We talk to the 25-year-old about being a Plain Jane in high school, his origins in dance, and the significance of his song "Brown Skin Girl."
The first time I saw Leon Bridges I was transported to a different era entirely. At Warsaw, Brooklyn’s Polish community-center-cum-music venue, Bridges and his bandmates stood framed by velvet curtains on a wooden stage trimmed with bright lights, harmonizing and crooning about love and longing. It was early 2015 but it could’ve been 1955. Experiencing Bridges is half audio, half visual; his aesthetics work hand in hand with his tunes. Captured in black and white, the video for “Coming Home” (above) takes place in his hometown of Fort Worth, TX, as he strolls down empty streets soulfully strumming his guitar and singing: “The world leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, girl / You’re the only one I want, I wanna be around, ” with a wistful look in his eye. Shots of the recording studio could easily be Detroit’s Motown Records, home to The Supremes and Marvin Gaye, artists Bridges fits seamlessly alongside. He's only 25, but he looks utterly at home in an alternate era, one where a three-piece suit, a felt hat, and a pipe hanging out of his mouth is the de rigueur. He is on Instagram—what artist isn’t?—but his pictures are carefully stylized, so wonderfully anachronistic in its analog feel in this digital age.
With his debut album, Coming Home, out on 5.23 via Columbia Records, Leon Bridges is currently on an endless tour across the States and Europe, right through till October. We caught up with the singer to talk about his "Plain Jane" beginnings, his vintage threads, the significance of his song "Brown Skin Girl," and how studying dance in college lead to him making music.
Noisey: The first thing I noticed about you is that you have a very specific style. Have you always dressed like this?
Leon Bridges: I used to dip in and out of dressing like this in the past, but I was never consistent with this. I haven’t been dressing like this since I was in high school or anything—I only took it on about a couple years ago when I started writing this style of music. It was something I wanted to be more consistent about because dressing like this, and making the music that I make, brought me so much joy.
What were you like in high school?
I was just a kid trying to fit in, but there was really no way for me to fit in. I didn’t have that classic look at all. I was into contemporary art—Ginuwine, Usher—you know, watching One Tree Hill. [Laughs.] I was a Plain Jane high school kid.
How did you make the transition from hip-hop to soul?
When I was 19 or 20 I was really into hip-hop, and one thing I took from that was the phrasing, the storytelling. I wrote a song about my mom called “Lisa Sawyer,” and this was before I decided to pursue soul music. A friend of mine asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations, and I felt bad because I had never really listened to him. So after that I really started digging in and listening to Sam Cooke and the Temptations. I never went to no record store to buy a whole bunch of records. I was just looking it all up on Pandora and YouTube. After listening to it I started to realize that is where I was meant to be. I started asking myself, why aren’t there any other young black men making this kind of music? I felt like I connected with it as a black man. I went for it, I didn’t know how it would turn out because I’m no musician—I only know how to play guitar a little bit. Over time it grew and grew, and here I am.
I heard you perform “Brown Skin Girl” when you were opening for Sharon van Etten and it was really important to me because I myself am a brown skin girl. I feel like rarely are there love songs that reference women of color without objectifying them in some way. What was your mindset in writing that song?
Exactly. I was randomly thinking about the India Arie song, and I wanted to make a song to really highlight and talk about brown skin women, from Mexican to Puerto Rican and Indian to black women. It’s just a simple song. It’s one of my favorite tracks that’ll be coming out on the new album—the album version is actually way different from the live version. It’s more downtempo and laidback.
What was it like growing up in Fort Worth? What’s the music scene like?
For me, growing up in Fort Worth as a kid was just going to school and being at home. There was nothing outside of that for me—I wasn’t really allowed to go to parties. Then I started writing and playing music and discovered the music scene. What really inspired me from Fort Worth were a couple of really good singer/songwriters around the area—their consistency and almost throwback sound. It wasn’t soul music, more Americana and folk, like Bob Dylan vibes. I definitely took from that, I was really inspired just from being around those guys. They kept me on my feet.
Do you see yourself staying in Fort Worth or moving to a different city?
I wanna stay in Fort Worth, it’s home for me. I go all over the world and after being a lot of places, it’s great to come back to something I’m familiar with and see people who knew me before all of this happened. Not saying that anyone who knows me after is not genuine, but it’s a sense of home. The studio is there, my musical mentor, it’s perfect for me.
What’s your relationship with your family like? You have a song out about your mother, so I wondered if family plays a large role in your music writing.
I’m really close to my mother. My mother and father were separated, and I spent most of my time with my mother. We’ve been through some really hard times together. I like to highlight my family’s life in my music, especially because of the rich New Orleans history we have, my family is deep-rooted in New Orleans. So I try to embrace that in my music and highlight their life in an artistic way.
So you just started playing guitar a few years ago?
Yeah about four years ago, and I was always determined to do something good with it. I’m no guitar player really, I didn’t have enough time to catch up before all of this happened! But I thank God that I’ve grown as a writer. The guitar is a great songwriting tool and I like to crank it out on stage sometimes.
What inspired you to start playing guitar?
When I was going to college, I was actually originally pursuing dance, and I had a friend who would bring a keyboard to school. And we would sit around and sing songs and improv between classes. Eventually I grew tired of having to depend on other people to be creative, so I went out and bought my own guitar and started writing.
You were studying dance?
Yeah! I’ve been dancing since I was about 11 years old. When I got to college I started learning ballet technique, modern, African, and jazz technique. I was set out to be a choreographer. And then when my friend with the keyboard started coming around, I realized that I could sing songs and write a little bit.
I definitely get the sense that choreography and performance are important aspects of your live shows.
Choreography has definitely played a big part in being in front of people, because I’m a really shy person. It taught me how to move and be a performer.
Do you think about the performative aspect of your music while you’re writing?
Not really, when I write it’s just making a song. Then when I bring it to the stage, well, being in front of a lot of people has pushed me to be a better performer. Playing around Fort Worth, there was really no performance aspect. Now that I’m in front of a lot of people, it pushes me. What certain songs are gonna look like on stage, it’s more spur of the moment. I work it out along the way.
Shriya Samavai is impatiently waiting for Leon Bridges to release more music. Follow her on Twitter.