Suaveness and precocity typically aren’t two traits that are thrown around in the same sentence. Usually the more artistically gifted one is early in life, the more socially awkward one is as well. But as we know, exceptions are always made. Growing up with a musical gift used only in the Pentecostal church, young John Legend also spent a great amount of his formative years in the books. At the age where most teenagers were going to their first prom, he was a freshman on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Graduating at the age of 20, he turned a chance meeting with Kanye West into a standing as one of the generation’s most significant artists.
Now, with Legend on the cusp of his third album, he sets out to widen the box of his talents. Whereas his first album, Get Lifted, explored the gamut of musical compositions—ballads, up-tempo, hymns, Ordinary People—his second LP, Once Again, was a laid-back, listen-with-your-significant-other, introspective album. His first single for his upcoming album, The Evolver, shows a drastic deviation from his prior singles: Green Light, a song that features Andre 3000 over a racy, synthesized laden, ruckus-like beat. “I know that he [Andre 3000] doesn’t rap much these days, so it was really cool that he chose to do this. He is just a great dude, but he is also a great entertainer. He knows how to make a video pop. He’s a superstar.”
Besides music, Legend has been a constant face on the campaign trail, openly voicing his support and zeal for Barack Obama. He introduced If You’re Out There in front of over 75,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in August (the song is on his upcoming album). He also took the time to talk to Clutch about his life, career, women, and the artists who he’d most like to work with.
Clutch: What’s going on with you these days?
Legend: Just promoting my new album man (laughs). It’s coming out October 28 and we got a lot going on. I have to fly to Japan, then to Hong Kong and then to London and then back here to the states, going around the country doing radio and promo. Just very busy leading up to the release.
Clutch: Speaking of your album, let’s juxtapose it to your last album. Once Again was very chilled, more for lovers, real laid back. Then Green Light comes out and it’s faster paced and made for the clubs. Is this single indicative of your new album?
Legend: No I don’t have too many other songs like that. But I definitely wanted to pick up the pace a little bit. We still have some ballads on the album. I know people know me for that, and I didn’t let them down, I gave them some really nice ballads. But I wanted to make this album feel more energetic, inject more urgency into this album.
Clutch: When you construct an album, do you sit down and construct a blueprint of where you want it go?
Legend: Nah, I don’t plan it out that much. I’m not a huge visionary like that. I don’t see everything that‘s going to happen before it happens. I’m one of those kind of people that I kind of go in and create and see where it goes. And then it starts to take shape and then I really put it together and construct it. Once I start making songs and seeing how I am feeling it and what creative energy is happening, then I let it be what it’s going to be, based on my collaborations and creativity. Then once it takes more shape then you see where it’s going and you either continue in that direction or switch it up a bit.
Clutch: Kind of like jazz improvisation?
Legend: Well, it’s similar. Obviously the songs are written so that’s not improvised. But the process is improvised. You don’t really know what’s going to happen and sometimes you do things that you didn’t expect. Like Green Light. I didn’t expect to make that song but I made it, I wrote it and it became what it became. That’s what happens sometimes. You’ll write a song off a guitar loop that you hear, or a tune on a piano or a beat a producer gives you . . . and it takes on its own life.
Clutch: With your hectic schedule, do you actually have time to practice your skills anymore?
Legend: I use my performances and soundtracks as practice. The work itself is practice. Every time you go out you just try to get better at singing, entertaining, everything. Every time you step in the studio, you try to get better at writing and honing in on executing everything better than you did the last time. My work is my practice.
Clutch: Who are your musical inspirations?
Legend: Everybody from Stevie Wonder to The Beatles to Marvin Gaye to Nina Simone to Jeff Buckley to Aretha Franklin.
Clutch: What artist do you particularly enjoy working with?
Legend: Will.I.Am. We really make some good records—Ordinary People, She Don’t Have To Know, Save Room—and then we did three records on this [upcoming] album. Plus we have worked with other people. We just get along really well and we create really well together. We’ll go in and make three records in three days. Quick. We are a prolific duo.
Clutch: Who haven’t you worked with that you would like to work it?
Legend: Umm . . . I’d love to do a duet with Alicia Keys or Beyonce. I haven’t done that yet.
Clutch: You’ve been quite active on the Obama campaign trail. Describe this journey.
Legend: It’s been exciting, it’s been inspiring, sometimes it’s been . . . frustrating. You know because you see how the press covers certain things and you see how the Republicans just lie with no frickin’ (sic) conscious. You see that and it gets frustrating, but I think he’s going to pull this out.
Clutch: How would you describe your fashion style?
Legend: Well, it depends. In regular life I just wear T-shirts, jeans or a hoody. Then when big events come around I clean up, get elegant and fly, a tuxedo and full trimmings. It all depends on the event and the circumstances.
Clutch: Tell me something that many people don’t know about you. Secret hobby or talent?
Legend: Actually, bowling. When I’m on the road, I either bowl . . . or play Madden. That’s my s—.
Clutch: What’s your favorite song recorded by yourself?
Legend: Hmm . . . good question. I’d have to say…Ordinary People. It’s one of those songs that I think will endure and you always want to have those kind of songs. On the upcoming album I got a new joint on the new album called This Time that I think will be one of those as well. But then I also really like Green Light, because it shows people a different side of me and it’s just a great single and a great record.
Clutch: What’s your favorite song by another artist?
Legend: Another good one. . . Hallelujah recorded by Jeff Buckley, but written by Leonard Cohen. And I really like I Love You Porgy by Nina Simone.
Clutch: Who is your favorite current artist?
Legend: I would say Jay-Z.
Clutch: Why Jay-Z? That the cliché’ answer.
Legend: (Laughs) For obvious reasons, and plus I still think he’s the greatest rapper period. He’s still on top of his game. Going through his catalogue and his current music, I could pull any one of his records and I’ll be happy listening to it.
Clutch: What makes a woman fly in your eyes?
Legend: Part of it is her attitude or swagger, the level of confidence she has and how she carries it. She needs to dress well and style herself well. It doesn’t have to be a specific style, but she has to do it with some confidence and with attitude. Then it has to do with chemistry. Does she make me laugh? Does she make me smile? Does she make me feel good about myself? All of those factors matter.