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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent