Cover story: An in-depth conversation with John Legend
March 15, 2019
1,429,110,901. That’s the exact number of YouTube views for John Legend’s global mega-hit “All Of Me” at the time I’m writing those lines. The 2013 smash, dedicated to his wife, model Chrissy Teigen, has cemented Legend’s status on the world stage.
A formerly home-schooled A-student type, Legend graduated high school two years early, at sixteen years old, after being student body president. A chance meeting with Kanye West led him to quit his consulting day job and release his first record “Get Lifted” in 2004. Influenced by the gospel of his youth, Legend’s blend of R&B and soulful pop mixes love songs with more politically conscious anthems.
His actions match his words as he’s involved in many charities and political causes, supporting President Obama in both of his campaigns. In early 2019, it was announced that John Legend would be one of the jurors on the new season of the TV show “The Voice.” In February, he released a new song called “Preach” representing a turning point in his career. The song discusses very directly the political and social tension existing in American society today.
In person, John is a blend of calm and joy. During our shoot, he didn’t hesitate to break into songs for no reason, just for the fun of it. His soft speaking voice is a contrast to his powerful singing one, he easily answered any questions we had, in a relaxed and self-confident way.
You grew up in the Midwest, then went to Philly. How did those places influence your music? Do you think you would’ve developed a different style if you were raised in LA or NYC?
My upbringing affected my music a lot. I grew up in the Church and played a lot of Gospel music. That certainly affected my music.
I grew up in a family that really loved Motown, which of course is based in the Midwest, even though it was globally loved and appreciated. And then working in Philly certainly did it too. I started working with a lot of writers and producers there. And working with the Roots over the years.
Being in Philly at the time that I was there was really influential because a lot of the Neo-Soul movement was developing and starting during the time that I was in college.That definitely impacted me and influenced me.
What attracted you to music at such an early age?
I grew up in a musical house. Everybody loved music. We had a piano and a drum kit. I went to church multiple times a week, where there was a lot of music. I was surrounded by music all my life. From a very young age, it was very clear I wanted to play something. I started taking piano lessons when I was four, and I haven’t stopped playing since. Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated to practice and do things that no one will ever see, but eventually, when you perform, it shows how much you practiced.
The performing part is fun, you get to connect with other people, you get to show how much you’ve worked. People don’t realise how much work you need to put in before the performance to do a good job.
Did your parents support your musical ambitions early on?
Of course, they did. Absolutely they did. They always believed in me and supported me.
What were your influences as a pianist, as well as a singer and a songwriter?
My main influence as a pianist was my grandmother, she taught me how to play gospel piano. More than any one individual, she influenced my style.
As a singer, I think it just developed over the years listening to different artists… I listened to different artists like Commissioned, The Winans, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Nat King Cole. When I was a teenager, we would sing a lot of New Jack things, like Jodeci, Boyz II Men. A lot of those male groups were big at the time. So it’s been a range of things. Definitely Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as far as songwriting, and Donnie Hathaway, Al Green. Smoky Robinson too.
I read that you got admitted to Harvard University but chose not to go. Can you explain why?
I got accepted to Penn, Harvard, Georgetown and Morehouse. Penn gave me a better finance rate offer and I needed the money.
At the beginning you even had a day job (management consultant). How was it?
It was fine. I learned a lot, I met a lot of great people. Some of my very best friends now are people I met during that time, and worked with. But I knew what I really wanted to do. At night, after work, I would go home and write songs. I was recording with Kanye during that time that I was working there. I knew what I really wanted to do, but it just took a while for it to come together.
Kanye West played a crucial role in your career launch. People know him as a performer and a rapper, but how is Kanye as a producer? What’s the biggest misconception about him?
It’s interesting, because he started his career as a producer, that’s when we were working together. And a lot of his struggles were to get people to realise he was also an artist too. During the time we were working together, he was working on his demo as an artist, and I was working on mine. I wouldn’t be where I am with my music without the start he gave me.
He has a lot of opinions. He wants it to be perfect. He’s a very engaged producer. When he’s producing, he gets very into it. He shows himself, it’s not an act. What people are seeing from him is him.
I love your collaboration with The Roots “Wake Up!” Are you planning to do more records like this in the future?
I loved doing that album, it’s one of my favourite albums I’ve done. I’m sure I will do more things like that in the future.
“All of Me” has more than 1 billion views on YouTube, 1.4 billion I think – do you follow this, the count? Were you ever worried this success would label you as a “love song” guy even though your body of work covers a whole range of topics?
I’m aware of it. I’m grateful that so many people love the song and that it meant so much to so many people. It’s not the only measure of impact and the only measure of quality of the song, but it’s pretty nice that so many people love the song and want to listen to it over and over.
I get frustrated sometimes if I only get depicted as the “love song” guy, because obviously my repertoire is much more diverse than that, but I understand that a lot of people love my love songs, I’m grateful for that.
You’ve won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. What do these trophies mean to you, if anything? Does one mean more than the other?
They do mean something. The Grammys were important, especially at the beginning of my career, when I won Best New Artist. It helped establish my career. I’ll never forget those.
I think the Oscar was really huge, because it was an opportunity to write and perform for the film Selma. The chance I got to speak and sing it front of the whole world when I won the award – it was pretty amazing!
During our shoot you were singing all the time between takes. Do you sing a lot around the house? Do you have a specific routine to keep your voice in shape?
Oh yeah! I sing all the time at home, I sing to my kids, it’s just part of my life! I do vocal exercises and warm up. When I’m on tour, I don’t drink, I drink lots of water and try to get a lot of rest. I don’t speak much during the day when I’m on tour.
Sustainable development is important to you, you’ve even worked with the Earth Institute on this. Can you explain what the stakes are? Does that also link up to your work to fight poverty?
Yes, I worked with the Earth Institute. I’ve helped to fundraise for other organisations that promote sustainable development.
Honestly, that’s one of the biggest issues facing the world right now. There are a lot of organisations that are doing a lot around that. It’s important that our governments are involved. It requires big changes, systemic changes and responses to what’s really a global crisis.
Education is also another important topic for you, as you’ve donated a lot of money to your high school. Do you think it’s the key to solving some of America’s current problems?
Oh Absolutely. I think our schools are far behind where they need to be. Overall, we’ve de-emphasised public education. We need to do a lot better. There are a lot of countries that are doing a lot better at public education than we are. It’s a major flaw in the American system that we don’t educate our kids better in the public system.
You’ve also said “All men should be feminists. If men care about women’s rights the world will be a better place.” There seem to be some resistance to this idea from a segment of the male population right now.
Yes, I think there’s backlash. I don’t really understand it. I don’t understand what men think they have to lose by women doing well. Women are half of the population and we should maximise everyone’s chances. Women are half of our brain power, half of everything. Why shouldn’t we make the most of all of our people, rather than just half of them? It feels silly to me that you would be against women having equal rights. It doesn’t mean men and women are exactly the same. It doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between men and women, but it means everyone should have the opportunity to live up to their fullest potential. There shouldn’t be any barriers when it comes to hiring, when it comes to education. Societies are better off when women are doing well.
Photo / Eric Ray Davidson
Styling / David Thomas assisted by Matteo Pieri
Grooming / Shanon Pezzetta
Production / Cool Hunt Inc.
Editor / Kieran Ho
Text / Cezar Greif