Leon Bridges and Laura Lee Can’t Stop Talking About Texas
What is Texas Music? For Fort Worth-based singer Leon Bridges, it’s a mix of smooth, soulful vocals and laid-back, bluesy rhythms. Just south of Bridges’ hometown, the Houston-born trio Khruangbin have cooked up their own Lone Star sound—meandering instrumental rock inspired by the group’s upbringing in the most diverse city in America. On their joint North American tour in 2018, the musicians had ample time to explore the notion of a shared Texas sound together. The result of that exploration was their first studio collaboration Texas Sun, a 4-song EP combining Bridges’ blissed-out vocals with Khruangbin’s eclectic funk. If Texas Sun is the rugged, boot-clad Texas cowboy, then Texas Moon—their latest collaboration—is his sunbaked, psychedelics-loving cousin. Earlier this month, Bridges reunited with the Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee to talk about collaboration, creative pressure, musical evolution, and of course, Texas. —LYLA TRILLING
LAURA LEE: Hi, Leon.
LEON BRIDGES: Sup Laura. You were just at New York Fashion Week, right?
LEE: Yeah, I’m still in New York. I’m going to leave this evening for Miami, which I’m very excited about… because it is cold.
BRIDGES: I’m gutted that I wasn’t able to make it. I know we were trying to pull up there together. But it looks like you had a good time.
LEE: I know. I missed you, though. I still think we should do Fashion Week together at some point.
BRIDGES: We need to.
LEE: Yeah. I think we’ll just look great, you know?
BRIDGES: Yeah, that’s easy. We’ll stop the show.
LEE: Yeah, it was my first time actually being off tour and able to go to Fashion Week at all. So I’ve actually never been in the thick of it. I ran to Adeline—do you know Adeline?
BRIDGES: I don’t think so.
LEE: She’s an awesome bass player and singer-songwriter. She and I have been internet friends for years, and this week we ended up at all the same events. She was my Leon, basically, for the last few days.
BRIDGES: I’ve been replaced.
LEE: [Laughs] Never! I’m so excited that Texas Moon comes out this week.
BRIDGES: Out in the world! I honestly forgot when it was dropping.
LEE: I know, yeah. It’s happening. I’ve been seeing it pop up on the ground in record stores, and then I’m starting to see the first comments on the internet of what people think of it. You know, people are like, “It’s better than Texas Sun,” or, “This is as good as Texas Sun!”
BRIDGES: Yeah, it’s pretty surreal. Seeing the vinyls side by side—Texas Sun and Texas Moon. This EP is more down tempo than Texas Sun, wouldn’t you say?
LEE: I mean, I think it’s more psychedelic and I really like that. I don’t get to see Leon in that space normally, and I feel like seeing you in that syrupy state, like you are on “Doris,” feels like my vision board coming to life.
BRIDGES: If I could make every album like that, then I would. So often when I’m making music, we’ve got to put a bow on it and shine it up and give it to the people.
LEE: I was going to ask you about that. We’ve only done a couple of collaborations, but I know you are frequently working with other people—even if it’s just for one song or a live performance or whatever. What have you learned from dipping a toe into a lot of creative partnerships?
BRIDGES: Man. What have I learned from it all?
LEE: Have you liked hopping around? Does it keep things interesting or does it make you feel less focused? I don’t know. I guess I’m just curious, since I’m always working with the same people, you know?
BRIDGES: I kind of look at it all as like, it’s all work. But I love being able to show people the different layers of my artistry, and there are certain vibes and sounds that I want to create that you can only get by working with a speficic producer or writer.
LEE: Totally. When we’ve worked together—I mean, obviously there’ve been a couple of jams— but then otherwise you’re kind of crooning on the guitar, and we’ve written around you. But when you’re writing your albums and working with different producers and stuff, how much of the material do you prepare in advance? Do you sit in the studio and write with other people in real time?
BRIDGES: I have, in my notes, a bunch of little lines and verses that I’ve jotted down. I usually just bring that to the session. There are other songs that come alive completely on the fly, where I’m in a room with a producer and a writer and we all just kind of toss ideas around to build the song. So there is pressure from that—trying to write a song in a day, pretty much.
LEE: Yeah. I’m familiar with that.
BRIDGES: But I do miss being able to create with no expectations. That was before I signed to Columbia Records.
LEE: How many more records do you have with Columbia?
BRIDGES: Two more. And a lot of the songs are already there for the next one. It’s just a matter of refining them. I want to get into the studio with the band and reconstruct what’s there.
BRIDGES: Are you all working on new music?
LEE: We’ve got a couple of things coming out this year. We’ve got Texas Moon, obviously, this week. We have another project that’s coming out later this year, still to be announced. In 2019, we were touring and going into the studio and recording, and there was pressure on both sides of music. There was the pressure to give people good live performances, and also trying t pump our a record in these two week bursts between records. It felt really intense from a time perspective. So this year, we’re trying to learn from those mistakes—or, those experiences. This year is just going to be a touring year, just focusing on making the actual live performance more artful and creative, and we’re using our headspace next year for recording. We’re trying to give our brains the full freedom to write.
BRIDGES: Right, that’s kind of what I’m on. I just want to write them all now, get them out of the way. But we’re really good at burning the candle at both ends, and I dig that. You’re trying to minimize all that to have some peace of mind.
LEE: It’s definitely a luxurious place to write from. You have to earn your stripes to be able to determine that schedule for yourself. So, I’m grateful to be at that place now. Mordechai feels like the more complex side of Khruangbin—higher energy. I don’t want to say manic, but there was just more intensity there, and I think a lot of that was a reflection of how busy we were. It’s just a busier record than our earlier stuff, and I’m interested to see if, when we have more space, our music will sound more spacious. I’m excited—now that I know we’re not writing for a year, I really can’t wait. You’re touring this year too, right?
BRIDGES: Yeah, I pretty much embark on a tour in—oh my god—in March. I’m not coming home until October.
LEE: Yeah, I feel you.
BRIDGES: I’m excited to be back on the road and it’s really dope to come out of the pandemic and be able to pick up where we left off. It’s cool to see the music growing and more people discovering it.
LEE: Totally. I was trying to think of the first time I heard you. I know you came up on my Spotify weekly back when that was a new thing. I was living in London, and I remember seeing you play Glastonbury on TV. That was my first Leon exposure, and it’s so interesting to think about that time before we worked together. Now we’ve got two records under our belt, which is awesome.
BRIDGES: It’s really wild how that all came to fruition. I discovered y’all on a video shoot. We were on our way to the next location and they played your music in the car, and I immediately started singing to it. I would just write to y’all’s tunes. Eventually we toured together, and then, one night in Montana, you sent me that tune and it sparked a collab.
LEE: When you’re going to spend months on tour with someone, those first few days you’re like a little kid looking at the other kid, curious about how their shows are put together. I remember you backstage just singing to yourself over Khruangbin songs. When I saw you singing to our stuff, I was like, “Dude, this is our shot!” So I sent you a song to work with.
BRIDGES: No. I was high key waiting for that moment for y’all to send me something. I was like, “Please, we have to work together.”
LEE: Texas Sun is special to me because we had a hard time putting it out at first. It feels like this sweet little thing that was so organic and pure, and nobody told us to do it. It was really just like—we made some music, you sang along to it. We had such a good time on that tour. It felt like home the whole time.
BRIDGES: It was totally a family vibe. What made the experience so different from other collaborations is that there were no egos in the room. There isn’t a formula that we need to chase. It was just about getting in the studio and allowing the creativity to flow.
LEE: Yeah, it just worked. When people ask me if I’m interested in collaborating with somebody, I always say I have to meet them first, because you can force something, but it’s so nice when you don’t have to. I think that’s why these records came out so beautifully. I hold them really dear to my heart. There’s this purity and sweetness to them, and we didn’t even do any press the first go around. People have different measurements of success—how well something sells or whatever—but to me, there’s something so beautifully successful about not trying and it just coming together. You’ve ruined collaborating for us, Leon. We can’t work with anyone else.
BRIDGES: [Laughs] Okay. We’ll just have to form a band together.
LEE: Up until this point, your solo records have felt like an identity shift each time. Each one is a different side of you. Are you still in explore mode, or do you feel like you’ve landed?
BRIDGES: I definitely want to keep evolving. There is so much music that I dig that I want to put my own spin on. When I wrote Coming Home, I was really inspired by ‘60s R&B music. Then, I wanted to my version of the ‘90s and 2000s R&B that shaped me. I guess the most important thing throughout it all is just keeping a foundation in soul music when trying those things.
LEE: There are a lot of people that ask us if Khruangbin is going to go back to the sound on our first or second record, and we’re like, “We can’t. We are ever-changing creatures, and our music is going to reflect wherever we are at whatever time that is.” Do you ever record in Fort Worth?
BRIDGES: I do, actually. When I recorded my first album, we initially set up in this old golf warehouse there. That’s the main place where I record. Other than that, there really isn’t infrastructure in Fort Worth for people to really pursue music and gain success. I have a place to record there, but these days I’m more often in L.A. and Nashville.
LEE: Do you feel connected to the musical community in Fort Worth?
BRIDGES: Yeah. Initially, I wanted to create a place where aspiring musicians would be able to record. But in Fort Worth, those artists are few and far between.
LEE: I remember we went to a party you were DJing at in Fort Worth, and they really showed up. You could feel the hometown love.
BRIDGES: It’s a tight-knit community. The nightlife there is kind of non-existent. There really aren’t a lot of places to go outside of college bars. How was it growing up in Houston?
LEE: It lives up to being the most diverse city in America. People are forever surprised to learn that New York is only like, the third most diverse. I think that’s kind of what Khruangbin is trying to do—bring Houston to the forefront by showing the diversity of cultures and sounds that are there. When I moved to England, people thought I rode a horse and wore cowboy boots—which I do—but not in the way that they expect. [Laughs] Our collaboration with you showcases another side of Texas music, which is so cool.
BRIDGES: It really is.