ABOVE: LEON BRIDGES. PHOTO COURTESY OF RAMBO.
“Baby, baby, baby, I’m coming home,” begins the first track on Leon Bridges’ debut album, Coming Home, and in a way, the soul singer feels like he’s always been in our homes, buried deep within parents’ or grandparents’ record collections. His music is a clear throwback to soul legends like Sam Cooke and Bill Withers, and his aesthetic feels fresh and familiar at the same time.
Less than a year ago, the 25-year-old Bridges was bussing tables and washing dishes at a restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is still based, and playing at open mic nights on the side. A chance encounter outside of a bar with Austin Jenkins of Austin-based rock group White Denim quickly led to Jenkins and his bandmate Joshua Block becoming Bridges’ producers. Within a couple of months, nearly 40 record labels expressed interest and his shows began selling out. Yesterday, he released Coming Home via Columbia Records and has already embarked on an entirely sold-out North American tour.
Prior to his show tonight at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, we spoke with the rising star over the phone. He was at home in Forth Worth; we were in New York.
STEVEN EDELSTONE: Your quick rise to fame has meant a lot of touring this year. How long has it been since you’ve been able to spend time at home?
LEON BRIDGES: We started in January and went to London in March. After that, I had two weeks off before the Lord Huron tour and then went straight to Europe again. I had a day off, then went to a wedding, and then straight until these two weeks off.
EDELSTONE: Have you ever spent this much time away from home?
BRIDGES: Before all of this happened, I had only been to New Orleans on a trip with my family and once to California, but that’s it.
EDELSTONE: In a recent interview with The Guardian, you said you became fascinated with Sam Cooke and wanted to recreate that sound exactly because it made you happy to make it identical. How do you balance trying to keep your music unique while respecting your musical influences?
BRIDGES: In the beginning, I was so inspired by the music. I had the option to make something modern with classic undertones, but I wanted to make something that was exactly like that old sound. Of course, it’s going to come out in my own way because I have R&B influences, but it’s cool how my songwriting works out; a lot of the time, I’m not writing just classic-sounding songs, but songs that come from experience. Look at “Brown Skin Girl,” a song I wrote about my ex-girlfriend, or “Twistin’ & Groovin,'” which is about my grandparents. I love the pioneers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but when I write music, it comes out in my own way.
EDELSTONE: You mentioned “Brown Skin Girl,” which is about your ex, but in past interviews, you said the song stands for something bigger and more universal. Even though you wrote those lyrics relatively recently, how do lyrics change, in your mind, over time?
BRIDGES: Those songs come from such a specific time in my life, but now they’re on a bigger scale. You look at “Brown Skin Girl,” which can be applied to all girls of color. I wrote it because of my ex-girlfriend, but when I get up onstage, while it’s still a personal song, I look at it as art more than anything else. I can connect with the crowd, even on songs like “Lisa Sawyer,” which is about my mom, because people can look at that and think, “I love my mother too.”
EDELSTONE: What was that moment like when you showed your mother that song for the first time?
BRIDGES: I was at home with a friend and he said, “You have to show your mom that song you wrote about her! It’s amazing!” I finally played it for her and she broke down in tears. My mom didn’t know I was a songwriter; she thought I just went out there and covered songs. It was the first time she had heard my own music. I never thought of myself as any kind of songwriter or singer, but it definitely made me realize that I had a gift.
EDELSTONE: The tracklist on the album has 10 songs, but there’s other songs floating around on YouTube that didn’t make the cut, like “My Love Stays” or “There She Goes.” How did you pick the songs for the album?
BRIDGES: “My Love Stays” is such and old song. I wrote it forever ago. I have almost 30 songs to my name and we recorded about 20 of them. We might do a deluxe edition in the future or they could potentially make it onto album number two.
EDELSTONE: You have other musicians out there like Aloe Blacc, whose first album sounds similar to yours, but then branched out and went full pop. Could you ever see yourself shying away from R&B and pushing yourself to become more pop?
BRIDGES: If I went crazy and tried to make pop music, my band wouldn’t record it! I love them too much to do that. [laughs] This is the style of music that I want to do and I don’t think I’d be able to flat-out write a pop song and make it satisfying to me. I’m ready to make a consistent sound in whatever way I can.
EDELSTONE: You’ve toured with both Sharon Van Etten and Lord Huron—bands that are completely different than yours. Did you initially set out to make your music so universal and easily listenable?
BRIDGES: I never really thought about my music being universal. When I set out to write, it was just a feeling that felt good to me. I never thought about being able to reach everybody. I love the fact that I went on tour with those bands and getting in front of different crowds and it was cool that different people could appreciate it.
EDELSTONE: Going back to SXSW, you played about 10 shows that week. What was that experience like for you?
BRIDGES: It was crazy to think that last summer, I was in Austin for my birthday and nobody knew who I was. I was walking around the street and playing guitar then and it was crazy to come back to Austin to play SXSW—I had never been before—and hear all of the positive feedback from the people there. It was very exciting because a lot of people had actually heard the songs and were there to see what I looked like in person.
EDELSTONE: Then, in the spirit of High Fidelity, what are your top five records of all time?
BRIDGES: Sweet Soul Music by Arthur Conley, Sam Cooke and SAR Records Story 1959-1965 by Sam Cooke, The Life by Ginuwine, and Blowin’ Your Mind by Van Morrison.
COMING HOME IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON LEON BRIDGES, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.