John Legend: Legend in his lifetime

R&B's most wanted session musician is making a name for himself with Get Lifted, a solo album that is taking the US by storm. Andy Gill meets John Legend

John Legend seems to be everywhere. Check the small print on virtually any significant R&B album of recent years, and you'll find his name somewhere, singing or playing piano, and maybe co-writing a few tracks too.

John Legend seems to be everywhere. Check the small print on virtually any significant R&B album of recent years, and you'll find his name somewhere, singing or playing piano, and maybe co-writing a few tracks too.

He's become the "go-to" guy for the urban music community, ever since a mutual friend got him access to the studio that Lauryn Hill was using, and she was impressed enough to have him play piano on "Everything Is Everything", from her hugely successful The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill album.

Since then, he's done sessions for Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, Eve, Britney Spears, Twista, Dilated Peoples and Black Eyed Peas, among others. He's a singer and musician whose hooks and licks can transform an OK track into a commercial certainty; most recently, his fingerprints were all over Kanye West's The College Dropout, the runaway hip-hop success of last year.

"I played piano and sang a lot of stuff on that album," he says, "from the 'Graduation' song at the beginning of the album, to 'Never Let Me Down', I sang on everything! I even did a little rap on 'Kanye's Workout Plan'."

Since then, Kanye has returned the favour by producing a few tracks on Legend's Get Lifted, which has taken off with such force in the US - last week, it was at No 4 in the pop album charts - that he's unlikely ever to have to go hustling again. In the crowded urban marketplace, Get Lifted stands out for its old-school soul fervour, the result of his grounding in gospel music.

The CD booklet includes two photographs of Legend as a child (when he was just plain John Stephens), one as a three-year-old piano prodigy - so precocious his father had to attach wooden blocks to the pedals so that his legs could reach them - and the other as a smartly-suited and bow-tied eight-year-old in church.

From as early as he could remember, music was an integral part of his existence. "I've loved it since I was a kid. It's always been a big part of my life," he says. "I don't think there was ever a time when I didn't think music was going to be a huge part of my life. I wasn't influenced so much by any specific artists, it was just being around my family, and a bunch of music in church, that inspired me."

In a community suffering the fallout of marital breakdown and absentee fathers, the black church gospel tradition stands as one of the firmest upholders of genuine family values in America. "I love that classic old gospel stuff," he says. "Even though when I was a kid we listened to more contemporary stuff at the time, the vibe I prefer now is more kinda rootsy gospel, the original bluesy sounding stuff."

John has repaid part of his debt to his family by having three generations sing on "I Don't Have to Change" on his album - 16 members of the Stephens clan, from Granny Marjorie to his younger siblings Phyllis and Vaughn.

Legend's demeanour has none of the surly slackness associated with many hip-hop acts. He's unfailingly punctual, polite and thoughtful, and he doesn't require a retinue of hangers-on to bolster his ego. He's always been confident of his own abilities, and was marked out as a leader from an early age, when his skills as an arranger led to him becoming church musical director, a position he held for more than a decade.

"I worked in the Pentecostal Church growing up, then an Afro-Methodist Church when I was in college. It's very charismatic music, very fun, uplifting, animated music, very rhythmic - just live, y'know? All that makes me a better live performer, because I've had all that time to work on performing.

"The Pentecostal Church is well known for being wild and loud - speaking-in-tongues craziness - with the spirit in the room. The idea behind the whole denomination is that that is the signature religious experience, so they're trying to duplicate that in every service! So the music is animated, the preacher is animated, everybody's animated."

That must make it difficult to control the music, I suggest, if people are losing it all around you. "Well, it's more fun, because it becomes semi-improvisational. The musician can take the church where he wants to, he can control the tone ... You can help orchestrate the whole event: you can get it to build, and then the preacher gets up, and you do the slow song at the end for the altar call. There's a tradition and a programme to it, but it can take unexpected turns - if an old lady in the church starts shouting, then everybody starts shouting with her. It's a fun experience."

Legend has lived in New York for the past five years, where he set about building a reputation and making contacts, playing shows at places like The Knitting Factory, the former home of the most challenging avant-garde jazz but now hosting a wider range of performances from R&B and hip-hop acts. "The show I did there was just me on a piano in their downstairs lounge, so it had that vibe you might get at a small jazz show," he says. "It was a fun show, it came out really well, and I thought, 'Why don't I sell this. People seem to like it?'"

Over the next few years, he released four albums on his own label, including three live recordings. Impressed by how old-school soul he sounded, a friend from Chicago playfully called him "Legend" and the name stuck. "I knew it sounded a little presumptuous," he admits, "but I figured it would grab people's attention. By being 'John Legend', I put some pressure on myself, but I'm gonna try to make my music live up to it."

Another friend, his college roommate DeVon Harris, brought his cousin Kanye to one of Legend's shows. Kanye was making waves as a producer for people such as Scarface and Jay-Z, and Legend quickly became involved in his work, singing hooks, playing piano, and co-writing some of the material that would appear on The College Dropout.

Legend has sang on Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name" and "If I Ain't Got You", Jay-Z's "Encore" and "Lucifer", Black Eyed Peas' "The Boogie That B", and Talib Kweli's "I Try" and "Around My Way". But all the while, he was pursuing his own solo recordings. "I guess I never thought about not being a solo artist," he admits.

By 2004, Legend had all but arrived. He became the first artist signed to Kanye's KonMan Entertainment production company and the deal with Columbia came shortly after. With its borrowings from Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and Leon Ware, and its line-up of cutting-edge urban producers such as Kanye, DeVon Harris, Will I Am, Dave Tozer and Legend himself, Get Lifted is a carefully-judged amalgam of authentic soul spirit and contemporary R&B production methods, a modern urban album that manages to engage the listener on an emotional level while avoiding the kind of monstrous R&B vocal indulgences that appeal to American Idol contestants.

"My R&B stuff is very gospel-infused, and hip-hop infused too, which are both energetic musics," he says. "I think it gives more of an edge than the regular R&B music most people do."

His subject matter, meanwhile, is fairly evenly split between pick-up songs, break-up songs, cheating songs and uplifting love songs - the poles between which the greatest soul music has always been stretched. Clearly, Legend is a canny enough operator to know just how far he can push the envelope of popular taste. "Hopefully I'm gonna have a long career," he muses, "so there'll probably be some less commercial albums at some point, just for the fun of it. But first you have to establish yourself for a while."

Like many soul singers, Legend has drawn criticism from the church community for using gospel modes in a secular context, singing the Lord's songs to the ladies. "I get some of that, and I know Kanye got flak for 'Jesus Walks'," he says. "Some people were like, how you gonna put 'Jesus Walks' on the same album as 'Kanye's Workout Plan? or other tracks from his album that weren't so - how shall I put it? - Jesus-inspired. I haven't gotten much yet, but the bigger you get, the more of a target you become so if I get bigger, I'm sure I'll get more." With his star so firmly in the ascendant, that could happen sooner than he imagines.

John Legend plays the Scala, London N1, on Monday; the single "Used to Love U" is out on Wednesday; 'Get Lifted' is out now on Columbia Records

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game