LEON BRIDGES

BY LUKE FOX Em­braces the fu­ture

Exclaim! - - FRONT PAGE - BY LUKE FOX

THE MOTHER DOESN’T REC­OG­NIZE HER OWN SON’S VOICE.

The first time Leon Bridges played his brand-new al­bum for his proud mom and one­time muse, Lisa Sawyer, she was taken aback by the high-pitched tone Bridges af­fects on his new record’s lead­off track, “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand.”

“Is that you singing on there?” Sawyer asked Bridges. “She’s all the way blown away by it,” the artist says, a dev­il­ish smile danc­ing on his lips.

The R&B sen­sa­tion is 21 floors up in a Man­hat­tan cor­po­rate sky­scraper, loung­ing on a leather sofa, fresh off play­ing a mini acous­tic set and sneak-peek­ing his new sin­gles for the big­wigs at Columbia Records. “Even some of my friends were re­act­ing like that. I never sang falsetto on a song be­fore.”

Credit ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ricky Reed — a pop ar­chi­tect who’s con­trib­uted to the cross­over suc­cess of acts like Ma­roon 5, Robin Thicke and Pit­bull — for push­ing Bridges into ter­ri­tory more risky, eclec­tic and un­known with May’s sopho­more plat­ter, Good Thing.

“Hon­estly, I didn’t think my falsetto was any good. [Reed] was like, ‘Sing that falsetto.’ It ended up sound­ing good. When I’m writ­ing by my­self, I’m com­fort­able. Work­ing with these guys, they re­ally pushed me out­side my com­fort zone.”

If Bridges didn’t wait a third year to re­lease his hotly an­tic­i­pated fol­lowup to 2015 soul de­but Com­ing Home, he says his work likely would have trod the same mu­si­cal path of the throw­back kid who charted Top 10, sold Gold and reaped a Grammy nom­i­na­tion on the strength of Sam Cooke- and Otis Red­ding-styled pas­tiche. Warm and won­der­ful, but per­haps too fa­mil­iar, too clean.

“I felt I was pi­geon­holed. I made that al­bum be­cause it was re­flec­tive of where I was at the time, but that sound doesn’t all the way de­fine me. It’s one of those things where if you go too deep down that hole, you kinda be­come this nov­elty thing. I wanted to share my voice through other out­fits, so it’s not only a clas­sic R&B thing,” Bridges ex­plains.

“This one is the grownup ver­sion of me. When I wrote Com­ing Home, I was still in this re­li­gious bub­ble. Even when I was writ­ing those sim­ple love songs, I felt it was a bit of a risk as far as the com­mu­nity I was in and my fam­ily. This is just me, a more con­fi­dent me.”

Bridges has a bet­ter sense of self. Now 28, the old soul within the young singer-song­writer is get­ting wiser.

“I turn into a whole other per­son when I’m on­stage — that’s re­ally when I’m in my el­e­ment. In­stantly, the per­former in me kicks in,” Bridges says. He can en­vi­sion one day el­e­vat­ing his al­ready kick-ass stage show to Be­y­oncé or Bruno Mars lev­els, with splashy arena videos and py­rotech­nics. “Ev­ery­thing has to evolve and grow. That shit looks good. It’s part of the whole live ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Bridges is no longer hes­i­tant to tap into the ’90s R&B in­flu­ences (Gin­uwine is a favourite) that pulse in his head­phones, and he’d jump at the chance to col­lab­o­rate with Drake or Mi­gos. Bridges knows ca­sual fans might be shocked to learn he’s not pump­ing Mo­town 24/7, that he loves trap and spazzes out with his Fort Worth homies when­ever Fu­ture’s “March Mad­ness” ex­its the speaker.

“Peo­ple are sur­prised. They have this per­cep­tion of me be­cause of the mu­sic. I’m more than this retro fig­ure,” says Bridges, deter­mined to write freer, to take chances. Al­bum No. 3 is al­ready in progress. “I felt like in the be­gin­ning, I held back a lot in fear of over­do­ing it — on­stage, ev­ery­thing. I held back on cer­tain melodies. I felt a re­straint within that genre — that’s why I branched out.”

Such self-as­sured­ness has come grad­u­ally, through re­lent­less tour­ing and an un­der­stand­ing of how to op­er­ate as a self-con­fessed in­tro­vert un­der fame’s mi­cro­scope. The great­est chal­lenge Bridges faces is grap­pling with his swelling no­to­ri­ety, push­ing him­self to don the mask of ex­tro­vert when he’d be con­tent to slip on his head­phones and walk the city un­no­ticed, or hang out at mom’s house. Those around him de­scribe Bridges as a mama’s boy, in a good way.

He still lives and cre­ates in Fort Worth, TX, close to his par­ents, who split when he was seven years old. It’s the same city where he worked over­time wash­ing dishes and bussing ta­bles to pro­vide for his fam­ily, to help pay off his mom’s debt.

“Every­one from home, they’re re­ally proud of ev­ery­thing I’ve done. I never ex­pected to be all over the world in this light. For me, it’s hard to deal with, but I still love it,” Bridges re­veals. “I do push my­self to be per­son­able and be that vibe, but I wouldn’t say it’s not gen­uine.”

Bridges’ writ­ing process is as pure as his ap­peal. He’ll pick up a gui­tar and dive into one of the melodies that’s for­ever spin­ning in his head. They run all day like sub­ways, and he runs one out for a re­porter at a mo­ment’s no­tice. His beau­ti­ful voice war­bles and fluc­tu­ates; it’s smooth, gen­tle and ef­fort­less. The made-up tune — sung to elab­o­rate a point and not to be showy — res­onates in a Sony meet­ing room that holds just two peo­ple. The sound ap­pears and van­ishes in a blink.

“This al­bum was more so in the mo­ment, as far as the melodies and the writ­ing. It was just me sit­ting on a gui­tar. Of course, I’m al­ways play­ing gui­tar, al­ways writ­ing, but it wasn’t a live, straight-to-tape ap­proach,” Bridges ex­plains.

Lo-fi drafts of Good Thing’s ten songs were sketched lo­cally with Texas’s Niles City Sound crew, then Bridges flew to Los An­ge­les to give them a mod­ern shine. A team com­posed of Reed, Austin Jenk­ins, Josh Block and Nate Mercereau twisted knobs as the young man’s voice touched all the bases.

“Me, just slouched over the ta­ble singing into a [Shure] SM7 mi­cro­phone. It was a dope process,” Bridges smiles. “Ev­ery song, when we fin­ished it, we knew it was the one. I wanted to make a short and sweet state­ment.”

March’s dou­ble sin­gle/video re­lease of “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand”/“Bad Bad News” piqued cu­rios­ity about where Bridges is headed with his new aes­thetic but hardly lays out the whole story.

By turns disco and de­fi­ant, cel­e­bra­tory and cau­tion­ary, groovy and sexy, Good Thing’s range as­tounds. Given a set of sonic tweez­ers, you could pluck out bits that re­call Prince, Jodeci and Raphael Saadiq. The airy dance-floor shaker “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” feels like it could be per­fectly at home on Michael Jack­son’s Off the Wall. Bridges says he could take each tune and build an en­tire al­bum around that sound.

“That’ll kinda be the vibe for the third al­bum. I’ll make a whole al­bum full of songs like ‘Shy’ or some­thing,” says Bridges, ex­cit­edly. “Me and my guys in Fort Worth, we were al­ready mak­ing some songs that are way more out there than this record. We had to kinda bring it back with this one.”

“Shy,” a head-nod­ding love pitch from one in­tro­vert to an­other, is one of the bet­ter things on Good Thing. “I feel like I’m al­ways shy. I never try to over­step bound­aries. I don’t re­ally ap­proach a chick un­less the vibe is right, un­less the en­ergy’s right,” says Bridges, whose taste in cloth­ing alone would at­tract a glance. Fame and for­tune help. “The qual­ity of women has def­i­nitely gone up,” he laughs.

“… I BE­LIEVE EV­ERY­BODY DE­SERVES A SEC­OND CHANCE, NOT TO SOUND SIM­PLE. BUT THAT SONG I WROTE FROM MY EXGIRLFRIEND’S PER­SPEC­TIVE. IT’S HER TELLING ME,

‘ I FOR­GIVE YOU.’ ”

Iron­i­cally, the sting­ing heart­break we de­tect on Good Thing is not the pro­pri­etor­ship of its au­thor. Bridges weaves his own ex­pe­ri­ences in with those of fam­ily, friends and even the points of view from those he may have hurt.

“I write to paint that picture for some­body else to re­late to. A lot of that stuff has come from pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ships I’ve been through,” he ex­plains. “Hon­estly, I’ve only had one se­ri­ous [ro­man­tic] re­la­tion­ship in my life, and that was in 2014. That was right be­fore ev­ery­thing started to pick and I signed with Columbia and started tour­ing the world.”

The track “For­give You” sits at the LP’s core, both lit­er­ally and emo­tion­ally. Bridges sings as a lover who’s will­ing to stay through pain caused by the other. In real life, how­ever, the roles were re­versed. Bridges has played the for­given, not the for­giver in this sce­nario.

“Man, I’ve never been in that po­si­tion where I’ve had to for­give some­body too much, thank­fully,” he says, think­ing back to his ex. “It’s about putting down the pride. I be­lieve ev­ery­body de­serves a sec­ond chance, not to sound sim­ple. But that song, I wrote from my ex-girl­friend’s per­spec­tive. It’s her telling me, ‘I for­give you.’”

Good Thing is de­cid­edly go­ing for­ward, per­haps at the risk of alien­at­ing fans ex­pect­ing Com­ing Home 2. With this, a tight of­fer­ing heavy on sticky love songs and ra­dio-ready pro­duc­tion, Bridges is openly gun­ning for the Best R&B Al­bum Grammy he missed when he was in­vited to the gala, only to watch acts like D’An­gelo, the Weeknd, Bruno Mars and Alabama Shakes walk away with tro­phies.

In­side Columbia’s walls, Good Thing has been re­ferred to as the big­gest sopho­more LP since Adele’s 21. Lofty ex­pec­ta­tions. “I was just in­spired to make an al­bum that was un­de­ni­able,” says Bridges. He sounds more mat­ter-of-fact than cocky. “If I would’ve re­leased an al­bum a year or two ago, it would’ve sounded closer to Com­ing Home. That kinda al­bum would’ve made sense two years ago.”

Not now. Not now that Bridges has played with his craft, ex­panded his voice — both nar­ra­tively and tonally — and used all those months away from the stu­dio to sharpen his stage show and jolt his con­vic­tion.

“I feel like I’ve been gifted to cre­ate an al­bum that could win. That’s just the con­fi­dence in me,” he says. “It’s not all about the Grammy at all, but it’s like, why not?”

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