A Conversation with John Legend

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Since 2006, when he was nominated for eight Grammys and won three, including the Grammy for Best New Artist, John Legend has been writing seriously great songs and making compelling records. Whether writing alone, or with a collaborator, he’s always aimed for the kind of song that entranced him growing up. Here he talks about that kind of song, and how he goes about writing new ones.

What kind of music did you like growing up?

I was on a pretty steady diet of gospel and soul. That is what I knew as a kid. But as I got a little bit older I started listening to more jazz, more rock, more indie, a wider range of stuff. But as a kid it was a pretty steady diet of gospel and soul.

When you say gospel and soul – you mean R&B and Motown?

Yeah. So when it came to gospel, there was some contemporary gospel and then also the classics like James Cleveland and stuff like that. When it came to soul, my dad was a big Motown fan. He loves the Temptations and Stevie and the Jackson 5, ’cause that is what he grew up on. Smokey Robinson and all that stuff.

He grew up in Ohio, just south of Michigan. And they always had a love of that whole Motown sensibility. They loved that whole style. So he imparted that on us.

I can see that in your work – a great groove matched always with a great melody.

Yeah, I think Smokey and Stevie and Marvin Gaye are a few of the writers I’ve always looked up to. And stylistically, I think of them a lot. 

Do you  always write songs on piano?

No. I do often, but I also co-write. I write with guitarists as well or producers who make beats, as well. So I write in a few different circumstances, but the music usually comes first, and then the lyrics flow from that.

I know it’s a hard question to answer, but so much of this industry revolves around a great melody. Do you have any idea what makes a melody strong?

I don’t know what the science is behind it, but there are some things that are just memorable and infectious and sound beautiful. Part of it’s the chord, part of it’s the melody. But I feel like you know it when you hear it.

Do you generate melodies from playing changes?

Yes.  I usually think of the chords first and then the melody. Sometimes it comes at the same time. But that always comes before the lyric. Sometimes  I’ll be singing and playing a progression, and I’ll sing noises that just feel good and fit the melody. And if I feel good about the melody and if it feels right to me, then I’ll just try to find a lyric that fits it really well, that fits the mood of the piece.

It says so much that you use the word ‘find’. It’s not something you invent, it’s something you discover.

Yeah. I’ll just mumble things and if they end up sounding like some words, then those sounds end up leading into words. And then you want to write a story, and you want it to be poetic and astute lyrically, so you just keep working on it until you get it to that point.

A lot of songwriters like Stevie and John Lennon said songwriting for them felt like channeling, that it feels as if songs come from somewhere beyond them. Do you feel that?

Yeah. You feel like you’re getting inspiration from somewhere, and it’s coming through you, and you’re trying to give voice to it in the most pure way possible.

Any advice to songwriters how you get to that place where songs come through?

Well, I think there’s more science to it in some sense. Some of which is that you just keep absorbing music from other people you love. Because part of what is speaking to you, and what is inspiring you, is all the things you’ve heard before. And if you fill your head with great music and great songwriting, I think it will help you think about how to become a great songwriter yourself.

Are you always able to get something going, or do you have times when you are dry?

Usually I write in collaboration with somebody else, so it’s easier to come up with an idea when you have other people to bounce ideas off of. And you don’t have to rely on your own personal creativity. Sometimes I work on my own, and it may take me a while to get to a certain place. But I usually get there. I don’t like leaving the studio before I completed something. I don’t allow myself to use the excuse of writer’s block. I just keep trying until I figure it out.

That is just an excuse, isn’t it? You can always write through that idea of writer’s block.

Yeah. And it might not be great that day. You have to be open to not writing a great song every time you write one. Just keep writing and you will stumble on something great. I don’t write a lot when I’m on tour. But when I’m off tour, I spend a lot of time writing. I schedule time, I got to the studio. I try to treat it like it’s my job. Because it is my job.

Do you finish every song you start?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m almost don’t ever not finish them. It’s almost a tic of mine. I have to finish. I’m like, “I’m gonna finish this no matter what. I’m gonna get this to a place where I really like it.” Then a few weeks later, I might not even like it.

So while doing you don’t judge it? You take that critical voice out of it?

I mean, I do. But I know that my opinion may change once I have some distance from the writing process. Because part of the joy of writing is actually finishing the song. Sometimes you’re so happy that you’ve completed it, that it kind of overshadows that the song might not be that great.  You need a little distance from that euphoria of completion, so you can truly evaluate it.

Your songs have a lot of joy in them. Is writing a joyful process for you?

Yeah, I love it. And I think I’m an optimistic person anyway, just in life. So I don’t like to write about a lot of negativity, because I don’t think a lot of negativity.

Do you always record while you work?

I usually make some kind of recording, if not the final recording. For this album, everything was a demo first and then we went in with a full rhythm section and recorded every song with the band. They weren’t always there when the writing was happening.

Sometimes  the demo is just me on piano, or me on guitar. A simple presentation. Sometimes it can stay that way. But a lot of time you want to build it up. Like “All of Me” did.

You wrote “Ordinary People” with Will I. Am?

Yes. Originally it was in a session for the Black Eyes Peas. We were coming up with hooks for the Black Eyed Peas for them to rap around. And when I wrote that chorus, I thought, “Oh, I really like this. I’m gonna keep this for myself.”  So I kept the chorus and went off and wrote the song based on that original chorus that we started working on. Obviously we made it into a ballad.

Though the world has changed so much, songs still matter. Do you think they always will?

I’m always of the mind that content matters more than anything, still. The delivery and technology matters too. But the content is critical. And there’s no substitute for great content.

And you feel songs always matter?

Absolutely. Songs are the core of what we do as musicians. Songs are the core of what identifies us.

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