nice to be part of such a great team and be in a role that I felt comfortable portraying, and I feel really good about that as my first major role.

You wrote and performed the track ‘Start a Fire’ in it. How did it feel writing a song to a brief rather than writing a track for your own album? 
It’s actually easier to write to a brief! That’s why I love writing for film. I’ve written a lot of songs for film and it’s easier to write to a brief ‘cause it narrows your focus and makes it actually, it’s easier to focus your mind on this one film, this one idea, or this one assignment whereas when I’m writing for my album, we go in there and we could write about literally anything, which means you’re free, but it also means, who knows what you’ll come up with that day and if it’ll be the right direction. When you’re writing for a film it’s a more narrow assignment and it’s actually easier to fulfil than an open ended one.

So is acting something you feel like you might pursue more in the future, if the right role comes up?
Yeah, the right role, the right timing ’cause I’m obviously touring still a lot and touring is more lucrative and more natural for me to do than any acting role that someone would present to me right now, but I do feel confident that if I get the right role and the right timing that I would do it again.

So how did recording the Beauty and The Beast title song come about? 
Disney reached out to us and said ‘Do you wanna do it?’ and part of me was saying y’know ‘Oh, that’s a big challenge y’know, Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson did a really great version already. I grew up knowing that version and the film was iconic, the song was iconic. It won an Academy Award that year, so it was big shoes to fill but I felt Ariana [Grande] and I could do it, and we could take on the challenge and I feel competent that we did a good job with the song.

You said there that you grew up knowing that version of the film. Are you looking forward to Luna [John’s 11 month old daughter] growing up and knowing your version of the song?
Yeah, it’s crazy. That was one of the exciting things about it was knowing that I had a daughter that will eventually watch the film and probably watch it and watch it and watch it and it was her Dad, that sang the song! It’s pretty cool.

Becoming a father, how do you think that changed you as like a musician and creatively?
Well, I think that it had already informed this album, even though I wrote all the songs before she was born, it was, I was already thinking about becoming a new father. We wrote the song ‘Right By You (for Luna)’ and even the other songs that weren’t specifically for her, I think the overall philosophy of the album was partially informed by the fact that I was becoming a new parent. Thinking about what life and death means. Thinking about what legacy means, thinking about what relationships mean to you, what love means. Thinking about it in a different way, as a new father.

One of the lines in ‘Right By You’ says ‘Will you work like me to lift the conversation higher?’ Do you feel as a father you’re more aware of current issues, as it’s ultimately the world your daughter is going to be living in? 
I was always very aware, but I think it does put a new perspective on it because I think a lot about what it means to be a good parent, and what it means to be a good parent when you have all these resources like I have and can afford to send your kid to any school and hire any help that you need and all these other things that a lot of people don’t have access to. So when I think about politics, I think about a lot of times making sure that everyone has access to a good school for their kids, good childcare for their kids and good healthcare for their kids and I think about that more now than I used to. I always cared about these things before, but I think knowing how challenging it is to raise a child even with a lot of resources, it gives me more empathy for those that don’t have the resources.

John Legend plays at First Direct Arena on September 15.