“She didn’t even recognize my voice at first.”
That’s Leon Bridges talking to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay about the first time he played “Bad Bad News” for his mom, who apparently had the same reaction as fans that had grown attached to the soul sounds from the a 2015 debut, Coming Home. The Grammy-nominated LP led Bridges to be compared to Sam Cooke (he prefers Arthur Alexander), but the 29-year-old Fort Worth native grew up on more than retro-soul.
Bridges, who returns to Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall on April 18, reflected many of those influences — Ginuwine, Mint Condition, even Texas hip-hop acts like Big Tuck — on his sophomore album, Good Thing, released last year. The effort ruffled the sensibilities of fans who might’ve been under the impression that a gifted millennial songwriting wouldn’t want to explore new sounds as his career progressed.
“The tone of it just sounded totally different,” Bridges said.
Mom eventually came around and even ended up appreciating the more intimate themes and new aesthetic that Bridges brought to Good Thing, which was nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2019 Grammys (the effort’s lead single, “Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand,” won a golden gramophone for Best Traditional R&B Performance). Nowadays, Mom, who busted her ass to make sure Bridges had a good childhood in spite of a lack of financial resources, even jokes about her initial aversion to Bridges’ musical growth.
“It's rad how much she's grown in that way. Four or five years ago she would have been pissed about me making that kind of music,” Bridges said. “From here on out she's always going to be very supportive of the music.”
Bridges took a break from prepping for a show to talk to CL, and we discussed that support, the changing demographic of his audience, what his future might look like after Good Thing and more, Read our Q&A and get more information on the show below.
Leon Bridges w/Jess Glynne. Thurs. April 18, 8 p.m. $53.50 & up. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater. rutheckerdhall.com.
You hired two Joshes (Thumberly, Johnson) to join your band, and they've brought a psychedelic-jazz vibe to the record. After a few shows in, do you feel like there are some things to tweak?
It's awesome to be able to play dope music with dope musicians, so I can't really complain about anything. I'm pumped to play.
Anything from the first two shows that you might want to improve on?
The band is always on. When I listen back to the audio and video, I am always looking at things I can improve on as far as stage banter and things like that.
You were into the studio with Ricky Reed, and he was the guy you felt most comfortable being around, he helped you find these vibes. What do the songs that didn't make Good Fight sound and feel like? Why'd they get cut over the ones that made it? We're they still too sexy for the Coming Home follow-up?
Out of the Ricky Reed sessions, there were two songs that didn't make it. Honestly, in that session we didn't do a lot of playing in the sandbox to find it. That whole recording process was us writing a song in about eight hours, and that would be the song. I mean, straight up, the vocal stayed, and there was nothing that really changed about it. The songs just didn't fit with the other songs that were on the album. I wouldn't say they were too sexy or anything, they just didn't fit.
The demos for Good Thing screamed Ginuwine. You grew up on Mint Condition, even the Big Tuck into this and make it known that your influences include all the same old school R&B and rap as everyone else our age. You’ve mentioned Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, Childish Gambino, Daniel Caesar, James Blake, Kelis and Drake all as folks you’d like to work with. I saw you working with John Mayer, Terrance Martin and Brandon Marcel — were they helping you with those grittier Dr. John and Jodeci vibes? Are you working on new music during tour?
Yeah, man. I'm always writing. Every now and then I'll put something together on Garageband just for fun. Pre-tour I was out in L.A. doing some writing, and post-tour I'll be writing in Nashville and Houston — kind of all over.
Some of your New Year’s resolutions included to work out more be healthier, be a better songwriter and guitar player. You’ve talked about getting away from writing on guitar for Good Thing, so someone was wondering what guitar you pick up in your downtime, your preferred guitar to write with.
I kind of pick up whatever's around, but I definitely gravitate towards my Gibson acoustic. Playing acoustic is way more forgiving than playing electric — it's nice, when I want different sounds, to play electric guitar — but mostly, when I write, it's on acoustic.
I wanted to talk about an amazing artist, Brittni Jessie, who is on the road with you? Could you talk about what it’s like to have your best friend on the road with you? What does that do for your mental state of mind? How has she saved you? Has Nicki Minaj showed up to a show?
Haha, no, Nicki Minaj has not showed up, but she's more than welcome to come hang out. It's been amazing having not only Brittni, but even Brandon Marcel, who is one of my best friends as well. It's helpful. When I'm feeling the weight of, kind of, carrying this whole thing. It's rough when you throw somebody in with their insecurities and fears. Throughout it, those guys are very supportive when I'm going through whatever. And we can have a good time as well. That's the fun thing about tour — playing good music and then going out and having a good time.
Yeah, I always thought that the weight that a young person, especially someone in your situation since you have to carry the weight of being Leon Bridges LLC and all the jobs and livelihoods that rely on you — I always thought that was unfair in a way. You talked about your insecurities, and you’ve mentioned thinking you weren’t handsome enough, or that you have stage fright. Repetition helps, but you said you haven’t overcome that. Still, you try and get into a zone onstage; you don’t want fear to show onstage. How do you do it?
I think that's what it is. When I get onstage I tell myself that, basically, I'm the man. That I'm beautiful. That this shit was meant for me. Otherwise God wouldn't have handed it to me. So I tell myself that, and I just give people what they want because what I'm thinking in my head is not what they're thinking.
You kind of hinted at this, and I wanted to know since the tour just kicked off. Leon Bridges is obviously for anyone who wants to rock with him, but could you talk about what it’s like to finally see more brown-skinned girls in the audience?
It's beautiful. That's something I've always wanted. I want my people to connect with my music. It's one of those things, timing-wise, where they just have to be exposed to it. When they see it, then I feel like they'll be able to get behind it. It's rad that with this project that I'm seeing more and more of my people come to the music and find the music. That's rad, for sure.
Gary Clark Jr. played a festival that White Denim did here. I know you were a bit shaken, after Roots Picnic and Black Heritage Day in Texas, which you talked about on a Texas podcast. I get that you and Gary talked about not being embraced by black audiences and that Good Thing may have been a bit of a reaction to that. When you talk to other black artists who may get boxed in or have a similar audience as yours, how are you able to talk to each other and be there for each other in such a confusing situation sometimes? It's never easy.
Yeah, our relationship is pretty tight, but I don't really get to have these conversations with him. The only time that it was really brought up was during that interview we had when we were together. It was really interesting to hear his perspective and how he felt about it.
It's one of those things. I understand that I don't make trendy music, and, honestly, my mission is to almost educate or prove that I can take elements from the past and stay relevant. Blues, rock and roll and soul are an important piece of black culture, and that's something that some black people in the culture just don't know yet. That's something that I didn't know when I was coming up. That's what it's about for me, but I do understand that by the nature of the music my show will definitely be predominantly white, and that's awesome, whoever wants to rock with my music. But I definitely want to see a change, and it's already happening.
Yeah, you were a personal gateway to Arthur Alexander for me, so I appreciate you putting that out there. I wanted to ask you about an old friend of yours. Has Beto called you to help him become president and drag you across to continent to play or stump for him?
Haha. I had the opportunity to rock that gig for him, but I was in the middle of moving around and writing. I had three days at home before I hopped on the tour, but I would love to, but I need to do my laundry before I get on tour. The support and love is always there. I love what he believes in and what he stands for.
Listening to Luke Combs sing “Beyond” made it very clear that you’re a hit songwriter. Do you need to be front and center to be happy making music, or do you ever think you would just write songs if being a frontman became too overwhelming?
I'm open to it. Being a frontman is awesome for now while I'm young and kind of handsome, but there'll come a time when I'm gonna get tired of all the fucking tour life and that shit. It's fun, and I'll do it as long as I can, but I would definitely like to go behind the scene and do that. And at some point do something that's not even music related. At some point I just want to chill for a long time. Just kind of go off the radar a little bit. The whole album process is making it, touring it and then write again for the next one as soon as you're done. The process just continues to... I can't even think of the word for it.
It's a pretty ruthless cycle. The industry is what it is, but the demands on artists sometimes are pretty heavy.
Yeah, it's a lot. There are times, based on where I'm at in my life, it's like, I don't even know what to write about. I need a year or two to decompress and figure that out. But it's all good — I'll get over the obstacles.
So you're not going to get back up with Adrian and restart your old band Drawn. You'd rather chill and live life.
Haha, man, I saw him the other day, and we laughed about the whole thing. That's crazy how that information got out. I don't know how.
I blame Nardwuar.
Haha, yeah. I don't know how he found it.
Dude, he called your dance teacher, I think. I don't know. That guy is crazy with the research.
Could you talk about the first phone call you had with mom after she heard Good Thing? I'm sure you were nervous, I don't know if she was in the room with you, but she does read your interviews and keeps an eye on you.
It was right after we did a couple songs for the sessions, and I was back home with my mom, and I played her "Bad Bad News," and she didn't recognize my voice at first. The tone of it just sounded totally different from Coming Home. She was loving the whole thing. From here on out she's always going to be very supportive of the music.
Have any of the themes made her blush? You're very candid about being insecure, and you're not explicit about intimacy on the record, but the way you describe love on the album implies very intimate things. Not just physically, but emotionally as well — was it a blushing kind of moment for you and her?
Yeah, she jokes about it all the time. I think, when I played the first Good Thing show in Dallas, she made a comment about the song "Mrs." and was like, 'What is that "Mrs." song?' — that kind of thing. "What are you singing over there?" Something like that. She always jokes about it. It's rad how much she's grown in that way. Four or five years ago she would have been pissed about me making that kind of music.
That's awesome. You've talked about that period as a whirlwind, and this cycle I'm sure is a whirlwind, too — congrats on the Grammy win by the way.
I get that Bonnaroo 2017 was that big moment for you where you turned a corner as far as the live show. But I remember watching you at Ruth Eckerd Hall, I think it was 2016, the first time you played Clearwater.
I remember that the show was great, but also thinking that it kind of felt unfair that you had to be in that gigantic theater with that pressure of having to reach the back of the auditorium with the energy when you could've sold out a pretty large club and been a little more face-to-face or closer to people. Did you feel any of that on the Coming Home tour? Was there ever a moment where you kind of wished you were in smaller rooms where you could get sweaty with that band at the time?
Definitely. I feel that the ideal way to see music is in those sweaty, intimate clubs. It's always fun to get back to that. That one was a little hard to connect because of the whole seated theater vibe, but honestly, even to this day, I wish, in an ideal world, it would be awesome for me and the fans to be in the small, intimate venues, but that's the way it goes when demand is up and more people want to see the music.
It's a good problem to have.