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

Friday 18 February 2005 01:00

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."

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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

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