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R&B Artist John Legend: 'Once Again'


I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of music)

In 2003, John Legend was an independent songwriter, performing and distributing his music himself. A year later he released back-to-back hits Ordinary People and Used To Love U. A legend was born. His debut CD, Get Lifted, garnered him three Grammies - best R&B album, best R&B male vocal performance and best new artist. Now Legend's got a new CD, Once Again, currently number four on Billboard's R&B/hip-hop charts. I recently caught up with him during his tour.

John Legend, thanks for coming over to NPR West.

Mr. JOHN LEGEND (R&B Artist): It's good to be here. Good to be here.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, it's great to have you here, because you seem so prolific and in some ways experimental. You know, with this album, once again, you have a wider range of influences…

Mr. LEGEND: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: …than your first one. I noticed kind of - words that come to mind are symphonic, folksy, old school, Brazilian. How do you blend these different traditions?

Mr. LEGEND: Well, for me I just listen to all of that. I listen to all those kinds of music, from classic soul to hip-hop to Brazilian music to, you know, jazz to indie to alternative. So whatever. I listen to all if it. Classic rock and classic pop, all of that.

And for me, when I'm making music, it's all in my head, and all those influences in my head. So if something comes to me that's a reference from a different genre then people are used to hearing from me, I'm not afraid to go there with it. And for this album, I think I was more experimental with bringing different sounds, bringing different producers in to, you know, just make it more eclectic and more interesting.

CHIDEYA: You say you're not afraid to go there? Are you afraid your audience won't follow?

Mr. LEGEND: I wasn't afraid. For me, it was just about making the best music I could make. And I figure it would find the people that wanted to hear it. And so far so good. We've sold a lot of records of this next album. And I'm happy, I'm pleased. I think the fans are really happy.

And there's some people that are like, eh, I wish you did it more like the first album. But I think the vast majority of people see this album as growth from the first album, and I'm happy.

CHIDEYA: You know, I read that one of your favorite albums is Jeff Buckley's Grace.

Mr. LEGEND: Yes.

Mr. LEGEND: And that is one of my favorite albums too.

Mr. LEGEND: Yes, I love it.

CHIDEYA: And I hear a hint of that in “Coming Home.”

Mr. LEGEND: Yeah, well, “Coming Home,” but even more so I think on Show Me you'll hear more of it. You know…

CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit about who he is. I can…

Mr. LEGEND: Well, Jeff Buckley for me is one of the greatest singers I've ever heard. And the reason why is he has an amazing range, amazing emotional power in his voice. And the music he put around it also just had this passion and this soul to it and this spirit to it that very few artists have, and he passed at a very young age. And so we don't…

CHIDEYA: He drowned.

Mr. LEGEND: Yeah. We don't have a lot of music from him. It's so inspirational if you listen to it. It's just beautiful music. And I listen to it a lot. And I won't even claim to sing like him. Like I can't even, you know, approach that. But on “Show Me” I tried to evoke some of the things that he did.

(Soundbite of song “Show Me”)

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Show me the light, show me the way, show that you're listening, show me that you love me, show me that you want me. Hopefully just to know me, heaven's watching over me…

CHIDEYA: Who else inspires you?

Mr. LEGEND: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles, Outkast, Jay-Z. I mean…

CHIDEYA: So keeping it eclectic.

Mr. LEGEND: Eclectic. Yeah. Those are just people I really enjoy listening to. And to me, as a musician, there aren't any boundaries genre-wise as far as what can you listen to to inspire you. And all those things are inspiring. I listen to stuff from the ‘50s, I listen to stuff from now and everything in between.

(Soundbite of song “Show Me”)

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) I prayed for the world, it gets worse to me, wonder if you're listening, when people go why do you go…

(Soundbite of song “Where Did My Baby Go”)

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Where did my baby go, I wonder where she went off to. I miss my baby so, I'm calling but I can't get through…

CHIDEYA: So I just want to cover a couple more of the tracks. “Where Did My Baby Go.” You get very symphonic at one point with that. What was the inspiration for that song?

Mr. LEGEND: That was actually a song that the chorus came to me on the subway like years ago, when I was still riding the subway in New York. And it was like probably three, three, four years ago that melody just came to me…

(Singing) Where did my baby go? Da da da da da duh duh duh…

(Speaking) And I didn't know, you know, where it was going to go, exactly where the song was going to go. And I didn't even know stylistically if it was going to fit with other stuff that I did. Because I think it wouldn't have fit as well on Get Lifted.

But once I started writing it, I actually started writing it last year in between a couple of tours. And I really loved it, but it still didn't know what I was going to do with it ‘cause I didn't know if the vibe was going to fit with everything else I did.

But it turned out that this album actually made sense for it because it is eclectic and it has some of those flavors that this song really fit well with.

(Soundbite of song “Where Did My Baby Go”)

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Can you see her out there, tell her I'm still here waiting for the day when she will reappear. Where did my baby go, I wonder where she went off to. I miss my baby so, I'm calling but I can't get through…

CHIDEYA: That song that you do, “Please Baby Don't,” that is such a tease. Please baby don't fall in love with me…

Mr. LEGEND: Don't fall in love with me. Yes.

CHIDEYA: Such a tease.

Mr. LEGEND: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Do you like doing that? Do you like playing little tricks?

Mr. LEGEND: Well, I like songs that have like a little bit of quirkiness to them. Like on this album, another song that kind of has that boss nova feel is “Maxine,” and it's quirky too. It's kind of accusing my girl of cheating on me, but in kind of in a roundabout way, saying, you know, I saw this beautiful woman, she looked so much like you, but she was out with this other guy. She might not have been you but it looked a lot like you. And it's kind of accusing her of cheating on me, but in a kind of sexy, romantic way almost. That's what I like to do with songs, is kind of throw a little curveball in the lyrics or in the arrangement, to kind of give it a little twist to it.

(Soundbite of song “Maxine”)

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) She may not be you, but she looks just like you…

CHIDEYA: Now, in that last sentence that you said, you know, accused her of cheating on me.

Mr. LEGEND: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Do you consider yourself the doppelganger, the twin of the person who's singing the songs, the character who's singing the songs? Or is it just you and all your experiences? How do you…

Mr. LEGEND: Well, sometimes I get into character. And Maxine is actually completely made up. That song, you know, even though I'm saying I'm accusing her of cheating on me, I haven't actually seen my girl cheating on me ever or any of my past girlfriends ever. So I have no personal experience with that, but it just seemed like a cool story.

And I kind of borrowed the idea for the story from a song called “Guess Who I Saw Today.” I don't know if you know that song, but Nancy Wilson's done it, and the whole idea of the song is she's going through this story about this beautiful couple she saw at this bar and she keeps saying, guess who, guess who I saw today, my love. And at the end of the song she's saying, I saw you.

And this couple was actually her lover and, you know, someone else that he was cheating with. And so that was the idea for the song.

(Soundbite of song “Maxine”)

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) I took another sip of fine liqueur, it was quite a sight to see, I happened to notice a girl in a light shade of blue, I happened to see her, the sight of her leaves me confused, she may not be you, but she looks just like you

CHIDEYA: Let me back up a little bit. You're someone who's has been playing music since you were, what, three or…

Mr. LEGEND: Since I was four.

CHIDEYA: Four. Were you born for this? Was this just…

Mr. LEGEND: I really believe that. You know, my family is very musical, I was surrounded by it. And from four years old I was the one that asked my mother could I take piano lessons. So…

CHIDEYA: That's unusual.

Mr. LEGEND: Yeah. It wasn't forced on me. It was something I wanted to do. And ever since, I've never stopped, I've never stopped playing music. I never went through a period where I didn't want to do it. I've always loved it and it's always been a huge part of my life.

CHIDEYA: There's a lot of aspiring songwriters, singers, musicians out there in the world. Could you say something that would inspire them?

Mr. LEGEND: Well, you know, for me, no matter how much money you want to make off of singing, no matter what kind of fame you want to make, achieve, the most important thing to me is making music that you're proud of, making music that comes from you, comes from an authentic place in you. And if you do that, no matter how big or successful and famous you become, if you do that, that's the most fulfilling thing, is making music that you love and that you're proud of.

And this business is hard. It's very difficult. It's hard to succeed in this business. And it's not for everyone. Even if you can sing or even if you can write a song, it takes a lot of determination, it takes some kind of thick skin, because you got to persevere despite the fact that people tell you you shouldn't do this or you shouldn't do that or you're not good enough or your style's too different. I've heard all of that stuff.

And you have to be able to persevere through that to make it in this business, and it's not for everyone. And some people, you know, should just go to college and, you know, do what they do and have a great job and not worry about, you know, trying to be famous as a singer. It's not for everyone.

But if you have it in you, you have that passion, if you have that energy in you that you really want to make something creative and make something that's going to impact the world, then go for it, do it and don't let anybody tell you no.

CHIDEYA: So you teamed up Kanye for one song on this album, “Heaven.”

Mr. LEGEND: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Who would you collaborate with if you could mix it up with anyone dead or alive?

Mr. LEGEND: You know, you know, a few people that I haven't worked with yet. But what would be interesting to me, like just very interesting, would be to do something with Nina Simone. Obviously it's impossible now, but I listen to her music and she just had such a different spin on everything. Like she had such a distinct style and so unique and soulful and kind of rebellious in a way as well. And I think it'd be cool to do something with her.

CHIDEYA: What validates you? Your Grammys, your fans, your mom, yourself?

Mr. LEGEND: I think the most important thing is that I'm making music that the people enjoy. So the fans, the people that are out there listening to music and consuming music, I want them to enjoy it and love it. And so that's more important to me than Grammys.

My mother, you know, I want her to like it, but she's not exactly my target audience. So I care more about the fans in general, just making sure they enjoy what I do. And then also I kind of had this kind of ideal of the kind of music I want to make and what I'm aiming for kind of creatively and just the quality of the music that I'm trying to make. And I have that in my head.

It's kind of, you know, there's no real person that that represents, but it's just kind of like a critical ideal that I just want my music to measure up to. But that's another important standard for me. Part of it's just thinking about my place in history and how this music is going to be perceived, if it's listened to, you know, 30, 40 years from now. You know, I just want it to be timeless and timely at the same time.

CHIDEYA: All right. John Legend, thanks a lot.

Mr. LEGEND: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: John Legend's new CD titled, Once Again…

(Soundbite of song “Heaven”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.