John Legend interview: 'All of Me' has taken my fame to another level

With his latest piano ballad ruling the airwaves, John Legend discusses his upsurge in popularity – and much misunderstood collaborator Kanye West

Sunday morning in Las Vegas, and even the bleary gamblers crowding the lobby of the MGM Grand hotel-casino-theatre complex wouldn’t have bet on the John Legend success story. Ten years after signing a record deal, the R&B singer-songwriter is enjoying the biggest record of his career, and the most ubiquitous transatlantic hit since Pharrell’s “Happy”.

When we meet in mid-May, Legend’s “All of Me” – the third release from his fourth album, Love in the Future – is No 1 in the Billboard Hot 100, having dislodged “Happy” after ten weeks at the top. In the UK it reached No 2 in early April; at the time of writing, it’s still in the Top 10.

Yet even though he’s a nine-time Grammy-winner, Legend’s album sales had been declining, and neither of the previous singles from Love in the Future cracked the American Hot 100. Nonetheless, this is an old-fashioned smash: the piano ballad steadily climbed the charts over here and over there, without splashy fanfare or hype. In the UK, “All of Me” has been on the charts for 19 weeks; in the US, 31 weeks.

The 35-year-old from Ohio is in Las Vegas to play at the Billboard Music Awards, alongside such big-hitters as Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry and Lorde. But curiously, he’s not nominated.

“‘All of Me’ wasn’t really big enough at the time when the awards were calculated,” Legend says, without reproach, as we sit down in an empty guest room in the hotel. “It was too early for me, I guess. But I guess it makes sense for Billboard to have the current No 1 single on the show.”

A quiet, mellow and methodical man, Legend ticks off the song’s achievements. On the Hot 100, it’s the first R&B ballad to top the charts in 18 years, since Mariah Carey’s ‘Always Be My Baby’. “But when it comes to piano-and-vocal singles, there’s only ever been three of them – this one, Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ and Bruno Mars’ ‘When I Was Your Man’.

“The biggest thing for the song was my Grammy performance,” he says of his spellbinding rendition of the song at January’s televised awards ceremony in Los Angeles. “It took it from here to there.” He smiles. “You never know what’s gonna propel these things.”

Legend was moved to co-write “All of Me” with songwriter Toby Gad (Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy”) after receiving an email from one of his managers. “She’s an old friend of mine and she said I should write a song with a similar message as Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always a Woman’. She knew my relationship with my then-future wife, so she thought I should write a song like that to Chrissy.”

Chrissy is Chrissy Teigen, a model who Legend met on the set of the video for his 2007 single “Stereo”. They were married last year, and the video for “All of Me” – featuring Legend and Teigen rolling around intimately – incorporates footage from their Lake Como ceremony. Like the matchmaking clip for “Stereo”, it was directed by Nabil Elderkin. A perfect matrimonial circle, or band of gold, in every sense. Little wonder that “All of Me” is already a wedding standard and piano-bar fixture. Indeed, the pianist in my hotel was playing it the night before I left to meet Legend.

Love in the Future was released last August. Factoring in its bonus tracks, it’s a towering, 20-track monument to the songwriterly craft of modern R&B, melding the vintage feel of Donny Hathaway with the cutting-edge sonic nous of executive producer Kanye West. But still, there was no room for “Trouble”.

I heard the song last January in the London studio of producer Paul Epworth. He’d been working with Legend on a few songs – one of them, “Who Did That to You”, would end up on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. “Trouble” was a terrific soul stomper, the tale of a man who turns to crime to feed his family. It sounded like a hard-boiled sequel to Aloe Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar”. But Epworth said that the song’s inclusion in the tracklisting had been nixed by West. It didn’t fit, seemingly.

Legend confirms the story.

“There was a bit of a disconnect. And I agreed with that. ‘Trouble’ just needs the right musical setting, because it didn’t fit Love in the Future at all. But I love the song, and I will put it out. It reminds me somewhat of ‘Hard Times’,” he says of his cover of the Curtis Mayfield composition. It was the lead track on Wake Up! (2010), the Grammy-winning album of agit-soul classics that the rigorously politically-engaged Legend made with The Roots.

West and Legend are old friends and peers. What do people get wrong about the temperamental rapper and fashion-plate? Legend gives the question some thought before answering.

“Well, I mean, he says what he says,” which is one way of describing West’s penchant for the provocative and the egomaniacal. “And obviously a lot of these things he says are impolite. Or, things that people aren’t use to hearing people who care about their image saying!” Legend laughs. “But I’ve seen all sides of him: I know how generous he can be, how passionate he is about art and creativity, and how much he truly loves making music and designing clothes and making ideas.

“People see negativity coming from him sometimes, but what I see is his true love for art and music. And that makes him one of the most important and prolific and creative artists we have in the business.”

Legend has his own full slate. He’s in the midst of a huge American tour of smaller cities and towns, taking a conversational, Evening with John Legend-style show to theatres. He’ll be bringing that to the UK in autumn, but not before doing another American tour – the success of “All of Me” has necessitated a summer run of amphitheatres.

He’s active in the film world, too. Having curated a soundtrack for 12 Years a Slave, Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co. are producing two movies: a “Flashdance-type” project called Breaking Through, and The Black Count. The latter, to be directed by Cary Fukunaga (HBO’s True Detective), tells the true story of Alexander Dumas’s father. “He was the highest-ranking military officer in Europe who was black – ever. He was the child of a Haitian slave, and became a general in Napoleon’s army.”

But more immediately, John Legend is riding the wave of “All of Me”. If proof were needed of the song’s cultural impact, a week after we meet Legend is in Florence for what the gossip mags – and the betrothed – would have us believe is the Wedding of the Century: the nuptials of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. And, of course, Legend performs “All of Me” for the happy couple.

It’s another “moment” for the song. While Legend has been well-known for a long time, in Las Vegas he admits to me that “All of Me” has taken his fame to another level.

“This is the first song I’ve had that’s truly been a huge crossover hit,” Legend says appreciatively. “It’s just exposed me to fans who don’t listen to R&B radio.” He pauses and smiles again. “Frankly, more white people!”

‘Love in the Future’ is out now on Sony

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat