Think of him purely as a throwback and you’ll miss the brilliance inherent in his eclectic performances. Leon Bridges is paving his own way up the charts with a nod to the past and a healthy dose of originality.
What’s that saying: Everything old is new again. Such is the case with neo-soul singer Leon Bridges. While the voice is certainly all his own, unavoidable comparisons to legendary performers such as Sam Cooke (“A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World”) and Otis Redding “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “Hard to Handle,” “Tramp”) are there. But make no mistake: The young crooner with the smooth-as-silk delivery is charting his own distinctive path with memorable work, including “Good Thing,” the artist’s lushly adventurous sophomore effort released in May. It is the highly anticipated follow-up to “Coming Home,” the Texas-based singer- songwriter’s 2015 debut album that sparked a rage with music critics as well as fans. The delivery is sultry, perfect for dancing slow and close at midnight on a screened porch under a ceiling fan that’s gently stirring the thick summer air below. And it’s put him firmly on a very fast track.
Man In Demand
With his slender face, high cheekbones and broad smile, the 29-year-old Bridges cuts a fine figure onstage. Dapper high-waist pants, suits, ties and fedoras accentuate the act. His believable moves are counterbalanced by the vintage wardrobe — setting him apart from his contemporaries — while a velvety, vocal delivery melts all over the audience. One critic observed that Bridges’ music “sounds like he looks.” “I’m authentic,” says Bridges. “I don’t think you can teach someone how to sing soulfully … that has to be inside of you.” Bridges’ songs have been featured in movies such as “Concussion,” and a host of popular cable shows including Netflix’s “The Get Down.” His song “River” was used memorably in HBO’s award-winning drama “Big Little Lies,” which stars actresses Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern.
So how does it feel to hear one’s music used in an uber-successful HBO production? “That was huge,” recalls Bridges. “Early on, Reece posted my album cover on her Instagram and wrote that she was enjoying it.” That kind of recognition by such a respected actress/producer gave the young man pause. His song was featured in a “beautiful, pivotal scene” in the program. Then, Bridges’ phone “blew up,” he says. Immediately, “Coming Home” shot up the iTunes charts. “I’m really thankful that Reece and the HBO team liked the song and included it.” He’s also played “Austin City Limits,” SXSW and more. “Austin shows love,” he says confidentially. And, he’s famously shared a diversity of stages, opening for Pharrell Williams in London during the Apple Music Festival and working with former One Direction member Harry Styles. “True story,” he says. “Harry started following me when I only had two songs up on the Internet and tweeted at me. To this day, sometimes girls will tweet at me saying, ‘I’m following [you] because Harry follows you.’” But it is as a solo artist that the singer excels, strumming an old school Gibson ES-175 hollow body guitar and fronting a crack backing-band, while taking complete command of any microphone before him. Jeff Saenz, owner of Modern Electric Sound Recorders in North Texas, heard the hype and saw the talent firsthand. He praised the young artist’s “confidence in the studio, and [that he] is able to go with the flow without compromising the end goal.”
How did it all begin? “I busked on the streets, jammed with friends, played at every open mic night, even at Potbelly’s,” he says. He has credited contemporary stalwarts such as D’Angelo and Usher as early motivation for him. However, it’s not as though he consciously patterned his music after them, or artists rooted in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, it was all a bit of a nice coincidence. As for comparisons to Cooke or Redding, “I don’t mind at all,” he says. “Sam and Otis are big inspirations to me.” Bridges appreciates the artists that came before him, and paving the way for him and others to follow. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he was a fan as a kid. “I was listening to … hip-hop and Ginuwine,” he admits. He remembers the challenge of sampling some of the artists who caught his young ear, necessitating Bridges sneaking around a bit “… because my mom is religious and wouldn’t let me listen.” When he was a bit older, a friend asked Bridges if Cooke was some kind of a muse for him. “I’d never listened [to Cooke],” he explains, “but I wanted to know my roots.” So he did what anyone his age would do: “I looked him up on YouTube,” says Bridges. “Once I heard it, I knew that was the music that I wanted to write.”
Bridges is subtle, a slow jam artist and “a non-shouter,” which is probably why he connected specifically with Cooke’s sound. ”I consider myself R&B, with a heavy nod to soul,” he says, describing his style. “Coming Home” was nominated for a Grammy in the R&B category. “Lots of people describe me as soulful R&B, which is cool.” Another early light switch music moment, he told “CBS This Morning,” was listening to The Temptations’ Motown classic, “It’s Growing,” further driving home the fact that “nobody’s really writing music like that anymore.” It gave him new purpose. After playing tiny clubs and amateur nights to sparse crowds, Bridges’ big break came after a chance meeting, when Austin-based indie rock guitarist (and 1950s music aficionado) Austin Jenkins of the band White Denim caught a show. “During those days, Leon was known around town to show up at open mic nights after he got off from his restaurant shift,” remembers Jenkins.
“There was a small buzz about him among local musicians.” Bridges hopped onstage during a break in the performance of a local band in Fort Worth, asking to play a couple of his own songs on a borrowed guitar. “I thought, ‘my god, this guy’s voice and his songs could be Sam Cooke or Bobby Womack,’” says Jenkins. “I knew immediately this was special, and had to approach him about recording his songs.” Working together, the guys eventually developed the tunes further and released a couple of demo tunes online. One song, “Coming Home,” which Bridges’ wrote and became the title track on his first album, had lodged in the White Denim musician’s head. Soon they were in the studio, recording music together. In a short order Bridges had a record deal, touring in support of his first release. Surprisingly, “Coming Home” debuted at number five on Billboard’s Top 200. “All of a sudden I was touring across the globe, adding stamps to my passport,” he laughs. “I was performing on TV, hearing my name on the radio and giving interviews,” says Bridges. “I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to perform … Paul McCartney was sitting right there!”
He appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” and rubbed shoulders with celebrities such as Ryan Gosling. “Friends from back home would text me and tell me they saw me in magazines and on blogs. It was really exciting,” says Bridges. His first year attending the Grammys as a nominee, Bridges found himself in the company of more stars including Drake, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and The Weeknd. It made him want to “step up to the plate and play in the major league,” he says. Soon he was selling out venues including New York’s Apollo Theatre. He was also invited to perform for former President Barack Obama at the White House in early 2016. Since then, his trajectory has been in the stratosphere, continuing to play concerts and record at a breakneck pace.
While the Iron Is Hot
James Marsh is a seasoned industry guy, director of southwest promotion for Big Machine Records, which boasts a lineup that includes Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire, Midland, Brett Young and many more. Marsh grew up in Texas, working extensively in radio. He also logged many years in Houston clubs and knows the music scene well. “The talk on Leon has been out there for a while — his voice, energy and showmanship” put him on a short list, says Marsh. “Leon, Marc Broussard, Drake White and Chris Stapleton … you can’t check them off in a single box,” he adds. Those artists check a number of boxes, but you always end up with one thing … good music.” Bridges globetrotted much of 2018, performing around the world with concerts on the books in Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, Russia and more. It’s been a super hectic schedule, but he’s striking while the musical iron is red hot, and audiences are clamoring to see him in person. However, with his songs roaring up the charts, critics firmly in his corner and an increasing number of new fans, the time is right.
Fanning a Soulful Flame
Bridges injects a smoldering passion into well-crafted tunes. On “Good Thing,” “Forgive You” and “Beyond” feature his deft hand, accented by a distinctive wit. “Georgia to Texas” in particular, with its autobiographical tone, tells the emotional story of his family’s move from one state to another. It’s raw, impassioned — a rare window into the soul of an artist paying tribute to his mother. “Lisa Sawyer” is lovely, “ … a salute to my mom, she’s amazing,” he says. There is also a crisp, fresh quality to “Good Thing” — a thoughtful leap forward from Bridges’ last album. “A little more modern and polished,” he calls it. “And it has more of an R&B feel.” While he insists he likes both albums, he understands development is important: “ … as an artist, you have to grow, expand your catalogue and keep moving forward.”
Instrumentation has expanded, bringing more of a jazz vibe to the fore, with stitches of funk sewn into the edges. “You Don’t Know” is good example, reminiscent of classic Nile Rodgers and Chic. “That’s a great compliment,” he beams. “I love performing that song and fans always dance when I perform it, so it’s a win-win.” But for Jenkins, it all starts with Bridges’ “wonderful natural singing instinct,” as he refers to it. “The ‘Coming Home’ sessions were more about working with him to develop his raw … talent.” After all, Jenkins says, up to that point all Bridges had done was amateur stuff, thus, “ … it was a great experience watching him get it down so quickly.” For “Good Thing,” Bridges had two years of touring under his belt. “He came in with that experience and was interested in trying things multiple ways to see what served the song best.”
When it comes to contemporary circles, what sparks Bridges’ creativity? “I like to look through Instagram for fashion and style stuff or for photographers to work with,” he offers. Bridges calls Internet gurus, Street Etiquette, “a big inspiration” for him. “My fellow Texan [country star] Kacey Musgraves just put out a dope album [‘Golden Hour’],” he says, admiringly. “I watch a lot of movies too on Netflix, because I travel so much,” he explains. Any favorites? “I really liked ‘Good Time’ by the Safdie brothers.” He says he’s also a big fan of hip-hop artist Lil Baby’s new album, Harder Then Ever. “You should download it and listen to the whole way through,” says Bridges. It is clear that Bridges worked tirelessly for his success, however, does he still pinch himself sometimes and ponder the meaning of it all?
“Of course,” he says. “[Not so long ago] I was washing dishes in Fort Worth and usually I had no more than 20 people in the audience.” And while he’ll surely run more sprints, it’s really about the musical marathon. “I believe Leon will have a long career, I really do,” says Marsh. “It’s going to be interesting to see,” says Jenkins, calling Bridges’ work ethic “very strong. With natural talent and unrelenting drive like that, anything is possible.” That probably means even more commercial triumphs for the artist, and more melodies to get stuck in listeners’ heads. “Those songs that will just belong to you — the ones you have in a power rotation in your car,” laughs Marsh. “And some you’ll sing … loudly … in the shower.”
Leon Brides will be performing in Houston on April 26th at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavillion!
Feature Photo Courtesy of Jack McKain