This year, for the first time ever, John Legend had a chance to focus on songwriting. Since he was a wee child named John Stephens growing up in Ohio, he was a prodigy on piano, formed various high school bands (one of which was modeled after Boyz II Men) and, during college at the University of Pennsylvania, was a church musical director. But always the overachiever – who was so smart he skipped first and seventh grades – Legend put his studies ahead of his musical aspirations. Even while he wrote and began to perform the songs that made up his triple-platinum, Grammy-guzzling soul debut, Get Lifted, Legend was working as a management consultant. But last spring, with help from friends like Kanye West (on “Heaven Only Knows”) and Will.i.am (who produced the smooth new R&B single “Save Room”), Legend wrote thirty songs in three months for his follow-up, Once Again. “I’d never written consistently,” says Legend over chicken and rice at a Moroccan restaurant near his apartment in New York’s East Village. Even his lyric-writing technique is scholarly and businesslike, involving brainstorming ideas into his computer and unscrambling them into a cohesive song. Says Legend, “It’s like a puzzle.”
When you’re writing, what’s your biggest distraction?
I want to hang out with my girl, my friends. And the TV. I TiVo, so I got The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Bill Maher – I like political humor, or real political content, like Meet the Press. And South Park, Chappelle. That’s why I go into the studio – it makes me focus. I’m like, “This place cost $200 an hour, so I’m not gonna fuck around.” The last song on the album, “Coming Home,” is about a soldier stuck in a war.
Where were you coming from on that one?
I don’t have any personal experience, but I imagined what it would be like to be away from your wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever, and not knowing if you’ll make it home and could die at any point. And knowing that America is perpetually at war with somebody, either planning it or debating it.
You’re from Ohio, where the voting system is positively fucked.
It’s outrageous that there hasn’t been more outrage about America’s overall electoral system. I don’t have to enumerate what happened – Mr. Kennedy did an amazing job of that in Rolling Stone – but I was talking to some people the other day in Europe who were amazed that America, the beacon of democracy and fairness, is rigging elections. With the torture, the war in Iraq, the election fraud, we have no moral standing anywhere.
“Show Me” doesn’t sound like you – it sounds like Jeff Buckley.
It was very intentional – an homage to him. Originally, I didn’t intend for that. But when I was mumbling ideas for that late at night, I had this really interesting whispering vibrato. It sounded so intimate and spiritual and ethereal, and it reminded me of Jeff a bit. I think I can sing with just about anybody, but he’s one of the few singers who truly intimidates me. He’s one of the best I’ve ever heard.
When you laid it down, was everyone like, “Holy shit!”?
We were all like, “Holy shit! Fuck!” It was special. I listened to it about a hundred times. It didn’t sound like me, so I felt like I was a fan, listening to somebody else.
And “Stereo” seems to be about succumbing to a groupie.
It’s about girls who date rock stars. We basically wrote it about the groupie, the gold digger – though I hate to use those g words. The girl’s got her motives, but you do too, and she’s hot. I’ve definitely experienced it.
I’ve never seen or heard you speak of Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” remark. What’d you think when you saw that?
I was worried for him, because he looked so nervous. But I knew he was coming from his heart. And I was glad that he’d said it. Somebody had to say it. If I would’ve made the same point, in my more nuanced way, nobody would have paid attention. Kanye really made people pay attention.
Do you ever enjoy smoking the weed?
Occasionally. I’m not like an avid smoker. Never in the studio, or singing, or anything like that. It takes me a little past drunk. It makes me real mellow, and I usually like to have my girl around.
So it makes you horny?
I’m not saying that! I don’t want that to be my big quote in this Q&A [laughs]! But, yes, I do like to have my girl around.
How much of your musical motivation came from wanting to get the girls?
Making music helps get girls. There’s no question about that. Yeah, I used to write songs for girls when I was younger. I wrote a song for my prom date [Legend was the prom king] called “I Want to Make You Mine,” or something like that. Quite the piece! Definitely Grammy-winning material.
Has an older musician ever given you shit for adopting the name “Legend”?
No, never. But I read somewhere that Peabo Bryson said something about me onstage. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t nice. [Bryson reportedly said that “John Legend is never going to be doing what I can do.”] That was rather out of the blue [laughs].
You should’ve hung it up after that.
It was tough. Like when Ja Rule shot down 50 Cent.
This story is from the November 2nd, 2006.