Singer/songwriter Leon Bridges recently took the stage at New York’s Bowery Ballroom to present the release of his debut album, Coming Home. The scene was a dichotomy of contrasting eras. Bridges and his band played tunes of love, family and religion through the lens of Texas, New Orleans and Muscle Shoals-fused sounds while his fans used their smarphones to snap his picture. It’s an appropriate metaphor of how Bridges’s music still fits in the 21st century.
The 25-year-old Bridges gained a (still swelling) following thanks to the glowing romantic soul of “Coming Home” and “Better Man,” which didn’t go unnoticed by Columbia Records. Many jump to compare his sound to that of 1960s Memphis-style soul. Although the Forth Worth, Texas, native certainly draws mainly from that, his songs express messages that go far beyond time. Bridges spoke with EBONY.com about the making of his album, how he developed his sound and why soul music and spirituality go hand-in-hand.
EBONY: What’s the music scene like in Fort Worth, and Texas at large?
Leon Bridges: If you look at Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin, they’re all different. Fort Worth, you have country and Americana, but there’s no soul. You go to Dallas, there’s a lot of neo-soul, doing covers. Not a lot of singer/songwriters. You go to Austin, it’s a big melting pot. You got soul, country, Americana, electronic, rock and roll.
EBONY: You’re 25. I’m sure you must have contemporary music interests.
LB: I don’t live in this soul music bubble. I love Young Thug, Drake, Kendrick Lamar. I even heard that Kendrick was a fan of my music. Hopefully there’s a door open for us to do music together. He’s one of my favorite artists. I love Jazmine Sullivan, Lianne la Havas, Usher, Ginuwine. It goes further than classic soul.
EBONY: With both Fort Worth and contemporary interests, how did you choose your music identity?
LB: In the beginning when I first started writing, it was a neo-soul-focused R&B vibe. It was cool, but I hit a wall lyrically. That was one of the reasons, but the biggest reason is one of my friends hearing a song about my mother, “Lisa Sawyer.” I wrote this before I decided to go down this lane of classic soul music. He asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations and I’d never really listened to Sam Cooke like that. After that, I researched soul music and Sam Cooke. I started to see that that’s where my voice was. I never thought of doing music professionally. I just felt this is what makes me happy and this is my writing style, and I just went forward. That was two years ago.
EBONY: Did you write and produce the album all yourself?
LB: No. I wrote all the songs on guitar. What you hear on the record is my band’s interpretation of what the songs would be like with an arrangement. Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, the drummer, are the producers of my record.
EBONY: Tell me about the band.
LB: Everybody who’s touring with me now is everybody from day one that got into the studio with me, all Fort Worth guys. They weren’t hired sessions players from Columbia. This all happened after meeting Austin Jenkins and him saying, “Let’s make a record.” He got all these players I knew from around town who were on different projects. There’s two guitarists, bass, drums, saxophone and one back-up singer. I’m just a front man singing.
EBONY: Did you record digitally or to analog?
LB: It was all analog and everything was live. No Pro Tools, no overdubbing; we were all in the same room going at it live. We mixed it on the console. We didn’t even use headphones. It was cool to feel everybody’s vibe. I was in the same booth as the back-up singers.
EBONY: How did you get the deal with Columbia?
LB: We recorded in August , finished in October. We released the songs “Coming Home” and “Better Man” on a Dallas music blog called gorillavsbear. After we released that, the song just blew up. This was way before Columbia, way before any promotions or radio play. Then all the interest from different labels came. I just felt that Columbia was the best route to go. I’m glad we had the whole record done before they came into the picture. We were like, “This is the record. We’re not changing it.” And they said, “We love it.”
EBONY: You’ve been described as a “throwback” or “revival” artist. Do you think those terms are flattering or limiting?
LB: It’s very evident that it’s revival music, something that reflects the past. That definitely doesn’t bother me now. I’d rather be called a revival artist than the next Sam Cooke. It puts weight on the artist and it makes other people become angry at that type of comparison. My music is more than me writing a flashy soul song. They’re heartfelt songs about my family and true stories. I have also songs that aren’t personal, but just painting a picture. I don’t like being put under labels, but my music is going to continue to stay classic and timeless forever. I don’t see any need for me to go down an R&B or hip-hop lane. It’s all good stuff, but this is what I made up my mind to do.
EBONY: The songs “River” and “Shine” talk about spirituality and repentance. We haven’t heard much of that in soul music over the past 20 years.
LB: When I write, I talk about stories and things that are happening in my life. I come from the church. There was a time in my life when I actually had that transformation and relationship with God. So I talk about that time in the form of very classic gospel song like “River.” I believe that gospel is more than just a sound, it’s a way of life. I don’t really have any shame to talk about spirituality in my music. A lot of your favorite soul songs started out in gospel. Look at what Ray Charles was doing: “I Got a Woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” It’s not only me doing it because they did it; it’s a part of my life. I still want to make them great soul songs where people can say, “I may not agree with this, but it sounds good.”
EBONY: It comes at a good time. Two of this year’s biggest records, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, delve deep into spirituality.
LB: I love when artists do that. You see that honesty. I could been like, I don’t think the label’s going to like this song. I was just going to be me and they were welcoming.
EBONY: How do you feel now that the album is out, and what are your expectations?
LB: It’s been a relief and joy that people can see my whole dynamic. Most people were introduced through “Coming Home,” which is a relaxed, pop, universal song. It’s still soul, but people can see the gospel and blues side to me. I think it’s a great introduction to Leon Bridges to the world.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.