Singing in the gospel choir and at wedding ceremonies since the age of five, appearing on the breakthough Miseducation of Lauryn Hill CD ("Everything is Everything") during his teens, and earning his dues by playing with the likes of Twista, Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson----sounds like John Stephens' choice to adopt "Legend" as a stage name was inevitable, not an ego trip. After two platinum-plus selling CD's (Get Lifted, Once Again), five Grammy Awards and lending his star power to charitable organizations and this summer's historic Democratic National Convention, the 29-year-old is now back in the mix with his third CD, Evolver, and on the verge of yet another US tour. In this exclusive chat, John Legend spills the beans on his latest release, why he's down with Barack Obama, where he stands with Kanye West, and why the tabloids and gossip blogs don't seem to hound him as much as his other peers....
I last spoke with you when you released your debut, Get Lifted, a few years ago, and I'm proud of how you've grown since then. Tell me about your latest CD, Evolver---was it a conscious effort to do a 180 with the sound this time, like adding more guest appearances?
"It wasn't really a conscious decision that I made to say that I didn't need anybody else. I was actually responding, I think, to the vibe of the music (on Once Again). It was more intimate and more personal feeling, less hip-hop and more mellow. I didn't think it had a place to feature rappers on there. I had the duet with Mary J. Blige ("King and Queen"), but we didn't get it cleared in time to get on my album, so it ended up going on her bonus album (Reflections: A Retrospective). This album is more uptempo, the beats are harder and there was more of a space to have rappers on there, so that's why we have Andre 3000 and Kanye West. Estelle perfectly fit "No Other Love" and Brandy perfectly fit "Quickly," so I try to decide based on the music. Once I have a song and I know what it sounds like, if I think it would sound good as a collaboration, then I'll put somebody on there, if I don't, I'll leave it alone.
Who else did you work with on this new one?
"Will.i.am on three tracks, Ne-Yo, I worked with a guy nemed Malay, he prodcued "Green Light," it was a bunch of different folks."
How did you feel about the reception of your sophomore CD, Once Again?
"I just got in my own zone; it wasn't like I was trying not to sound like what was on the radio, I was just trying to sound like myself, not like anybody else. Like I said, I'm proud of it from front to back; on its own, it's a classic album and whoever slept on it slept on it, but 2 million people didn't, and they really enjoyed it. "
How do you approach the songwriting process---is it based on what you're experiencing at the time, ideas you run across, or is it different?
"Well, a lot of times, I'm just being creative and sometimes, it depends on what I'm listening to at the time. With the last album, I was listening to more old-school and feeling that vibe. I don't know if it was emotional more than that was where my head was, I think it's in response to whatever music I was listening to. I was an up-tempo or more hip-hop mood, that's what I was feeling this time around. And I was in a good mood, so...(laughs). I'm never really in a super-bad mood, really. At the end of the day, I'm a pretty even-keeled person and I can write about anything no matter what mood I'm in."
Did you have any anxiety in getting in the studio to create this CD?
"I've never had anxiety; that's never been an issue with me. I go in everytime with confidence and boldness and a belief that I'm able to make the music that represents where I am at the time and I'm always feeling like I can top my past effort. That's the way I approach everything; 'let's go in and top the last one.' "
Do you have any favorites on Evolver yet?
"On this album, I like "No Other Love" a lot, I like performing "Good Morning" in shows, and "I Love, You Love." I usually end up liking some of the mellower joints; the uptempo joints have their purpose and I love them too, but something about the mellower joints get closer to my heart sometimes.
When I've seen you perfom, it does seem as though you feel the ballads more deeply.
"It's like a spiritual experience sometimes."
What expectations do you have for Evolver?
"I think it'll shake up that notion because this album is still mature, but it's hipper and fresher than the last one was, more fun than the last album was, so I think it'll shake up what people's notions are. I'm very proud of the last one, no question bout it. I still think it was a classic, but it had a different vibe and some people were ready for it, but some people weren't. This one is more appealing to a younger audience. I just want the listener to really enjoy it. What I try to do is put together a string of tracks that I felt were great for me as a fan of music. What I'd like my favorite artist to do is to give me back-to-back strong material that I can enjoy. I feel like, on this album, this is what we were able to do."
I'm intrigued by a couple of the songs: is there a juicy story behind "It's Over," for example? That's my jam right there.
"Pharrell wrote most of it. It was his idea, but I've definitely had situations where I had to cut it off...(laughs). You've just got to end it sometimes, you can't keep calling and meeting up."
And what about "If You're Out There"? It had kind of a political undertone, was that on purpose?
"There is a yearning in a way, because you're wanting people to join you. When I'm out there doing my work for the 'Show Me' campaign, sometimes you wonder if anybody's listening, or if they care enough about the issues to make a difference. The song is a call to action, a call to arms for anyone who has a mind to contribute and the motivation to actually do it. What we're trying to say is that the time is now, we've already waited long enough to start working on the issues thst we need to handle as a country and as a globe. We're talking about poverty, ending the war, and we need more people out there who are clamoring for change, it's not just about electing Obama, it's just about the mindset and putting pressure on the politicians to be more responsible."
Speaking of Barack Obama, it was wonderful seeing you perform at the DNC and on that "Yes We Can" song--what draws you to the politician and his campaign?
"It was incredible being at the DNC, it was inspiring and historical and I was really proud to be there. It was about observing what kind of man he is and the kind of leader that I thought he could be. I obseved that early on, and since then, he's proven it a thousandfold. It's the way he runs his campaign, and every challenge that's come his way, he's handled with grace, elegance and a sense of calm leadership and direction. You watched Hillary Clinton and John McCain throw all of these darts at him and he remained calm under pressure. He's obviously extremely intelligent and wise when it comes ot the issues. And also, his demeanor is one that I would trust in a crisis. If something's going down, I feel like he would know what to do. I think his temperament would suit the office of the Presidency very well."
Are you doing anything else extra to spread the message?
"We did 'Rock the Vote' registration drive earlier this month in Ohio. I wanted to go back home and make sure everyone knew about early voting and registration. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure that people who listened to me in my home state were paying attention, because last time there was a lot of voter suppression and intentional misinformation given to the black community."
Tell me more about the 'Show Me Campaign.'
"One specific thing we're doing right now is funding a village in Tanzania: there's a program called 'The Millenium Villages Project,' where they select villages throughout the continent of Africa, remote ones with people who live in extreme poverty with environmental and resource challenges. We've also done an education project called the 'The Show Me Poverty Action Tour' where we go around the country and host events for young people who are interested in the idea of ending poverty--we've visited a couple of colleges and perform as well. We're also raising funds for other projects.
If someone wanted to get more information or to donate, where would they go?
"The website is showmecampaign.org."
When I first spoke with you, you were concerned that most people saw you just as Kanye West's lucky protege....do you think that's changed for you now?
"People see us separately now, and it's not (the perception of) 'John is Kanye's artist'. I have my own identity in the public. There's no resentment for Kanye, because I completely appreciate what he's done for me. I still get advice from him and we talk frequently, and obviously, he's on this CD as well. We're two differnent people, while we do have occasional overlaps in our creativity, we do our own thing.I think it's a good relationship: he's still a mentor and advisor to me, but like I said, we're doing our own thing."
What do you gain by being on his label imprint (G.O.O.D)?
"You get the benefit of his advice and his criticism. I'll play him tracks and see what his thoughts are, and whether it's good or bad, I listen to them and take his opinions into account. I think that's a luxury to have someone who's obviously successful and knows a lot about music, as well as marketing. I feel lucky to have someone who's so smart and creative to be an advisor to me."
Is your family still recording solo projects?
"We're done with my younger brother's album (Vaughn Anthony), that's coming out early next year. I have a cousin who sings gospel, we're working on his album. We've got a lot of talented people in my family."
Since we're getting a little personal here, are you on the market, taking applications or....? You know the ladies are curious.
"I'm not taking applications (laughing), there is somebody."
When can we see you in person again?
"The tour starts Nov. through Feb: Raphael Saadiq---we did "Show Me" together on the last CD---is doing the first leg, and we don't know who's on the second leg yet, we're still negotiating that one."
How are you feeling about today's music in general?
"I think that people are feeling free right now to experiment with different sounds; black and pop music is fun right now. People are being creative and I feel like we're in a good moment in popular music. There's Estelle, I'm very proud of her and she put out one of the best albums of the year, I just got T.I.'s album, Lil Wayne's, both of them are doing good things in hip hop. I'm excited to see what Kanye and Jay-Z are going to be doing on his new album."
What advice would you give new artists?
"A lot of things you just have to learn as you go, and part of it is putting yourself out there and get your music criticized, play it live and learn from experience. It takes a lot of focus, persistence, tenacity, and the people who succeed, besides having star quality, are the people who have that."
Do you love or loathe the internet, as far as what it does for your career?
"It's a fact of life, a lot of new records get leaked over the internet, that's how you get feedback from the fans. Whenever my song comes out, I go and search the web to see what people are saying about it, because I'm curious to see how people react to stuff. The internet's a good thing, it keeps you in touch with your fanbase, and it has a good affect on music, because there's so many ways to share it. Obviously, it's hurt record sales because of the downloading, and one way to combat that is for artists to make CD's that are worth buying. Otherwise, you have to understand that you're not going to sell what they sold 10 years ago, top sellers are seven, eight million these days, if that, not 20. That's just how the business is right now. I'm not complaining. I'm in a good position right now, happy and comfortable. I have more than one revenue stream (laughs)."
Your resume is enviable too----is there anyone else left for you to work with?
"There's plenty of big stars that I haven't worked with yet, like Beyonce, Amy Winehouse, Lil Wayne, people that I respect a lot. I would like to do a record with them."
Another drawback from the internet is the gossip sites: how do you deal with with the tabloid element of success?
"There are more photographers, more bloggers than there have ever been, You just have to get used to the fact that you don't have as much privacy as you might have thought you had. It's a small sacrifice for me: I'm not out partying in Hollywood, I'm out working most of the time. Some people are more intruded upon than others, and what I've found out is that people who are in the tabloids everyday are people who encouraged it at first and now they don't like it anymore. I've never courted tabloid attention, I've only wanted attention for my music, so that's what made it all more tolerable for me. I'm able to live my life and walk around the East Village; people come up to say 'hello' all the time and tell me they love my music, but it doesn't get out of hand."
Are fans able to get that quick picture and autograph from you then?
"If I'm not in a rush, I usually give people what they want, and I appreciate the fans."
I'm glad to get the chance to chat with you again John; thanks, God bless you and I'm looking forward to seeing you in concert again.
"It was a pleasure speaking with you. We covered a lot, so....I think you've got it in the bag. Don't misquote me (laughs)."
By Melody Charles