Bridges builds on bygone soul sound
TORONTO — Over the past several months, a bona fide fuss has assembled around Leon Bridges’ elegantly retro soul.
Since last year, the Fort Worth, Texas, singer signed a record deal, issued a couple of appetite-whetting videos and suddenly found himself a scorching ticket at Austin’s South by Southwest festival.
The arrival this week of his debut, Coming Home, was marked by a Tonight Show appearance and a tightly packed New York showcase. And this month the New York Times trumpeted Bridges as the “second coming of Sam Cooke.”
Bridges sighs a little when asked about all the attention.
“I think it’s great, but I’m a very to-myself person,” he says.
“I don’t like a lot of attention,” he says. “That’s kind of who I am at heart. So I see everything, the people circulating around me, and a lot of people know me — it kind of feels like a heavy weight sometimes.
“Because it all moves so fast. But nobody gets to choose when they come to fame. When it comes, you just take it on, and do it.”
That Bridges struggles to adjust to his mounting fame is mildly surprising, mostly because the soonto-be 26-year-old seemed to arrive fully formed, with a slickly synchronized sound, look and even social media presence.
From music to his monochromatic, anachronistic Instagram account, Bridges channels a bygone era — the 1950s, specifically — to a degree that could be politely described as meticulous.
And yet, he says he came to that era relatively recently, only listening to Sam Cooke after a friend compared his own singing to the soul great. And the clothes, he says, were a similarly happenstance discovery.
“One of my mom’s older friends, he brought me a lot of his shirts and stuff he used to wear when he was a teenager,” Bridges says.
“That’s where it started. When I didn’t have any confidence to really go fully into the style, about two years ago, I started writing music and just kind of opened the door to go all the way in.
“I’ve always had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do.”
Well, “always” is relative. In fact, Bridges began dipping his toes into music while studying ballet at a community college at home in Fort Worth.
He found his flair for singing there, and songwriting came later. He’s still a reluctant guitarist.
“Because my career has gone so fast, I haven’t been able to become confident,” he says.
He has well-earned certainty in his voice, however, a gilded instrument with a gentility that sets Bridges’ sepia-toned R&B apart. On album highlight Lisa Sawyer, he pays tribute to his mother with a swaying tune rich in detail and atmosphere.
“She broke into tears (when) I played it for her,” he says.
Although Bridges does like contemporary music — he points to Drake and Kendrick Lamar as specific favourites — his discovery of old soul triggered the realization of a certain void.
“I noticed that in R&B music, there wasn’t anything really like that,” he says.
“I really connected with it. Being a black man and how the artists at that time were all young, black men and they had a community.
“They were just always together, making great music. That’s something that stood out to me.”