John Legend: If You’re Out There

From Evolver (Columbia, 2008)

John Legend: Pride (In The Name Of Love) (cover of U2)
From Evolver (Wal-Mart Exclusive Version) (Columbia, 2008)

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with John Legend about his new album Evolver as well as where he’s been and where he’s going.

EL: It’s great to see a superstar artist in this day and age who is multi-talented. You can write, sing, and play instruments. Why do you think there aren’t more artists that labels can promote as superstars like they have with you?

JL: Every situation is unique. This is a difficult business. Some times it’s the choices that the artist makes. But the labels are chasing what the consumer wants, and that doesn’t always line up with the type of artist who can do all that.

EL: How do you balance artistic expression with both fan and label expectations. For John Legend, where does music meet business and still come out honest?

JL: First and foremost, I have to be proud of the music and make the best music I can. If I’m excited about it, the label is going to be excited about it. I try to think of the fans, because I want them to be pleased, more than thinking about what the label expects of me.

EL: So album #3… Evolver has a more pop, radio-oriented sound. You stated during an interview with Chris Douridas for New Ground last year, “By not sticking to the script for the second album, it allows me to not stick to the script for the third.” Talk about why you decided to present an album such as Evolver as opposed to a more conventional, soul album.

JL: I just want to keep pushing and challenging myself. Making the same album over and over gets boring. The world keeps moving, and I want to keep moving with it.

EL: I think “If You’re Out There” off the new album is a great call to power song and might be more fitting as a theme song to your Show Me Campaign than what “Show Me” is/was. It’s like the 2008 version of “We Are The World” without the oversaturation of artists in the song. Can you talk about your inspiration for this song and how it resonates with the average American’s psyche right now?

JL: It’s perfect for now. I think there is a hunger for change, and you have to inspire people to move. People got out to vote who hadn’t previously. People got involved. But I also hope that people are inspired to get out to work with charities and get informed with decisions that their congressmen are making.

I think that “If You’re Out There” is a more fitting song for the campaign, but “Show Me” was a big inspiration to start it.

EL: What does it mean to you as a person and as an artist to be able to be the opener for a presidential nominee national convention to sing “If You’re Out There”? That’s not an honor bestowed upon many.

JL: I am honored to be a part of history. It was great to back a candidate who I think was the most qualified.

EL: Back to Evolver… The Sunday Times, a UK publication, reviewed Evolver and had the following to say:

“…his contemporary soul, lovely though its melodies are, suggests facility rather than passion, skill instead of instinct…. You suspect Legend aspires to be a modern Stevie or Marvin. He has ended up as the 21st-century Lionel Richie.”

How do you respond to that?

JL: Well it definitely sounds like a diss, but it’s their right to make that assessment. While I’m not as familiar with Lionel’s work as I am with Marvin and Stevie’s, Lionel has written some great material. So while they’re trying to make it sound like a diss, I feel like my work stands on its own.

EL: You’ve written your own songs as well as for others, much like Isaac Hayes. It seems like the singer/songwriter tag has been lost on the black artist when being spoken about by mainstream publications. Do you consider that a disservice to you and other black singer/songwriters?

JL: I don’t see it as a slight. Some times they do label me as a singer/songwriter but not necessarily in the sense of a guy who picks up a guitar and sings folk songs. I think they use it as a genre categorization. So, no, I don’t see it as a slight.

EL: The lost artform: the original movie theme song. The AP wrote a terrific article last year about studios/directors selecting previously recorded material to create their soundtrack as opposed to having artists create new works to set mood throughout the film. You’ve recorded some very beautiful, yet below-the-radar material for the 2007 films Pride and August Rush, both of which you either wrote or co-wrote. Why do you think original songs have become less common? Is a full soundtrack something you’d be interested in doing?

JL: Right now, the market for soundtracks is down so studios don’t want to spend as much money commissioning an artist for original works. Plus, movies sell better when they use a more familiar song during the commercial. It comes down to what the studios want to spend.

A full soundtrack is definitely something I’d be interested in if the right project came along.

EL: You’re one of the few artists that I’ve heard who can seamlessly switch from a full band show to a one-man band show. Some examples include the Knitting Factory live CD and a show from the Jazz Cafe that the BBC broadcast online before the Get Lifted album came out, both of which were just you and a piano. Have you considered releasing an acoustic album of either new material or compiling acoustic versions of previous material such as some of the Live At VH1 sessions?

JL: I definitely want to do it and have had a lot of requests from the fans for an album like that; so look out for that in the future.

EL: You performed a cover of “I Won’t Complain” on Oprah a couple of years ago. Any chance you’ll pull a reverse Sam Cooke and go from pop (back) to some gospel roots?

JL: Anything can happen. I’m comfortable with a lot of styles, and “I Won’t Complain” was a lot of fun to perform.

EL: Is there any album session you wish you could have been a part of as a session writer or musician, oldies or current?

JL: The first thing that comes to mind is the “What’s Going On” album. It’s such a great album.

EL: With all the soul greats essentially dying off year by year (Barry White, Ray Charles, and James Brown a couple of years ago; Isaac Hayes, Norman Whitfield, and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops this year), each having left his indelible mark not only on soul music, but popular music in general, what mark do you hope to leave on popular music and how will you go about approaching it?

JL: I just want to be remembered as a great songwriter and performer. I’d like to be remembered as an artist who made some classic songs. Hopefully I’ll continue to perform for a long time.

EL: Speaking of performing, I’ve seen you live a couple of times – from your Get Lifted tour in 2005 and this past summer at Indy Jazz Fest in addition to your DVD releases. I’ve noticed you’ve gotten more comfortable with being out front dancing and not necessarily being tied to the piano.

JL: I have become more comfortable with being out front. It’s an expression of the music, I think, and the fans come to connect with you. So I want to connect with them. Some of it, too, is that certain songs don’t call for a piano, and so it wouldn’t make sense to just sit there behind a piano on them.