John Legend talks married life, '12 Years a Slave,' the art of collaboration, Kanye West, Bill Withers and more
Now that John Legend is officially a married man, there’s only one wedding question left to ask:
Is he planning to sing when his pal Kanye West walks Kim Kardashian down the aisle?
“If he asks me to, I’ll do it for sure,” Legend laughed during a recent phone call from his home in New York. “He was at my wedding, and he loves All Of Me, and Kim loves All Of Me, so maybe they’ll ask me to sing that. But whatever he needs me to do, he’s a good friend and he has been for a long time, so I’ll be there to help out. Whatever he needs.”
Since crashing the pop world in 2004 with his Kanye-produced debut album Get Lifted, the nine-time Grammy winner has proven time and again that he’s up for just about anything. As one of the classiest figures in modern music, he’s collaborated with every significant name in hip hop and R&B, from Herbie Hancock to Ray Charles to Jay Z. In his downtime, he’s become a tireless champion of countless charitable efforts and causes, particularly education reform.
This year, Legend seems to be doing okay for himself. He’s managed to (A) release his fourth solo album, Love in the Future; (B) curate and perform on the soundtrack to prime Oscar contender 12 Years a Slave, which comes out next week; and (C) marry supermodel Chrissy Teigen in a lavish ceremony in Lake Como, Italy. Not exactly a rough patch, huh?
As Legend comes to town Monday for a concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall (click here for tickets), we asked him to let us peek in — if only for a while — on his seemingly perfect life.
I can imagine you’re probably knee-deep in wedding-gift thank-you notes, so thanks for making the time.
(laughs) Yeah, there’s always lots going on, but things are good. I’m happy.
Is married life all you thought it’d be?
We’ve been living together for such a long time that I feel like we’ve already been married. (laughs) So it’s not that different. But it is a little extra nice. There’s a little extra glow on everything.
Have you found that being part of a famous couple is different from being famous, period?
Yeah, because it gives people something else to talk about. Before, most of the things people talked about with me was the music. Now it’s probably about equal between the music and my relationship. The fact that she’s well known herself makes it so that my relationship is a topic of conversation.
Is it stressful? You seem like the coolest and calmest cat on the block. Is there anything in your life that causes you stress?
(laughs) Well, you know, everyone has challenges. I’m just the type of person that handles things in a way that’s very calm.
What about musically? Again, you seem to glide through the music world. Is there anything about your job, your livelihood, that makes you uncomfortable?
Well, I mean, nothing about this is easy. Being successful in this business is very difficult, and it is a challenge. There’s always new artists. There’s always the crowd — their tastes can shift and change, and you have to do what you need to do as an artist to stay vital and stay relevant. Every time we make an album, the challenge is before us to make music that’s great and important and beautiful, and that also is able to capture the attention of the public.
Was that the case with 12 Years a Slave? When you were presented with that project, what was your decision process like?
That was a labor of love. I love making music anyway, but when I saw the film, I just knew how special it was. When they asked me to curate the soundtrack and reach out to other artists to get involved, to me, it was like a public service to do whatever I could to bring more attention to the film. And also, I approached it with a bit of humility. I’m just feeling honored to be part of something that’s so special, because the work that (director) Steve McQueen did is just phenomenal. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in many years.
Are you going to be part of the Oscar campaign? Are you already feeling that surge behind the film?
I know there’s a lot of Oscar talk, and I don’t know that the soundtrack is even eligible. But I do know that the film is so worthy, and anything they need from me to help, to get publicity for it or anything, I will do. But they have some formidable stars attached to it, with Brad Pitt and (Michael) Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and then of course the director, Steve McQueen. I think they’ll have a great team out there to talk about the film and make sure people know about it. I’m here to help in any way they need me to.
You wrote some original songs for the soundtrack, right?
The song we did, Move, is a song that I wrote with Fink, and I actually wrote it before, but I never put it out. I felt like musically, it fit perfectly with the motif that I was trying to create with the album. And then I cover an old spiritual called Roll Jordan Roll. A version of it is featured in the film, sung by some of the cast members. And I wanted to do another version of it for the album. I just did my research and did a bunch of different versions, and tried to do my own interpretation and pull from the best of some of the other versions I’ve heard, like Mahalia Jackson and others.
What’s your process for determining how and when to collaborate with someone? Do you have a mental checklist when someone pops up to you on the red carpet or a party and says, “Hey, we should do this!”
Well, it’s one thing if they’re saying, “Let’s write together.” Because then you can’t really evaluate the creative. All you can evaluate is, “Would I be happy having a song out with this person? Would I be happy writing with this person?” And that’s actually a pretty low bar for me, because if it’s just, “Hey, let’s write together,” as long as they’re a legit artist that I think is relevant and is making music people care about, it really doesn’t take much for me to sit with them for three or four hours and write. If we come up with a great song and it’s something special, you’ve spent three to four hours really well.
It’s different to say, “I want to do a duet on this particular song with this particular artist,” because then you’re saying you want to be seen with this particular artist, you may shoot a video, it may be a single. You have to love the song, you have to love the artist, and you have to love the idea of you two being packaged together as a duet. You have to believe that all these things are in order before you get ready to do that. But writing with someone or playing with someone or producing someone, it’s a lower bar, because it’s not your name on the line as much. But it’s just fun to collaborate and try a new idea with someone new.
There’s times where it doesn’t work out. Some artists are much more precious than I am about things. Some people are super-guarded about collaborating. Me, I’m a really open collaborator. Like I said before, you just go in for a few hours, and maybe you’ll come up with something awesome. If you don’t, then you just move on.
Can you compare the experiences of recording with Kanye West and recording with Lauryn Hill?
It was very different with Lauryn, because I was so young. I was 19 years old, and I was looking up to her like this hugely famous person, and I wasn’t even famous at all. I was still a student in college. So I was just being quiet and trying to stay out of the way for a while, because I wasn’t there necessarily to be put on the record, I was just there to meet her and absorb the scene. But it just developed. My friend introduced me to her and said, “You should really listen to John play,” and eventually I did, and she asked me to play on that record (Everything is Everything). So when I was working with her, it was more like I was happy to be there, and whatever she asked me to do, I was going to do it.
And then with Kanye, we kind of came up together, so we’ve been friends and more peers, and it wasn’t the same kind of vibe. We’ve always been more equals. We’re around the same age, and we both got our start around the same time. I still rely on him as a producer and as a manager and an advisor. So in that sense, he’s a mentor in some senses, but at the end of the day, I look at it more as equals and peers, even though he’s really gifted at certain things that I’m not as gifted at. And I definitely rely on his advice a lot.
I saw an interview with ?uestlove where he said his next project might be to try to bring Bill Withers out of retirement. Is there an artist you’d like to bring back to the spotlight, or shed some light on, through some sort of collaboration?
It’s funny, because we all became friendly with Bill through doing the Wake Up album. We did one of his songs, I Can’t Write Left Handed, and Bill Russell, the basketball player from the Celtics, heard it and called Bill Withers up and said, “John Legend and the Roots did this awesome cover of your song. You should hear it.” From that call, Bill Withers found me and emailed me and told me how much he loved what we did with his song. He is one of those artists that I’d love to see come out of retirement, too. So maybe ?uestlove and I can both team up to make that happen.
What did you say? Did you make your pitch for him to come out and do a set or two?
No, I didn’t. I haven’t done anything like that. We just became friendly, and I invited him to a few of my shows, and he’s been to my house for a couple of barbecues. I haven’t tried to pitch him anything, but maybe someday.
Even at your house, at your parties, you haven’t said, “Hey, there’s a piano over there...”
(laughs) No, because I hate it when people do that to me. You just want people to be able to chill and not feel like they have to work.
Do you get that when you walk into a room and you see a piano sitting somewhere? Do you think, “Oh, god, everybody’s going to be looking at me and this piano...”
Well ... no ... but sometimes, when you do this for a living, it’s not something we just want to do all the time. (laughs) We want to relax. We love being musicians, but because we spend so much time on it, and it’s our job, it’s not as exciting for us to just sit down and play in front of random people, just because there’s a piano around.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*