Leon Bridges: The Dishwasher’s Dream

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This article appears in our May/June 2015 “Blues Issue.”

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Just a few months after he quit his job washing dishes in Texas, Leon Bridges was on stage in front of a sold-out crowd at the Mercury Lounge, a venue that frequently showcases some of the most talked-about buzz acts in the country, in New York City. At the time of the concert, he had released two songs.

Those two songs, “Coming Home” and “Better Man,” were first-rate revivalism gone viral, faithful throwbacks to early ’60s rhythm & blues that had accrued nearly a million and a half plays since their late 2014 release on SoundCloud. In his music, Bridges mines a language and a sound that has remained largely extinct for the last half-century, singing about “jezebels” and “tender, sweet loving” over caressing backing vocals and late ’50s soul-pop arrangements that have earned him frequent comparisons to Sam Cooke. To add to their mystique, the songs were, naturally, recorded on vintage recording equipment from the ’40s and ’50s.

For the 25-year-old Bridges, aping the sounds and styles of the ’60s has been like learning a foreign language. “I started writing this type of music about a year and a half ago,” he says, calling from his hometown of Fort Worth a week before his trip to New York. “And before I got started writing, I went back and tried to learn all the phrases from that era that people used. Whenever I write a song, I think, ‘Okay, what are the phrases from back then?’”.

“A lot of the songs don’t even come from a deep place,” he continues, discussing his approach to songwriting. “I’m just writing.” Hearing Bridges discuss his songwriting in such detached, mechanical terms, he comes across less as a highly emotive young singer-songwriter and more as a seasoned, master formalist. Despite having never really listened to soul music until college, in a few short years Bridges has become a veteran modern practitioner of the genre’s conventions and constraints.

Bridges, whose album Coming Home will be released June 23 on Columbia Records, is also an expert visual stylist. His black-and-white, polished vintage aesthetic is tailor-made for Instagram and is an integral part of his persona. “Was asked today if I just got out of a movie set, I’ll take it,” Bridges posted on his Facebook page in January. The story of his quick rise is a cross between new-age, brand-conscious digital virality and old-fashioned major label A&R discovery, with Columbia swooping in to sign Bridges before he had ever even been on a proper tour.

For an artist as rapidly ascendant as Bridges, backlash against the early hype is inevitable. Writing in response to the local media’s growing tendency to start calling Bridges “The Truth,” Steve Steward of The Dallas Observer recently wrote that, “what ‘The Truth’ seems to mean here is some sort of fetishized nostalgia, that idea that something old and familiar like a Sam Cooke song is somehow more authentic than a comparatively new counterpart.” As Bridges continues to get talked about as one of the biggest rising acts of the year, there will inevitably be more skepticism towards his perfectly packaged, retro-fitted persona, but thus far no one’s been able to refute his music.

Though he is hardly the first artist in recent years to hinge his career on the resurgence of  ‘60s R&B, Leon Bridges’ soft croon stands in stark contrast to the catharsis found in the majority of young contemporary soul singers, who tend to draw primarily from the ecstatic release of singers like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. “I’m not a big shouter like Sharon Jones or [Paul Janeway] from St. Paul and the Broken Bones. I’m a smooth cat,” says Bridges, who says much of his caressing vocal delivery comes from listening to ’90s R&B singers like Usher and Ginuwine growing up (the first album Bridges ever owned was Usher’s 8701). “A lot of people like to see more funkier, James Brown type of material when we perform, and that stuff is all amazing but I can’t do that stuff. It’s just not me.”

One of the songs Bridges is most proud of writing thus far is “Lisa Sawyer,” a meandering, wobbly coffeehouse folk number that tells the true story of his mother’s upbringing in New Orleans. He says that every single word of it is true, and the song, which is slated to be included on his forthcoming debut album, gives a sense of how many influences and new sounds the young singer-songwriter is still soaking in. After an early performance of “Lisa Sawyer,” a fan came up to the young singer and starting enthusiastically comparing him to Sam Cooke, asking him if Cooke was a big influence. At that point, Leon Bridges only knew one Sam Cooke song, but for him, just knowing one was enough.

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