John Legend talks bringing his working-class Christmas to Clearwater

Oh, we had a Merry Kanye, too.

click to enlarge John Legend, who plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on November 15, 2018. - Lede Co.
Lede Co.
John Legend, who plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on November 15, 2018.


Criminal justice reform, schools and education, district judges and national leadership. The California fires. His follow-up to Darkness and Light. Those are just a few of the things that have been on John Legend’s mind, but the 39-year-old EGOT-winner recently let himself step away from that and finally record a Christmas album, which he’ll play at Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall on November 15.

“I know there are plenty of things that I worry about, and that everyone else is worrying about, in the country with their families — all sorts of things to be concerned about — but I think making this Christmas album really put me in a good mood over the summer,” Legend told CL by phone.

“Hopefully it'll be that kind of mood enhancer for all of those people who come to the show.”

The show will run through the LP — A Legendary Christmas — and Legend’s classic tunes. It’ll also offer a look into the upbringing of the Springfield, Ohio native who would spend Christmases huddled around his grandma’s piano where she, he and his cousins would play Motown Christmas tunes and holiday hymns.

“We'd sing pretty much the gamut of Christmas songs. It was just such a beautiful part of my life; to be able to do that every year. So for me making a Christmas album was like a love letter to my family and to that tradition that we had growing up,” Legend said while also acknowledging that not everything was sunny in his younger days.

In 2017, Legend visited the Tampa Convention Center to deliver a Black, Brown and College Bound keynote which shed light on a childhood that saw his parents divorce when he was just 10. The separation played into his mother developing depression and a drug addiction (which she’s since recovered from), and while Legend was an exception who did make it out to college, the scene in his neighborhood certainly reflected Springfield’s working-class struggle.

“It was a tough time for the family. We saw a lot of that in our neighborhood and in our community. That's why I spend a lot of time focused on education, criminal justice reform and doing things to make our communities stronger, better and healthier,” Legend said. “I know what it's like for that to not be the case.”

Legend spent 10 minutes catching up with CL, and we talked about all of that plus his family and Kanye, too. Read our full Q&A and get more information on the show below. Call your local record store to see if it is carrying the album.

John Legend, Thurs. Nov. 15, 8 p.m. $97.25 & up. Ruth Eckerd Hall. 1111 McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater. rutheckerdhall.com.

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So you're coming to Clearwater for this holiday show. Last time I saw you in Tampa, you were giving the keynote at a Black, Brown and College Bound convention. You talked about how you were the exception in your community of Springfield, Ohio as far as going to college and all that. I wanted to know, what did Christmas look like at, not the Legend house, I guess, it would be the Stephens house. And how was it different from the holidays that the other families in your community experienced?

Well, my family was probably one of the most musical families that I've ever encountered. There were so many people in my family who loved to sing and play. We had other activities during the day, but the most important part, the part we paid the most attention to and got most excited for was the music at the end of the day. In the morning we would open gifts, we would, sometimes, play football out in the park, we would eat, of course — but at the end of the day, after we ate, we would gather around the piano. It was my granny's piano. She would play, I would play, one of my other cousins would play. We all would sing. We'd sing Motown Christmas songs. We'd sing Christmas hymns. We'd sing pretty much the gamut of Christmas songs. It was just such a beautiful part of my life; to be able to do that every year. So for me making a Christmas album was like a love letter to my family and to that tradition that we had growing up. It was also a way to create some new traditions for my new family, my own kids, and my wife and hopefully for many families around the world who will be able to enjoy the album.

I wanted to ask you about your family a little close to the end, but when you did that Black, Brown and College Bound keynote you did mention that there were other parts of your community that — I don't know if "less privileged" is the right phrase — just more broken homes and precarious situations. Was that on your radar as a kid?

Yeah, well I grew up in a working class family, so we weren't on public assistance or anything of that nature, but we were definitely not well off. We struggled. We had everything we needed, but definitely nothing beyond that. And then I had plenty of relatives and friends in my neighborhood who were even less well off than we were. When you talk about broken homes — my family experienced my parents getting divorced when I was 10 years old, and we lived with our dad after I was 10. It was a tough time for us. My mom had gotten really depressed and developed a drug addiction, which she has since recovered from. But it was a tough time for the family. We saw a lot of that in our neighborhood and in our community. That's why I spend a lot of time focused on education, criminal justice reform and doing things to make our communities stronger, better and healthier. I know what it's like for that to not be the case.

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And to talk about your house now, I'm just gonna go ahead and call it the Legend house. Obviously the news does a good job of talking about the love that you and Chrissy have, everything like that. All the kids, it's different from the one that you grew up in, so how do you bring a little of levity back to Christmas? Obviously kids should have the best, most grand Christmas that their situations can afford, but are you able to bring a little of the real world in yet with the young family?

Well, they're so young, so it's hard for them to process much of anything. I think, for Luna, probably, this will be the first Christmas where she's really aware of Christmas in a really clear way. Last year, she was one-and-a-half, you know, she could say "Santa," but that was about it. This year, I think, she'll have a more clear understanding about Christmas and be more aware of everything that is going on. So, the issue with us, of course, is that she has everything that she could possibly want already. She gets free gifts in the mail almost every day. Brands and companies send us free stuff all the time, hoping.

She's an influencer already.

Yeah, she's already an influencer — truly. So the focus will never be about how many gifts we can give her because she already gets plenty of gifts, and we don't need to contribute to her being more spoiled. I think for us it's gonna be about family. It's gonna be about sharing love with one another. Sharing with people who need it a lot more than we do. I think we'll be able to teach her a bit about that this year, and as she gets older I think it'll be even more important for us to do that.

You're talking about love, and you've always been good at, not just articulating love in songs, but articulating the way you feel in general. I wanted to ask you about a different kind of love, a platonic love between friends. You've talked about the many reasons why you spoke out against some of Kanye's recent actions, and I guess I'm thinking of that letter you wrote to yourself when you are 15 when you said you would use your platform for good. That probably made it easy, but how hard of a decision was that to make — speaking out against what Kanye said — considering your friendship and his fragile state of mind, which we obviously shouldn't try to armchair diagnose.

Well, the truth is I didn't want to make a big public to-do about it. I wanted to speak to him in private about it, but he chose to publish what we talked about. Part of me was shocked that he did that. The other part of me was kind of glad that people knew that I was trying to help, trying to reach out to him and hopefully talk to him a little bit and engage with him to possibly influence his thinking in any way. Clearly, it didn't seem to work for a while.

He's coming around.

Since then, he's kind of stepped back from some things that he's done and things that he's said before. I don't know exactly where he is now, but I just hope he's continuing to have an open mind and truly learning and listening to people who care about him. We'll see what the outcome of that is.

And a lot of people care about you, and this Christmas album will be great, but you'll be on The Voice, so that should take up your spring, but how is a follow-up to Darkness and Light looking?

I'm already a few songs in for that. I started doing it earlier this year, but I knew I wanted to get the Christmas album done this year, so I diverted all my focus, musically, to the Christmas album, starting in the spring. So I am going to return to writing more original, non-Christmas music after the New Year. I don't like to predict when things will be done or when things will be ready, but whenever it's ready I'll put it out.

And could you talk about how different this holiday show is going to be from the one that some of your Bay area fans might have seen you do at Coachman Park in Clearwater?

Yeah, obviously the repertoire is going to be different. We're going to do a lot of the Christmas songs. I think we're gonna do all of the songs from the album. We'll do some of my classic, non-Christmas, songs that people love. We'll mix it all together, but it will definitely lean heavy on the Christmas repertoire. Hopefully people are in the mood for that and have checked out the album a little bit, so they can get used to some of the songs. We're gonna have some fun. I think the great thing about this Christmas music is that it really puts me in a good mood, and hopefully it'll put other people in a good mood. It's all about spreading love, and good feeling, and being festive. I know there are plenty of things that I worry about, and that everyone else is worrying about, in the country with their families — all sorts of things to be concerned about — but I think making this Christmas album really put me in a good mood over the summer. Hopefully it'll be that kind of mood enhancer for all of those people who come to the show.

OK, and maybe we can close with this question, and I am sorry to bring the mood back down, but you're so articulate about the progressive ideals you believe in. Sometimes I interview people and they tiptoe around that stuff. I'm assuming that, financially, you have more than you could ever want, but what is that decision like as an artist and with management, where you do decide to be a progressive voice and one that is going to be polarizing and essentially leave a lot of money on the table? Why do you do that, and what do people need to know about making decision that are right for them as far as speaking out?

First of all, I have enough money and I've had enough success in my career where I'm gonna be fine. I'm not worried about that. So the key for me is, "What kind of impact do I want to make in the world, and how do I want to make it?"

I care about what's happening in the country. I care about what's happening in our criminal justice system. I care about what's happening in our schools. I care about who runs the country and who represents us in Congress, and who represents us in even more local positions like district attorney. I read about these issues a lot, and I think about them a lot. I just cannot not say something.

It'd probably be much easier for my life if I didn't say certain things and I didn't speak out about certain things, but I feel like — because I've been given the gift of my career and the influence I have, and the knowledge I have and interest I have in these issues — I can't just silently sit by and not say what I think about a lot of these things.

No one in my team has ever tried to discourage that; in fact, they support it. No one at the record label has tried to discourage it; in fact, they support it. No one at NBC, since I've been hired at The Voice, has tried to censor me in any way. Obviously there's a time and a place for everything, and I'm not gonna try to make my appearances on The Voice a political statement because I don't think that's the time and place to do it, but I do believe that I have a platform on social media and other places to say some things that may be controversial to some people, but if I really believe in it, then I am going to say it. Fortunately no one on my team and no one that works with me has ever tried to discourage that. They've all been very supportive of it.

Awesome. We'll you're speaking to the alt-weekly in Tampa, so we can sympathize about being lambasted for being outspoken. Thank you for your time today.

Thank you.

Safe travels, and enjoy, well, you live in California, so you don't care about heat and Florida.

Yeah, I feel like California doesn't even have weather. It's just a constant state of 70-degree temperatures. Almost never any precipitation.

Yeah, earthquakes. Of course, the drought.

Yeah, and the fire. That's the biggest concern.

Oh my God. Yeah, I grew up in Canoga Park, so seeing the Sherman Oaks shooting and then the fire. Plus the Gap fire....

Yeah. It's been a tough week in the valley for sure.

Alright John, I don't want to get you off-track. I really do appreciate your thoughtful responses. Thanks for all the hard work.

My pleasure.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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