Leon Bridges – Ebony Torch Bearer of Soul Subtlety (by A. Scott Galloway)

Smoke from the last whistle blow of a train as it pulls out of the station…fried chicken and biscuits in a corner café…top down cruise on a long stretch of empty Sunday highway… These are the images that the sound of Leon Bridges’ music conjures. Born in Atlanta and raised in Fort Worth, Texas as a no-shame-in-his-game mama’s boy, now 26 year-old Bridges was raised with the sound of country preachers and singers in his ear on the AM radio dial. While studying dance choreography at Tarrant County College, he was divinely guided away from the Ginuwine and Usher songs he’d just started peeping to the pure soul of Sam Cooke and the conscious poetry of Bob Dylan. No record collector he, Leon spied up his history of classic R&B on Pandora. Discovered while moonlighting once a month at a local club as he earned his wage bussing tables and sudsing dishes, Leon Bridges is now a fast rising star, appreciated as much for his authentic soul sound as his taste in classic men’s fashion.

Fast-tracked to Columbia Records (and a co-pub deal at Sony/ATV) with his first LP, Coming Home , now in stores, Mr. Bridges has become a consumer-embraced critical darling and a first class throwback anomaly in Black music. His lead single “Lisa Sawyer” is a beautiful ode to his mother while the rest of his sensible and sensitive 10-song album is filled with numbers about romantic devotion, spiritual redemption and down home good times. Leon’s is a welcome voice of elevated empathy and thinking in a time when we need them most in music.

In New York for a pit stop before heading to Amsterdam to continue his soul ambassadorship, Leon spoke with Los Angeles-based Music Journalist A. Scott Galloway about the elements he has carefully put into place to make him and his music stand apart from the crowd.

SCOTT: Do you remember the moment that you knew you were shifting emphasis from dance choreography to singing and songwriting?

LEON: I met this guy who would bring his keyboard to school every day. We would sing together between classes which developed my desire to sing and create songs. We were singing covers and songs off the top of our heads. I eventually grew tired of having to depend on him and other people for my creativity so I went out and bought my own guitar and started writing songs.

Before that, I had another moment when a female friend let me borrow her guitar and showed me a couple of chords. That was the beginning. From that day, I told myself I wanted to be creative and do something different with R&B.

SCOTT: What is your memory of hearing the first of your songs to take shape in a full band arrangement?

LEON: It was an amazing experience. The guys came from rock band White Denim. To interpret my songs with such subtle arrangements totally blew my mind.

SCOTT: Was “Lisa Sawyer” the very first song you completed to your satisfaction?

LEON: Yes. I wrote that song two years ago. Right after, I wrote “River” inspired by a friend covering that song that goes, (sings) “Down-Down, let’s all go down to the river where we pray” (Alison Krauss’ “Down to the River to Pray”). I wanted to make every song fit “Lisa Sawyer.” That’s when I stopped performing all the other songs I was writing that had been like Alternative R&B mixed with Folk. That was the beginning of me going down the Soul path. I’d found my voice.

SCOTT:  I’m feeling like you and Gregory Porter are very important vocal and songwriting voices – he in a jazz vein – with lyrics that have the potential to positively influence young Black men.

LEON: It’s what the mainstream needs… though there are a lot of Black people making positive music. Some just have not hit the limelight yet. I think it’s refreshing to be a model to young Black kids – for them to see another young Black man making more positive music. It shows them that they can do whatever they want to do even if it’s not the most popular thing. Pursue what you love.

SCOTT: What drives your vintage fashion sense?

LEON: It started when I was dancing. For certain pieces you become a character so you have to raid the costume shop to find an outfit for that dance/role. That’s when I developed a love for vintage clothing. I’ve loved fashion from the beginning, though. I totally fell in love with 1950s and 1960s fashion. You can look at a photo from that period and see young Black men with shirt tucked in, slacks and a nice haircut. And they were just chillin’ – not even thinking about ‘fashion.’ I love that.

SCOTT: Your pure soul music has already gone the route of being remixed by New York’s DJ MICK, bringing your songs in line with what an artist your age that grew up in Fort Worth listening to such as Scarface and DJ Screw? How do you feel about that happening so early?

LEON: Yeah, I heard that. They totally went in on that thing and it sounds amazing! They nailed “Brown Skin Girl.” I can’t deny my love for Hip Hop or Modern R&B. If I wanted to, I could have made an album like that with a Hip Hop influenced feel. That remix was great to show Texas pride.

SCOTT: You’ve gone from coffeehouses to international festival stages with music that feels like it would best be enjoyed in a spot with a small dance floor, and tables and booths for folks to chill. How are you making that adjustment?

LEON: Wow…I really thought about that before I went on the festival circuit…but that’s been one of the joys for me – playing these very intimate songs in front of these big crowds, and being confident and comfortable. It’s translating well. They’re sitting there totally captivated and attentive through our whole set.

SCOTT: It reminds me of that classic dichotomy of Otis Redding playing to a primarily White rock audience at Monterey. That audience is the one that’s embracing you first and on a massive level.

LEON: It’s cool watching larger audiences respond to the way that I sing. Of course you’re going to get the crowd rowdy if you do soul shouts like (sings) “I just wanna telllll ya!” It’s like what a preacher brings out of a congregation. But to get that same reaction with subtler things like I do has been really surprising for me.

I love both worlds. We recently played the Pickathon Independent Music Festival (an outdoor event in Oregon) in this barn. It was hot. I felt this connection in this barn from the 1940s rockin’ these songs. It was a gratifying feelin’. I also love the big stages and really getting the crowd’s attention with these little songs of mine.

SCOTT: Who are you most looking forward to writing or performing with?

LEON: It would be great to work with Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky or Miguel.

SCOTT: Really? So do you see yourself married to the classic sound you have now or will you branch off into other more modern musical styles?

LEON: Right now, I like to keep everything in the vein of classic good ol’ soul music. I want everything I do to reflect that. So even if I hop on something with Kendrick, it has to be an extension of what I already do. I see myself growing musically and lyrically but in the same lane of classic soul music.

SCOTT: Beyond your heartfelt lyrical subject matter – writing about family members, and true love and devotion – I love the space in your arrangements that allows time to feel and appreciate your words, and for those tasty saxophone solos. Too often contemporary artists want to fill up every nook of their songs with themselves and their voices. I dig the wide open spaces in your music.

LEON: That’s a natural element of my songwriting.  It speaks to my innocence to all of this. I don’t really think about it much. I like everything simple. A lot of people ask me, “Why don’t you have a horn section?” I don’t want to go down that linear route of every soul musician performing with a horn section. I want to make my saxophone player shine. Right now I only have one backup singer because I want her to shine, too. It’s great to just have that subtlety. If you listen to my album, there’s no whippin’ guitar solos. These guys could have easily gone there but I love how everything turned out so tasteful.

SCOTT: Watching your set at Glastonbury, I noted that there were no keyboards in your live band though there are some in places on the album. I really dug that your band was just two guitars, bass, drums, one sax and one lovely lady backup singer. 

LEON: That band is everybody I‘ve worked with since Day One that you hear on the album. I want people to feel the songs without a lot of tricks or a thousand (guitar) pedals on stage.

Basically, after (guitarist) Austin Jenkins (formerly of the rock band White Denim) and I met thanks to his girlfriend noting that we wore the same style of Wranglers, he came to see me play solo at this club. He went out called these guys from around town. I already knew all of them, too, I just didn’t know which ones he was gonna call. And my backup singer Brittni Jessie – with the light skin and close cropped curls – we danced five years ago in this video for a Christian pop rapper from Dallas by way of Oklahoma. I knew she was a singer because I saw her post lil’ videos. So when it was time to do the sessions I called her up and told her she should come through. She was like, “You sing?” She didn’t even know.

SCOTT: Though you hail from the world of dance, you can’t really break out your choreography bag with this music. Yet you do have a lil’ signature bounce rock thing that both you and Brittni do on stage. Did you come up with that or is it just the way you move naturally to the music when you sing?

LEON: It’s the natural way that I move. It’s so weird, like, every now and then I do a lil’ something different. If I wanted to, I could get up there and just bust a move. One of my friends I used to dance with told me, “Don’t give `em too much – just a lil’ taste now and then!” So I keep that lil’ rock goin’…or else just stand there for more intimate songs. It’s sexier, I guess.

SCOTT: It leaves the door open for you to integrate more dancing later. I imagine a video where your song is playing but instead of you singing it to the camera, you dance the song instead.

LEON: Oh yeah, that’s one of the plans! This is still up in the air but for “Brown Skin Girl” I’m thinking of coming back to Fort Worth to collaborate with my old dance teacher on some choreography. I’m callin’ up all my dance homeboys to do something cool with a lil’ mystery behind it… only for that video, though. You won’t see me on stage with backup dancers.

SCOTT: Since this interview is for MIQ’s publishing special, my final question is: what is the origin of your publishing company name, Eartha’s Gumbo?

LEON: Eartha is my grandmother. My family is all rooted in New Orleans. My mom always said that my grandmother could make some mean gumbo.