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
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments