The cultural kerfuffle over Lil Nas X's Old Town Road — is it rap? is it country? is it both? — got Leon Bridges thinking.
"I kind of understand and know the formula to do those kind of things," the 29-year-old soul singer said by phone from a tour stop in Chattanooga, Tenn. "I want to make R&B music with a little bit of twang running through it; that's a thread that'll always run through my music, because I'm a Texas boy. But respect to Lil Nas X, respect to what he's doing, but that's not the lane I want to go down."
So what lane does Bridges want to be in? That's been the question since his 2015 album Coming Home, a meticulously vintage-styled collection that earned frequent, fervent comparisons to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. While songs like River and Smooth Sailing made Bridges famous, earning him Grammy nominations and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, something about the wave of acclaim he was facing was starting to feel disingenuous.
Enter pop mega-producer Ricky Reed, whose resume of hits includes Jason Derulo's Wiggle, Meghan Trainor's No and Halsey's Bad at Love. In Reed, Bridges found someone who could push his sound forward a few decades, incorporating elements of more modern pop and R&B. The result, last year's Good Thing, was another critical success, earning Bridges his first Grammy win for the song Bet Ain't Worth the Hand.
"It was easier when I was writing and there was no audience," Bridges said. "I feel like Ricky understood how to exist and do things in the pop world, but also maintain integrity. That was the awesome thing about him. We could have went totally deep down the pop-world hole, but we were able to find that balance of making pop music but also keeping that integrity within the music. Otherwise, it wouldn't have worked for me."
Before Bridges plays Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday, he talked about shedding his old imagine, his love for Post Malone and more. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
I saw on Instagram you were just at one of Kanye West's Sunday Services. What was that like?
One of my good friends put me on the list for that. And man, it was an incredible experience. He had a choir and a bunch of musicians, and they did renditions of gospel music and some of his songs. I knew that it was going to be a beautiful thing, just some freaking incredible musicianship. But it definitely exceeded my expectations. It was amazing to actually be there.
The last time you came here was on tour in support of Coming Home. How different are you now?
Within the little experience that I've had touring and just living, I've definitely grown as a performer and a musician and singer. The whole live show's different. Shout-out to my musical director, Josh Johnson, who was able to take some of the old songs and reimagine those to fit in with songs from the new album without compromising the art.
Did you feel limited by being marketed as this throwback soul guy?
It was one of those things that when I started to pursue this sound, I wasn't expecting to be discovered, or to be successful with it. My intention for making that kind of music was to honor black music from that era. I never thought that I would be pigeonholed, or these labels put on me. I felt that I was being put in a box. I felt that I was more than '60s R&B music.
Was there a moment when you lost control of that narrative?
I guess towards the end of the touring cycle for Coming Home. It started to notice that some people were coming to my shows to experience some type of nostalgia — and that's awesome. But I wanted to be true about some of the other influences that I've had in my journey. It just got to the point that I felt like the style I was making didn't do justice to what I was capable of. I wanted to change, but I kind of felt reluctant to change because I knew that I could possibly alienate some fans. It was a decision that I had to make, and a decision that I wanted to make to get out of pigeonholing.
Do you have an idea in your mind of a perfect pop song?
One of my favorites that I was pretty obsessed with for a minute was Sunflower by Post Malone and Swae Lee. Honestly, a song is a song; it doesn't matter what the outfit is. I look at it as, it's great songwriting, the melody in that song is infectious, and if you tie it in with the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie, the way they plug that song into the movie, that just made it more powerful. That's definitely one that I wish I'd wrote.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.