If You Don't Know Soul Singer Leon Bridges, You Should

On repeat: we’re obsessed

leon bridges
(Photo: Facebook.com/LeonBridges)

You know when your crush comes over to your place for the first time, and you want to play exactly the right music to make him fall just the tiniest bit in love with you? Leon Bridges is your man. With Coming Home (Columbia), the 25-year-old Texan has created a winsome, gospelly soul album that’ll make you feel like you’re slow dancing all sweaty to a jukebox in a tiny southern bar in the 1960s.

Bridges is majorly crushable himself; he may be sweet and soft-spoken, but he’s also an old-school showman with a swoon-inducing stage presence, complete with choreographed dance moves and an impeccable wardrobe of vintage trousers and blazers that are as classic as his man-out-of-time music (he even made it into the Met Ball this year). If only he’d join us for a dance or two.

Senior culture editor Briony Smith chatted with the handsome and incredibly talented soul man during a stop in Toronto about whether he’s single, how he writes his songs and dressing so dapper.

What is your songwriting process like?
A lot of my songs just start with a melody. As I’m going throughout my day, or in the middle of touring, I will just hum out a melody, whatever comes to my head. I usually mold the lyrics within the melody.

What drew you to soul?
I started writing and playing guitar about four years ago and it was a neo-soul, alternative vibe. I wrote a song around that time about my mother and a friend asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations, but I had never really listened to Sam Cooke. I went on Pandora and YouTube and searched “Motown” and different soul chords. I started realizing that this is where I needed to be and I really started connecting with it.

As a Texan, do you feel any Texas in your music?
In a sense, like, if you look at country music—I love Townes Van Zandt, I love Willie Nelson. I like to take some of that country vibe into my music, but I really just pull from all over. The place that I really reach from is New Orleans. My whole family is from New Orleans. I really try to embrace that in my music a lot.

Leon Bridges
(Photo: Leon Bridges)

You are so young, but remind me of Otis Redding in that when he was young, he still somehow sounded so old and wise in his music. Where do you think that comes from in soul? Why is the wisdom and world-weariness so prevalent in the genre?
I don’t even know how to explain that. I’m a young man and a man that’s still learning and doesn’t know a lot of things, so I wouldn’t even say that I’m a wise person. But a painter he doesn’t have to necessarily have to have experienced something to paint a picture. It’s all about imagination and just being creative. When I started writing this music, it was more like my idea of what a 1950s or ’60s soul song was. It was like, I’m going to try this out and see if this works and hopefully it works.

The actual production has that crackly, vinyl recording sound. How did you do that and why was that important to you for the music?
Austin Jenkins—my guitar player and good friend—came up to me after playing my solo set one night he said, “Man, I want to make a record for you and I want to make it sound like it came out of the 1950s or ’60s.” He said, “We’re going to record everything on tape.” When he told me that I didn’t really know anything about that side of music. And I was like, “Cool, I’m down with recording in whatever way as long as it really captures the sound.” We sat down and played out my songs and recorded them on his phone and he sent back some Garage Band arrangements and I started to realize that this was something special. We were on the same page.

You blew up really fast—although I know a lot of artists get mad with that portrayal, as they’re like, “No, I’ve been playing for years.”
I’ve heard some comments here and there and people try to like slide it in there, “Hey, I’ve been playing forever.” I’m like, “Sorry.” I didn’t have any aspirations to be on a label, to be touring around the world. I had this thing that I tried out four years ago and it just happened naturally. There wasn’t a label rep looking out for me. Austin saw me at a club and he was like, “Let’s make a record” and he didn’t charge me a dime to do it. This is all by grace—just being at the right place at the right time.

Earlier on, did you have inklings that you wanted to be a musician or did you want to do something else? What are your other passions?
I wanted to be a dancer, actually. I started out doing hip-hop when I was a kid. When I got to college, I wanted to further my knowledge in dance so I started taking ballet and jazz and modern dance and African and I was doing that for a while. Eventually I met a guy who went to the same school as me and he’d bring his keyboard everyday and we’d just sit around and sing songs and that’s where it all started.

A lot of girls have huge crushes on you. Is it weird that suddenly you’re playing this super-sexy music and everybody is just screaming about you like in the old times? It must be a bit surreal.
It’s cool and it’s insane to see where it is now and the fact that the ladies love it, the dudes love it—but more so the ladies—is awesome. I’ll take it for sure.

Do you have a girlfriend or partner?
No, not at all. Not at all.

What got you into dressing in vintage? Who are some of your style idols?
Something I really took from is the 1966 Dapper Rebels and sometimes I just go online and search like “Chicago 1950” or “Fort Worth 1950” just to take from the style. A lot of it is my ideas of what a 1950s or ’60s soul man would look like. It’s really simple. It’s high-waisted pants, some nice shiny shoes and I’m a blazer fiend.

How many blazers do you have?
Man, I’ve had to leave some in some of my hotel rooms, because I usually get clothes in different places. I own about six or seven blazers.

I’m trying to adhere to the “if you get something, you have to give something away” rule. It’s hard to keep all of the treasures.
I know. Sometimes it’s like, “It won’t fit in my bag!” It’s always cool to be travelling around and stop in a nice little thrift store.

Does it help you get into character on stage when you’re performing?
No, it’s almost like a natural thing for me. It brings me joy to be consistent and dress the way I do. When I get on stage, I want to give it a hundred percent and do the best I can.

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