John Legend talks Christmas songs, Chrissy Teigen, EGOTs, political activism and more

The Grammy (and Emmy and Oscar and Tony)-winning crooner's first holiday tour kicks off Thursday in Clearwater.
John Legend and Chrissy Teigen will host "A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy" on Nov. 28 on NBC. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC)
John Legend and Chrissy Teigen will host "A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy" on Nov. 28 on NBC. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC)
Published Nov. 14, 2018

John Legend and Chrissy Teigen get invited to a lot of holiday parties. This makes sense. Who wouldn't want one of Hollywood's most crushable power couples to come over for eggnog and gingerbread?

"We don't end up going to a lot, just because we don't have time," Legend said by phone this week from Nashville. "This year, I'll be on tour during all the holiday parties. The only one I'll go to is on Christmas Eve. Kris Jenner is throwing one and has asked me to perform at it, so I'll be at that one on the 24th. But other than that, I really won't have time, because I'll be on the road."

Bad news for everyone but Kris Jenner. But good news for fans in cities like Clearwater, where on Thursday Legend will launch his first holiday tour in support of his first holiday album, the funky, swinging A Legendary Christmas.

The show comes two weeks before Legend and Teigen host their own holiday variety special on NBC, A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy. Local fans might get an early sneak peek, as Teigen and their two kids, Luna and Miles, will be with Legend on Night 1 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Teigen's not written into the show just yet, but as her Twitter followers can tell you, she's liable to do pretty much anything.

"Who knows? It's always possible that she'll be involved," Legend said.

Before the show, Legend talked about Christmas music, his political activism and winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — an exclusive Hollywood club known as the EGOT.

This is your first holiday tour, and Clearwater is the first stop. Does a show like this require much rehearsal?

Yeah, because we have a lot of songs we haven't played live before. We're doing all the songs from the new Christmas album, plus some of my old favorites as well. So there's quite a bit of work for the band to do to get prepared, and for us to arrange the show the way we want it to be. And we put a lot of work into the visuals and everything else. But we're almost ready, and I believe we'll be ready by Thursday.

Why is it you're just now getting around to a Christmas album? It seems like that's something you would have been flooded with offers to do right after Ordinary People.

Yeah, it's been something we've talked about for years, but we just never got around to doing it. And if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right. I finally have the time and excitement and everything that I needed to get it done this time. So this was the time. And I think my voice is made for Christmas music. I love Christmas music. I grew up in a family that was very musical, and we loved celebrating Christmas together as a big extended family, and every year we would gather around the piano and it would be a big thing to sing at the end of the day after we'd exchange gifts and play football and eat and do everything else. The most important part of Christmas was us gathering around the piano.

So I was made to do this, and I finally have the time to really focus on it. And sometimes I feel like some Christmas albums get thrown together, but we really put a lot of time and care into it. I wanted it to be really great and classic and something that could be listened to for many years to come.

How do you make a Christmas album sound timeless?

I think part of it is just production choices. We used all live instruments. We were heavily influenced by music from the '50s and '60s and '70s. And I think that's what makes it feel more classic. Christmas albums lend themselves to doing that more than perhaps original albums that are more intended for a pop audience. Part of the premium for those kinds of albums is on newness and freshness and doing whatever the hottest thing is. But for Christmas albums, it's almost like you automatically have permission to be more nostalgic and more classic and timeless.

You got Stevie Wonder to play on What Christmas Means to Me, so I imagine Someday at Christmas was in the back of your mind. Where does that rank for you on the all-time Christmas album list?

Oh, I love that song, I love that album, I love all of Stevie's Christmas music, and all of his music in general. I think he's the greatest solo artist of all time. But the honor of having him on the album was really huge for me. We've been friends for a long time, and we've collaborated many times, but he's never appeared on one of my albums in any capacity. So it was really cool to have him play on the album.

What's the hardest part of writing a new Christmas song? Seems like all the sentiments have been said, all the Christmas cliches and iconography.

The thing is, with any other type of song — love songs, breakup songs — everything's pretty much been written one way or another. It's hard to reinvent these kinds of broad human sentiments. All you can do is try to speak from your own personal experience and tell the story as you feel it and as it comes to you. Obviously, we're going to cover some themes that have already been covered. But we're doing it in a new song, a new melody, a new kind of combination of themes and musical ideas.

Are you bringing the family on tour?

Of course! They'll be in Clearwater; they'll be in as many cities as possible. Sometimes they have to go back home for Chrissy to work, and maybe Luna will get some preschool days in there. But luckily there's not a very intense attendance requirement at age 2 1/2. But they'll be able to stay with us most of the time.

You have this holiday special coming out in a couple of weeks. Why a Christmas special? How was it pitched to you — or did you pitch it to them — in terms of getting your specific chemistry out into the world in a new way?

Chrissy and I have great chemistry in real life, but we also have really great chemistry on screen together. Our personalities, because they're different and complement each other and play off of each other well, it actually works really well on television. In my mind, I feel like one day we would have some kind of variety show or something that we would host together. But in the meantime, we thought this Christmas album was a good way for us to play with those ideas that we may do in the future, for a one-off purpose. It felt natural to do it for this, because Christmas is such a family holiday.

When do you guys actually start with the holidays in your house? The tree, buying gifts, sending out cards?

We usually start after Thanksgiving, late November, as far as decorating. We like to decorate the tree and all the trimmings and all that stuff. We love celebrating, we love cooking, we love having family and friends over. I'm excited to have an album that I worked so hard on that we can play all the time during the holidays. I think it's going to be a staple for our family for a long time.

Let me be the 10,000th person to congratulate you on winning the EGOT. I'm guessing that's something you never dreamed of.

I definitely never did.

Do you think there are people out there who do? Who make winning an EGOT their goal?

I don't know if there are. I think maybe the closer you get to it, it feels more attainable. So if you've got one or two awards and you start to feel like you want to dabble in all these different art forms, then maybe your goal is to do that. I didn't even really think about it until I was three letters in. I didn't set it early as a goal in my life. I was excited to be a musician, excited to hopefully win some Grammys. But I had no concept of winning an EGOT. It never even occurred to me.

You were just in Florida before the election, campaigning in support of Amendment 4, the felon voting rights restoration measure. That passed pretty resoundingly. How closely do you track these things on Election Day and beyond? How do you gauge what impact you might have had?

I was definitely tracking it. It's hard for me to say how much impact I had, because there are a lot of people organizing and knocking on doors. I did what I could. I would argue that the outcome would have been the same regardless of my involvement. But I was happy to give the movement some more exposure, and hopefully I was helpful in some way. Either way, I don't need to take the credit, because I'm just happy with the result, because the result is really, really good for Floridians. It's unequivocally a good thing that 1.4 million people have their voting rights restored, that people who have served their time and paid their debt to society aren't punished for the rest of their lifetimes.

Florida's a swing state, so we see a lot of celebrities campaign down here for big elections. In your mind, do you ever wrestle with how much good you're doing versus how much you're distracting from the issue, or riling up voters who don't like seeing stars on the campaign trail?

I'm aware of the possibility that some people don't like people that don't live in the state coming in and suggesting who people should vote for. I am aware of that possibility. But I'm also aware that one of the biggest challenges that the country has is the turnout among young people. To the extent that I have any influence on their awareness and excitement about the election, I think it's worth me coming down to make it an event that young people are paying attention to. Because we need them to vote. They're impacted so much by the decisions that people in Washington and Tallahassee make that they need to have a say in it. Retirees are voting, people in middle age are voting, and they're going to vote their priorities. But young people are going to be here for a long time. And the decisions that are made by representatives are going to affect them more than anybody else. The reason why I actively get involved with get-out-the-vote efforts is I believe young people might need that extra nudge, and I'm happy to do it if I can.

— Jay Cridlin