JOHN LEGEND: Keeping His Standards High

John Legend is walking through the Los Angeles International Airport on his way back to Europe for his first headlining tour.  His debut album, Get Lifted, has garnered much attention, debuting at No.1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart in January and quickly selling over a million copies. John Legend is walking through the Los Angeles International Airport on his way back to Europe for his first headlining tour.  His debut album, Get Lifted, has garnered much attention, debuting at No.1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart in January and quickly selling over a million copies.  As he talks about his recent success, a female fan interrupts and he is, only for a moment, flustered; identifying his face out of the crowd, she seeks an autograph.  This has become more and more common for Legend, it seems.  “I’m in the middle of an interview, sweetie.”  Legend says.  Then reprioritizing, he quickly asks me, “Can you hold on for a few minutes?”

When he was 11, he was directing his church choir.  When he was still a teenager, he was on scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania, and he got his first taste of the music biz accompanying Lauryn Hill in the studio for her 1998 Grammy-winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  By 2004, Legend had collaborated with Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Janet Jackson, and was the flagship artist on hip-hop Midas Kanye West’s newly-formed GOOD label. Now at just 26, he’s being compared to Stevie Wonder, which he calls “a bit premature…but I take it as a compliment.”

Do you think that back when you were 19 you could have made this album?

No.  I wasn’t ready for it yet.  It would have been decent, but it wouldn’t have been this good.

Last year, a music magazine said you were arrogant like Kanye West.  Why?

I don’t think I am.  I told [the reporter] that I thought my record was going to do really well.  He challenged me.  He said, “How do you know you’re not going to be another artist that has a lot of critical credibility but doesn’t sell any records.”   I said, “I’m just not.  I’m going to sell 2 or 3 million records.”  I was kind of defending my project.  I was so used to being in the position of, ‘I have to sell this project,’ because I had been trying to get signed for five years.  So that’s the stance I was still in.  I was defending myself, and to him I was arrogant.

You’ve described music as “natural” for you, not easy.  What’s natural?

I just try to go with what feels right musically and melodically.  I’ll sometimes establish the musical format of the song and the melody of the song within the first ten minutes of the original idea coming to me.  That’s the natural part of it.  Once I have that, I know what the song sounds like.  Then I come up with a couple lyrics that feel like they fit with that original melody.

Is that how you tend to progress through a song?  Music first, lyrics second?

Always.  I think music should dictate the lyrics-always.

How long do you keep the music in your head?  Are you rushing to get to a piano or to get it down on paper?

No.  I keep it in my head for a long time.  The lyrics always take a long time for me.

Really, why’s that?

They usually do.  Very seldom will artists sit down and come up with [anything] that original [in] ten minutes and then finish the lyrics in the same day.

Some of the lyrics on your album have a different feel from song to song.  Does a lot of that depend on who you’re writing with?  With Kanye?  Or someone else?

Yes it does, and also it just depends on the song.  I try to get in the mood and the character of that song.

You’ll have a song with a strong beat and you’ll follow with something like “Let’s Get Lifted Again,” which is pretty heavy falsetto.

It’s all falsetto.

The style of music ebbs and flows.

Those songs were written separately.  I wrote the songs over four years, so it wasn’t a conscious choice that I wanted to have different moods or different vibes as a writer.  “Allright” is a song about me getting drunk at a club and hitting on someone else’s girl and so for that song, I sing it like I’m drunk.  And the vibe is like I’m drunk.  I’m saying things that I normally wouldn’t say because I’m drunk.  I wouldn’t go up to [another guy’s] girl in a club and try to holler at her.  I don’t want to start any fights in a club, but [in the song] it’s like I’m empowered by the liquor.

I read a quote where Prince said to you, “You write songs.  Nobody does that anymore.”

He said specifically about the song “Ordinary People,” that it’s a real song and you don’t hear people making real songs nowadays.

Do you agree that’s the trend?

I think it’s harder to find really good songs these days.  But people make them.  There are plenty of good songwriters out there.  But I think in r&b particularly, songwriting is very weak.

There seems to be a lot of concentrating on the hook and not so much on the verse.

I agree.  I think the verse is thought of as just filler to get people to the hook these days.  And the hook is what people use to get on the radio.  So, as long as they think they have a good hook and a good beat, they’re happy with the song.  [Then they] just throw in whatever for the verses.  I feel like what ends up happening is a lot of boring lines-a lot of corny lines.

Is it because there’s a rush to get the music out?

People rush in the studio more now, and the standards are lower.  Hip-hop has had a certain influence because rappers usually are quicker than singers at writing songs, and that has kind of changed the process.

Do songwriters need more revision in their music?

Oh man, definitely!  The thing is, some people don’t realize that it needs to be edited.  They think it’s good the way it is.  And that’s just a matter of taste.  Some people think they’re done with a song when I think they should go back and revise it.  Even sometimes I’ll think a song’s done, but I have friends I work with who will tell me to revise.

So you rely on other people for this kind of feedback or critique?

I can rely on myself a lot of times, but I work with people like Kanye and other producers that will make comments and I’ll make changes based on them.  They’re smart people and they have good taste too.

When do you think revision should stop?

I want the melody and the music to feel like it flows in absolutely the most natural way it could have been written…[where] it doesn’t feel like I’ve forced any chord changes, and the melody just feels like it brings out the right singular voice in me.  So that’s music to me.  It should feel like it flows.  It’s natural.  It’s easy.  It doesn’t feel overly monotonous.  I feel like there’s enough growth and movement in it.  It’s the way it’s supposed to sound even though I didn’t know in advance how it was going to sound.

Lyrically?

Lyrically it needs to tell a story that people can feel and that makes sense to them.  I want the lyrics to have coherence throughout.  Some artists are very abstract and metaphorical.  They write songs that you don’t completely understand-which is fine.  It’s just not me.  I think in r&b and hip-hop, [metaphor] doesn’t tend to be the tradition.  It’s not what I’m used to anyway, so it’s not how I write.  When I write I try to tell stories that are entertaining.  I want to say something that’s familiar and that feels real to people, but I want to say it in as clever a way as possible so people will actually remember lines from it.  It’ll feel fresh and familiar at the same time.

Are you always conscious of what your audience wants to hear?

I think of what I would want to hear first.  No, actually I don’t even think that.  I think, what would make this song perfect?  Which is a very subjective judgment, but that’s what I’m thinking when I’m writing a song.  What would make this song the best it could possibly be?

So we’re back to “standards.”

It’s the whole standards thing.  Some people’s standards are really low, and part of it has to do with who you work with.  If you look at the records I’ve been on, just by the nature of my catalogue, my standards are high because I work with so many great people making great records. So, I feel I have to measure up to that every time I go in [the studio].

There’s always been the tendency to write verse, chorus, and throw a bridge in there somewhere.  Do you ever have the urge to write extremely complex music?  Or maybe throw in a 7/4 rhythm?

[Laughs]  No, no.  I stay pretty formatted and classic.  I haven’t done anything revolutionary with song structure.  Pretty much, I stick to the formulas.  In other words, [structure] feels good to me.  I want the songs to feel like they have that.

You’ve gotten an amazing amount of critical acclaim for this album.

I promise that the next album will be better songwriting, actually.  I haven’t even done most of it yet, but I know I’m in a better place as a songwriter now than I was before.  And I know what I want more, so…I’m telling you that.  [Laughs].

I don’t really think that’s arrogance either.

I’m comparing myself to myself!

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