“I have to say, I have never in my life experienced someone who is as unflappable as John Legend,” Sara Bareilles told a crowd at the Tribeca Film Festival Thursday night at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Bareilles was in the midst of an hour-long conversation with Legend, her recent co-star in NBC’s live production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which aired this past Easter.
“I don’t really get nervous,” Legend replied, discussing his role as Jesus that he admitted was his first time doing musical theater since high school. “But I do get excited.”
For the event, hosted as part of the film festival’s Tribeca Talks: Storytellers series, Bareilles spent most of the hour trying to break beneath Legend’s “unflappability,” asking the singer a series of questions about his personal backstory, artistic regrets and musical philosophy during the free-flowing conversation.
Legend shared intimate details about his upbringing in the church, his early lucky breaks with Lauryn Hill and Kanye West, and revealed his keys to working with his dream collaborators and enduring as a relevant artist in his second decade as an entertainer.
Having just worked together, Bareilles and Legend enjoyed an easy camaraderie, discovering their commonalities, from divorced parents and three siblings to singing in a college a capella group, throughout the night.
Legend began the evening by discussing his upbringing in the Pentecostal church in Springfield, Ohio, where he grew up in a household that largely forbade secular music. He eventually transitioned into the earliest stages of his career, a time marked by a series of lucky breaks. Legend explained that his recording debut, back when he was still in college, was playing piano on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill after meeting a friend of Hill’s at a church concert in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“Luck,” Legend explained in one of his more Ted Talk-friendly remarks of the night, “is when opportunity meets preparation.”
The singer then moved on to his post-college days working in management consulting before jumpstarting his musical career in New York with early gigs at venues like SOB’s and Joe’s Pub. During that period, Legend explained how he was connected to an emerging producer his friend knew named Kanye West.
“We were both new,” Legend said of his and West’s early working relationship. “We were up and coming artists. People didn’t even know he could rap, really, yet. He had to convince people he could rap. He was working on his demo. He was living in an apartment in Newark, and I would go to his place and we would work on songs. He would give me beats for my demo and I would write to them and then I would sing hooks on his.”
Bareilles then asked Legend how he goes about seeking out collaborators nowadays. “A lot of my collabs are just, ‘I really like these records: who made them? Let’s call them up,’” Legend said, explaining that he sought out Blake Mills to produce his most recent album, 2016’s Darkness and Light, after being impressed by the production on Alabama Shakes’ 2015 album Sound & Color.
For the most part, Legend remained quiet about future musical and film projects, but he did share that he’s already started writing songs about the son he’s soon expecting with his wife Chrissy Teigen.
Shortly after, he flipped roles, asking Bareilles to discuss her five-year process of writing the music to and starring in the Broadway play Waitress. The topic was of particular interest to Legend, who indicated that he’d love to write music to a Broadway production himself in the future.
“It’s long as fuck,” Bareilles said of the process. “If I had known what I was signing up for, I actually don’t think I would have said yes, but I am so glad that I did. I just went in with so much naiveté. It’s years of your life and more man-hours than I ever would have imagined. What I experienced was a return to the beginning stages of being a young artist where you don’t know what you’re doing yet, and so there’s this constant sense of discovery.”
Bareilles also shared what she called “one of the most embarrassing moments” of her creative career. Early in the play’s writing process, she had attempted to write a song from the point of the view of the play’s abusive husband. “The only thing I could do to make a song happen for that was to make him spell out the words ‘please have sex with me,’ so the song literally goes p-l-e-a-s-e h-a-v-e s-e-x with me,” she said, singing the spelled-out words. “That’s the chorus of the song.”
“I feel like that might be an R. Kelly song, too,” Legend replied.
As the night drew to a close, Legend expressed admiration for Beyoncé when answering an audience member’s question about maintaining a long career in the music business. “I’m so inspired by Beyoncé because you can tell she works on that show,” Legend said, perhaps referring to the singer’s recent Coachella appearance. “She is committed to every move, every step being right. She’s been around this long, one: because she’s immensely talented, but two: because she really cares about her craft and she works on it all the time. She shows up when she’s supposed to show up.”
Legend paused for a moment, reflecting on the success of his equally unflappable contemporary. “I think that’s a big part of longevity,” he said.