this charming man, leon bridges is bringing soul back to popular music
From working two jobs to support his mother to touring the world with his band, get to know the young Texan and his time capsule sound.
With an old school soul sound and a look to match, 25-year-old Leon Bridges really is the full package. Hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, he's laidback and sweet with a quiet confidence that's certainly seeing him through some impressive feats. Rewind not even two years and you'd have found Leon back in his hometown, bussing tables in restaurants by day, playing in coffee shops by night. His started making music just four years ago when his interests were a lot more RnB, only finding his soulful path when a friend said he sounded like Sam Cooke and Leon headed straight to Google. Extensive research ensued and our main man was hooked, having found both his inspiration and the key to his future.
Lisa Sawyer, a heartfelt tribute to his mother and her upbringing in New Orleans, blew up online and well and truly got the singer noticed. He has since performed on Jools Holland and has a festival schedule spanning summer and the world, with Glastonbury this weekend followed swiftly by Latitude in July. This week sees the release of his debut LP, Coming Home, a volume of relaxed and romantic doo-wop; the kind of songs that you can only dream of one day being written about you, and that ultimately make everything feel like it's going to be okay. We chatted to the musical dream over burgers and fries in East London, discussing his past, the suit he wore for the Met Gala and his collaboration with Macklemore.
So where does your talent come from? Are your family musically talented?
Well my mother was a singer and my grandmother was a singer too actually, but I would say that it's all a gift. You can't really teach somebody to sing and write soul music, you know?
And what qualities of soul music do you love in particular?
I love the raw and imperfect quality it has. It's cool when you listen to an old song from the '50s and it gets offbeat for a minute or you hear things that aren't consistent and it's just so beautiful and raw. And I love that soul music back then was pure, you know? And I feel like singing that sort of style today makes me vulnerable. You know, the fact that I'm singing a simple song about love, and not about money and girls and clubbing… that's for my next record!
Were you confident that people would like your music in this sea of modern electronic sound?
I actually wasn't. I didn't really think anything of it though. It was just something that I was kind of just drawn to when I first heard it, and I was determined to write in that way. And I didn't think that it would really translate to people - especially when I first started playing around Fort Worth… it was just me on guitar, there was no band involved. But over time it grew and grew to what you hear now.
Do you think that you would prefer to live in the 50s/60s?
I love the fashion, the way music was made, the culture, the bond between young black men, and the community they had making music together. But of course there were huge social issues, so it would be great to go for a second and be hanging with Sam Cooke… but just for a second.
So do you always dress in this way?
Yes. Of course I didn't come out the womb dressing this way, but one of my mom's older friends, he gave me a whole rack of some of his clothes that he used to wear when he was younger. So that's how it started but I was a little nervous about really going into it, and when I started committing to this music about two years ago… you know, the way I dress isn't a show that I put on for stage or photos, it's a way of life for me. I'm the same way on stage as I am when I'm at the laundrette or the grocery store. I keep it consistent.
And where do you shop now?
I go to different thrift stores, vintage stores. I was recently at Decade in Salt Lake City and it had some really cool stuff there. And I like some of the new designers too, I think Acne have some really cool classic shirts.
Do you have a favourite suit?
My favourites are the Sandro suit that I was able to wear at the Met Gala, and the Dunhill one I had for Jools Holland. I'm definitely gonna get me one of those!
You should. Do you have to be in a certain mood to write music?
It comes in waves you know. Sometimes I'm in the mood and I can just go at it. I don't rely on personal experiences to write a song - even if it's something I've never experienced, I like to paint a picture you know?
And is there a certain ritual or process that you go through?
For me, everything starts out with me strumming the guitar and coming up with the chord progression. Sometimes I have a melody, and the lyrics come after that.
Who do you think is the most talented songwriter who has ever lived?
Hmm… oh man, I would have to say Townes Van Zandt. I just love how he wasn't the greatest singer but he knew how to use his voice and write great songs. That's something that I really connect with, cause I'm not the greatest vocalist out there, you know, and so I like to make great melodies and use great phrasing in my songs.
What about a modern day artist whose lyrics you really respect?
Definitely Tobias Jesso Junior. I just went to some random house show and I had never heard of him. It was just him on the piano and it was really intimate and my mouth was all the way down to the floor. It was amazing. And he's talked to me about writing together.
You should! Have there been any collaborations yet?
I flew out to Seattle to record with Macklemore and his crew, and we put together some really cool stuff. There was no compromising - it was all in my vein. It was great and he was the nicest dude. I have no clue when it'll be out but I'm sure it'll be on whatever project he's working on right now.
You've said before that you were aiming to create a New Orleans sound… what does that mean to you?
It's hard for me to really define it. I know what it sounds like and how to write it… a lot of blues and kind of southern, New Orleans themes and imagery. It's in the way you deliver your vocals too.
Have you spent much time there?
Well my whole family's from there so I would go off and on as a kid. I went for my uncle's funeral recently and my cousin played a trumpet solo that really blew my mind and inspired me to write. The city is always so welcoming. After Katrina happened I heard so many horror stories from people who were in the Superdome, and we had about ten people from our family come to live with us in Fort Worth for a while. It was great! We had damn good food for every meal!
Talking of family, when you first sung Lisa Sawyer for your mum, what did she think?
I didn't show my mom the tune cause I knew she'd be all mushy. I was at home one time and a friend was with me and she was like, you should show your mom that song you wrote about her! So I finally did and she broke into tears.
You seem to have a summer full of festivals ahead of you, right across the world…
Yeah, I'm really excited to play Latitude and Glastonbury. It's cool! I like playing in a setting where you gotta bring it to people who didn't necessarily come out to see you, and who have different music tastes. It's cool to bring such a subtle vibe to a big thing like that. We gonna have fun.
And when you look at your calendar and there are dates for the rest of the year - is that exciting or daunting?
I look at it and I think, oh wow. That's gonna be a lot. It'll be busy but exciting. You know, it's all new for me. I like playing and I feel like the world wants to hear it so I push myself even when I'm tired to always give it 100%.
And when you do get time off and you get to go home for a while, how does it feel?
It's a great feeling. Very nostalgic to be on the same streets that I was on before all of this happened. I remember one of the first shows I ever played was in a coffee shop and a friend was like, 'man, if you ever get famous this will become a legendary place!' and I didn't really think anything of it. But I'm gonna go back and do my record release there. It's actually right by my old job, so I'll go get a bite to eat there before the show!
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
My mother taught me to stay humble and always have a high standard as far as not accepting anything less than quality - and that's something I stuck to with music from day one.
Leon's debut album Coming Home is out now on Columbia Records. Catch him live at Latitude's iArena on Saturday 18th July.
Text Francesca Dunn
Photograpghy Amber Grace Dixon