|Interview by Rob Schwartz
WHO?MAG: How were you first introduced to the entertainment world?
John Legend: I feel like I have been an entertainer since I was born. I have been playing the piano since I was three. I’ve been in a very musical family all my life and feel like I have always been part of the entertainment business in someway. Officially, I started making my first demo in ’98. I played on my first major album in ’98 as well, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” That was my first formal introduction into the major music business. I have always been an entertainer since I was a kid, whether it was in elementary schools or being the lead in the plays or musicals. In middle school and high school, I was the lead in the talent show. In high school, I also directed a couple choirs and sang in the show choir after school. In college, I was a director of an a cappella group and a choir and was in different talent shows and open mic’s and what not. So I have always been an entertainer.
WHO?MAG: What steps were taken to get your record deal with Columbia?
John Legend: It was a long process from getting my first demo to getting my first deal, which was 6 years between 1998 to 2004. I was making demos on a regular basis with different producers. The first producer I worked with was a guy named Dan Coleman based in New York. I met him through some friends at college. Then I started working with this guy name Dave Poser, who actually produced some tracks that are on this album. He was one of the first producers I worked with back in the day, helping me with demo’s and helping me put my band together. We started to build kind of an underground following in New York and Philadelphia and up and down the northeast. Things were going okay. I would shop myself to labels and they would be like “Yeah, it’s alright. Yeah this is cool, but I’m not sure if this is what they are looking for right now. Yeah it’s good, but we’re not exactly feeling it.” So I would keep going back to the record labels and get myself exposure and build more of a fan base so I can build from the ground and from my grassroots. I put that with the tracks that the labels would be into as well. In 2001, I met Kanye. He came to my show at Jimmy’s Uptown, which is one of the places where I recorded one of my independent live albums. He liked what he saw. He was introduced to me by his cousin Devon Harris, who also was a producer and a friend of mine that I met when I went to college in Philadelphia. Kanye wanted to work with. He had me singing hooks on his demo, which ended up being “The College Dropout”. Then he gave me beats for me to write to for my demo so we started collaborating and kept making good stuff together. He was really impressed with me and I was really impressed with him, so we decided we’re going to keep working together. Eventually I signed to his production company. We started shopping my music to every label again and kept getting turned down or getting some interest, but no one ready to put the money up on the table to make the project happen. Then finally, this year, after everything went down with Kanye, he obviously started becoming the biggest artist this year, everybody started to really pay attention to our camp and wanted to know what was going on and who was next. That’s what really took it to the next level as far as the label interest. Once it got to that point, it was on. We had a bidding war; several labels were trying to sign me at a very nice price. We decided to sign with Sony because we felt hat Columbia has a tradition with doing really well with artist like me, and people like Lauren Hill, Maxwell, and The Fugees. People who do interesting and different stuff, but still know how to make it commercial even. I feel Columbia is perfect for that.
WHO?MAG: If you had your choice of either just playing the piano or just singing, which will you chose and why?
John Legend: I would sing, but I don’t have to choose, I’m lucky. If I had to choose, it would be singing because it gives you more opportunity to express yourself. I’m a writer and I love writing good lyrics and melodies. It wouldn’t be enough for me to be just playing the piano. I ‘d have to be up there singing because I could always hire someone else to play the piano for me. I am not the best piano player, but I feel that I am really stronger as a singer/songwriter. If I had to give one up, it would be the piano, but luckily I don’t have to.
WHO?MAG: What is your creative process for developing a song?
John Legend: I start with the beat a lot of times. I hear an instrumental that a producer makes and I’ll decide what kind of melody I want to go over that instrumental and what kind of theme I’m working with the vibe of the song. I’ll then come up with the main melody and the core first. Then once I get the melody for the verses, then I’ll start the lyrics for the verses. Some people like to write their lyrics first, but I’m more into writing my music first because I want the music, the vibe, and the rhythm to dictates what the lyrics are. You are not making music to just be written down and look good on paper; you’re making it to sing well. If you want it to sing well, you have to write with the melody and rhythm already in mind.
WHO?MAG: You’ve performed at various venues ranging from small open mic’s to the Truth Tour with Usher & Kanye to the Super Bowl. How do you prepare for an upcoming event?
John Legend: I’ve been preparing my whole life because I have been performing so much. It’s like second nature to me. I feel more comfortable on stage that anywhere else. It’s like I’m at home. It’s a big part of my life and it always has been. From being a six-year singing a solo in the church choir to now feels like a constant progression. I never feel like it’s a foreign thing for me to be on stage. It’s part of my life and part of my history.
WHO?MAG: While attending University of Penn, you headed a music department in a church. Explain the impact that gospel music has on your work.
John Legend: It’s huge because that’s the music I play more than everything else in my whole life. I’ve been playing gospel since I was five or six years old. I grew up in a church and that music is very influential. I like to infuse the spirit, the feeling, the emotion, and the passion of gospel music into my live performances and my recordings. I feel like my shows can be a revival and a party at the same time. Arrangement wise, I bring in a lot of instruments we used to have in church, like the organ or piano and the choir style vocals. I infuse that with hip-hop and R&B and that’s my music basically.
WHO?MAG: Explain your Songwriter’s Hall of Fame Scholarship you received from BMI?
John Legend: It was just an honor I was lucky enough to get from them. They decided they thought I was a promising young songwriter and they chose me out of all of the songwriters they worked with at that time. It was defiantly an honor. At the same time, the people that were getting inducted into the Hall of Fame were people like Ashford and Simpson, some of the greatest writers in the history of pop music. It was a cool night to be involved in that affair.
WHO?MAG: You tore down the house with your rendition of Quiet Storm during BET’s Smokey Robinson’s Annual Walk of Fame. How was it performing for this event?
John Legend: It was huge. I was so honored that they even had me perform on it because I was the only artist in that whole group that didn’t even have an album out. It was incredible to be honored and be able to do such a special song at the point of the show I was able to do it. I felt very lucky. I was a little nervous and I don’t even get nervous because like I said before, I’ve performed so much in my life it doesn’t even phase me. When I was on stage with Smokey right in front of me, Stevie Wonder out there, and I’m performing a song I never performed before live, it was definitely a little bit nerve racking. It kind of humbled me a little bit so it was definitely an exciting experience, but it was cool that so many people really responded to that version. I’ve gotten so many compliments and so many people have been hitting my website and people that got introduced to me through that. I feel that it was a true blessing to be involved in that
WHO?MAG: What do you feel are the key elements needed for an upcoming artist to “get recognized?”
John Legend: First of all, you have to know yourself and know what you want and what your music to be. If you can’t write it, you need to find the kind of people that will write it with you. If you can’t produce it, you need to find the right producer. So you need to start to define yourself as an artist and where you are trying to go with it and what kind of style your trying to come with, what you want to be known for, what you want your lyrics to represent. You need to decide that within yourself and that partially comes through trying things out and seeing what works and seeing what makes you feel comfortable. The artists that succeed for a long time succeed by being themselves. You need to find out what yourself is, and then start to work with people that bring out the best in you. You just need to hook up with the right people who are ambitious and have the right mind to succeed, because everybody is not about success and everyone is not positive. You need to work with people who are positive and can help you move forward and take it to another level. You also need to be prepared and persistent when you are faced with people that don’t believe in you. You are always going to need people who think you music is not good and not going to sell and tell you “no” for one reason or another. I was being told “no” for about six years before I got my record deal. But once you know yourself and know you have something special to contribute, then you can believe in yourself and not let them know they discourage you. You also need to go out there and play for the audiences. So many people just want to be in the studio and make the song cause they’re scared to be live, but you have to go out there and play your stuff for people so you know what they like and what they don’t like. It also gives you a chance to develop an underground following which helps in the long run because right now, I’m an already pretty experienced performer because I performed so much. If I were just sitting in the lab just trying to write, it would be a different thing.
WHO?MAG: What do you feel the entertainment industry is in need of today?
John Legend: Everyone talks about “it’s so bad out there, there’s no good music”. There is good music out there and I think there always was bad music and there always was good music. Back in the ’60’s there was a lot of bad stuff too; we’re just hearing the best of it now because those are the things that survive. Back in the ’70’s, the same thing. I think music will be better when more people come and do things that are real and reflect themselves, and rings true to people when they hear it. When people hear certain songs and they sound contrived, that’s when songs usually suck. So my whole thing is be yourself and let yourself come through on your music and people will feel it
WHO?MAG: After listening to your new Get Lifted album, it’s obvious that you are influence by some of soul’s most prominent musicians. Who influences John Legend?
John Legend: I think Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, are two big ones. Lauren Hill is another big one. And on the album you might hear a little Curtis Mayfield and Al Green. “So High” is a little Prince-ish ballad and those are some of my influences. I love good music all over the place. Across the board, whatever it is. I like soulful original, creative, passionate music and you can find that all over the place. Those are some of my major influences. And my grandmother, as a gospel musician, she taught me how to play the piano in the church and that was a big influence as well.