Music
11:59 am
Thu October 31, 2013

John Legend On Marriage, Music And 'Genius' Kanye West

Originally published on Thu October 31, 2013 2:40 pm

John Legend is already an R&B legend, even at a relatively young age. His buttery sound and sexy lyrics have earned him nine Grammy awards. But it's been awhile since he has delivered a solo album, and one with all of his own original material. But now he is back, with an album called Love in the Future.

Legend spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about working with his wife, Chrissy Teigen, and Kanye West; where he draws the line between sexy and sleazy; and why the new film 12 Years a Slave hits home.


Interview Highlights

On the aim of Love in the Future

My only goal was to try to make a really beautiful modern soul album. And when I thought about what that meant to me, I understand the tradition that I come from, and the music that I grew up listening to, and I love it and I appreciate it. But I also wanted to take it forward, continue to make it feel fresh, not just kind of a nostalgic music but a music of now and of the future.

When we settled on a theme and a title for the album, it made sense having just got married — and during the time I was making the album, I was planning to get married — to write, you know, about looking forward to a future with someone. And to write about being in love. And to write an ode to being in love.

On including his wife and footage of their wedding in his "All of Me" music video

I felt like it's something we're sharing, and it made so much sense with the song. ... And then even the fact that the director of the video was the guy that introduced us seven years ago. We couldn't not put it in there. It was just a full circle moment that just made sense.

On the line between sexy and sleazy

My line is probably a little more conservative than some of my compatriots in the business [laughs]. ... It comes down to me knowing who I am, and knowing how I want to be seen in the world, how I wanted to discuss things. And for me to try to sound like this or that artist that is a little more kind of racy and raunchy, it just doesn't sound right coming out of me.

On working with Kanye West

We've really been working together — collaborating, writing songs together — since late 2001. Only he and Dave Tozer, both who co-executive produced the album, have I worked with for that long stretch of time with that level of depth.

I think he is outspoken. He is opinionated. So when people read that from his public behavior, that's a true thing. But he's such a generous collaborator in the sense that he really is obsessed with making great art. And he was so excited to work on this album. He gathered all the producers that worked on the project and said, 'Our goal is to give John the album of the year.' And I look at him as one of the few geniuses that I know creatively — someone who just has so many interesting ideas that are different from other people's ideas.

He'll just tell you if he doesn't like a song. ... I think it's good to have somebody like that around you if you're trying to make something great.

On celebrating his risky path to success and whether kids should follow in his footsteps

For me, even choosing to be John Legend, and to be who I am as a star, as an artist, it's a risk. 'Cause you know, I graduated from college and worked as a management consultant. And I could've had this very buttoned-up life and wearing suits to work every day. I could've done very well for myself. But I chose a more risky path and a more kind of flashy path as well. Taking that risk meant that the possibly of failure was high, but the possibility of reward was worth it for me.

I do speak to kids a lot. I am very clear with them that not all of them should aspire to be me and not all of them should aspire to be LeBron. We have a responsibly as ... a society to make sure that the only examples of success that they see aren't me and LeBron. So that they see a clear path out of poverty, out of, you know, a tough life.

On his family's connection to the film 12 Years a Slave (for which he produced the soundtrack)

It's like long overdue because this is the first film that we've told from the slave's perspective about such an important era in American history. Finally we have a black director telling the story of a slave written by the slave, and he does it in such a beautiful, powerful, moving way.

The story in the film of a man getting kidnapped into slavery is actually personal to my family. When I was on Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, he told me the story, which I never heard, of some of my ancestors in Ohio getting kidnapped back into the South, and being enslaved when they had been freed by their former master who had passed away and guaranteed them their freedom in his will. They got kidnapped by some of his family members back into slavery, and the state of Ohio had to fight for their freedom. And they eventually won it. And so when I found out about the 12 Years a Slave narrative, it was not too many months after I'd found out about what happened to my family. So it was particularly relevant to me.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My next guest needs little introduction. John Legend, at a young age, is already an R&B legend. His musicianship, impeccable phrasing, versatility and buttery sound have earned him nine Grammy awards. But it's been a while since he's delivered a solo album and one with all his own original material. But now he's back, and it is called "Love in the Future."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF ME")

MARTIN: That was "All of Me" from John Legend's latest album "Love in the Future." And he is with us now to talk about all of that and other projects including - we hope - an exciting personal project - his new marriage. Welcome. Congratulations.

JOHN LEGEND: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: What were you going for with this new album?

LEGEND: My only goal was to try to make a really beautiful, modern soul album, and what I thought about what that meant to me. I understand the tradition that I come from and the music that I grew up listening to, and I love it and I appreciate it. But I also wanted to take it forward, continue to make it feel fresh, not just a kind of a nostalgic music but a music of now and of the future. There's like 80 songs that I wrote for this project. But when we kind of settled on a theme and a title for the album, it made sense - having just got married, and during the time while I was making the album, I was planning to get married - to write, you know, about looking forward to a future with someone, and to write about being in love and to write an ode to being in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF ME")

MARTIN: A lot of people are already saying that "All of Me" is going to be the wedding song. It's just going to be the wedding song.

LEGEND: Yes, it's already been used by a few people already, even in the first month that it's been out.

MARTIN: You even included, though, some footage from your own wedding...

LEGEND: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To Chrissy Teigen in the music video. And I was curious about that because you are - I've heard the two of you talk about, in interviews, the fact that you tend to be more private, she tends to - people who follow her on Twitter...

LEGEND: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Know that she's kind of known for speaking her mind.

LEGEND: Yes.

MARTIN: Was that a difficult decision for you? Particularly somebody who's been in the public eye for so long...

LEGEND: No.

MARTIN: ...You want to keep something to yourself?

LEGEND: I felt like it was something worth sharing, you know, and it made so much sense with the song and where we shot the video and the story of the song. And then, even the fact that the director of the video was the guy that introduced us seven years ago, we couldn't not put it in there. It just was a full-circle moment that just made sense.

MARTIN: Do you struggle as an artist between how much to keep to yourself and how much to give away?

LEGEND: I think I have a good gut instinct about those things. And I know when things feel a little, like, intrusive and when they don't. But I don't have a lot to hide, so it's not like I have to do it to preserve my reputation. But I do sometimes think, don't share everything.

MARTIN: We're talking about how this is a love album, that was kind of the organizing theme, but you also want to kind of take it forward as in the future. And I just want to play a little bit from "Asylum" - not your typical love song.

LEGEND: Yes.

MARTIN: I just want to sort of...

LEGEND: Yes.

MARTIN: ...hear what you have to say about it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ASYLUM")

MARTIN: So talk to me about this one. What was the idea behind this one?

LEGEND: I explore that idea of being in love and being committed to someone being somewhat irrational. And "Asylum" kind of just takes it, musically and lyrically, a bit further than some of the other songs, but I think it's still in that theme.

MARTIN: I just wonder if you have a line between sexy and sleazy.

LEGEND: My line is probably a little more conservative than some of my compatriots in the business. But, again, I think it's all - like, it just - it comes down to me knowing who I am and knowing how I want to be seen in the world, how I want to discuss things. And for me to try to sound like this or that artist that is a little more kind of racy and raunchy, it just doesn't sound right coming out of me.

MARTIN: Do you feel any pressure in a way that - I've heard female artists say that they sometimes feel pressure to be a certain way or to present themselves in a certain way...

LEGEND: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Even if that's not what they particularly want to do. I wonder if it's different for you because you're a man, or is it different for you because you're successful. You're at a point in your career where you just don't - you know, you have your fans and if people don't like what you have to say, well, you know, that's fine. You're still going to be fine.

LEGEND: I don't get a lot of pressure either way from anybody creatively, as far as, you have to do this to sell records or you have to do that. No one has ever treated me like that. They've always seen me as somebody who wasn't going to sound like everybody else on the radio and was going to find their audience and their audience was going to find the music. Kanye knows that, and everybody that works with me knows that. We just keep doing what feels right for us and feels right for me as an artist, and it usually works out.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with John Legend. We're talking about his latest album "Love in the Future" and whatever else is on our minds today. Speaking of Kanye West, a lot of people know that you work closely with him and that he worked on this album with you. I'm not even going to begin to try to talk about all the other interesting things going on in his life...

LEGEND: Yes.

MARTIN: ...But what is it like when the two of you work together?

LEGEND: I met him back in 2001, and we've really been working together - collaborating, writing songs together - since late 2001. So it's been a long time. And only he and Dave Tozer, both who co-executive produced this album, have I worked with for that long stretch of time with that level of depth.

MARTIN: Is there something we don't know about him and the way he is in the studio...

LEGEND: Well, I think...

MARTIN: ...If it's different from the way people perceive him outside?

LEGEND: Well, I think he is outspoken. He is opinionated. So when people read that from his public behavior, that's a true thing. But he's such a generous collaborator in the sense that he really is obsessed with making great art, and he was so excited to work on this album. He gathered all the producers that worked on the project and said, our goal is to give John the album of the year. And I look at him as one of the few geniuses that I know, creatively, someone who just has so many interesting ideas that are different from other people's ideas. And he'll just tell you if he doesn't like a song, for instance. He'll like, nah, I don't like that one. And, you know, like...

MARTIN: Good to have a friend like that.

LEGEND: ...I think it's good to have somebody like that around you if you're trying to make something great because, obviously, you're going to disagree sometimes. There are songs on the album that he doesn't love. But generally speaking, I didn't want to put a bunch of songs on there that we both didn't love.

MARTIN: I want to play another clip from a song that I think is very interesting, and I'm wondering what you were thinking about, too. It's called "Who Do We Think We Are?" And it features rapper Rick Ross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SING, "WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE?")

MARTIN: I was fascinated by this. I was fascinated by this because on the one hand, it's such a stereotype - I'm talking about my Timberlands, I'm talking about my Rolls-Royce...

LEGEND: Yes.

MARTIN: ... And yadda, yadda, yadda. And yet, you're kind of asking a profound question here. And I'm also interested because I heard you say in an interview where you were asked about your wife's - Chrissy's outspokenness on Twitter, and you said, look, we're not Obama and the first lady. She doesn't have to sublimate her career to mine. She's allowed to say what she wants to say.

LEGEND: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what are you saying here?

LEGEND: People see me as pretty low key and in a lot of ways, and this song sort of goes against type for me because my brothers on the rap side, they usually are more flossy and more willing to talk about how much they floss. But to me, the song, partly, is about being bold, being audacious, taking risks for love and also for life. And for me, like, even choosing to be John Legend and to be who I am as a star, as an artist, it's a risk 'cause I - you know, I graduated from college and worked as a management consultant, and I could have had this very kind of buttoned-up life and worn suits to work every day. I could've done very well for myself, but I chose a more risky path and a more kind of flashy path as well. Taking that risk meant that the possibility of failure was high, but the possibility of reward was worth it for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE?")

MARTIN: Are you offering this as kind of an exemplar to other people, as a roadmap, or just thoughts of your own? It's very interesting. The reason I'm asking is because I know you're very involved in a lot of things apart from music.

LEGEND: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're very involved in education.

LEGEND: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're very interested in kids and what they're getting and learning, including music but not just music. And so I'm wondering because, you know, there is this debate about whether African-Americans, in particular, are overly invested in this side of the world...

LEGEND: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And only seeing this as a path to success...

LEGEND: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And you had other choices.

LEGEND: I do speak to kids a lot. I am very clear with them that not all of them should aspire to be me and not all of them should be aspire to be LeBron. We have a responsibility as a community, as a society, to make sure that the only examples of success that they see aren't me and LeBron, so that they see a clear path out of poverty, out of, you know, a tough life. But in this song, I'm not saying everyone should follow my path, but I'm embracing my path and celebrating the path that I've taken.

MARTIN: I do want to mention one other project of yours. You produced a soundtrack for this much talked about film, "12 Years a Slave." It opened in theaters October 18. It's based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery. I just want to play a little bit from your song called "Move."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVE")

MARTIN: A very painful film. A very powerful film, but extremely painful film. In fact, a number of people have written about how hard it is to watch.

LEGEND: Yeah, it's tough for a lot of people.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask how you got involved with the project and what it meant to you?

LEGEND: It was tough for me to watch. I watched it several months ago. It's, like, long overdue because this is the first film that we've told from the slave's perspective about such an important era in American history. Finally, we have a black director telling the story of a slave, written by the slave, and he does it in such a beautiful, powerful, moving way. The story in the film of a man getting kidnapped into slavery is actually personal to my family.

MARTIN: Really?

LEGEND: When I was on "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates, he told me the story, which I never heard, of some of my ancestors in Ohio getting kidnapped back into the South and being enslaved when they had been freed by their former master who passed away and guaranteed them their freedom in his will. They got kidnapped by some of his family members back into slavery, and the state of Ohio had to fight for their freedom. And they eventually they won it. And so when I found out about the "12 Years A Slave" narrative, it was not too many months after I'd found out about what happened to my family. So it was particularly relevant to me.

MARTIN: Wow, that's wonderful. Well, congratulations.

LEGEND: Thank you.

MARTIN: So the soundtrack album comes out in early November. "Love in the Future," now. What's next? What's next for you?

LEGEND: The tour. We're going to finish the tour here in the states on December 1, so look us up. There may be tickets left in your city. And then, we're going to go to Australia and New Zealand and tour with Alicia Keys for a few weeks. And then, we're going to come back next year and probably do some more touring here in the states. Who knows what else will happen. But in the meantime, this is plenty.

MARTIN: Maybe some developments on the family side.

LEGEND: We'll see.

MARTIN: But you have relatives to pressure you on that. Right?

LEGEND: Yes, they already are. Trust me.

MARTIN: Exactly.

LEGEND: They already are.

MARTIN: John Legend is a multi-Grammy-winning artist. His latest album is titled "Love in the Future." He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. John Legend, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEGEND: Thank you. It's always a pleasure to see you.

(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "CAUGHT UP")

MARTIN: You've been listening to "Caught Up" from John Legend's new album "Love in the Future." And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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