When you hear Texas native, Leon Bridges, sing, you observe a galaxy of things. But the star around which all the man’s many attributes circle is most assuredly his innate sweetness. There’s gentleness and kindness embedded into all of his music and it’s because of these that Bridges’ soulful songwriting shines. And, not surprisingly, these same traits come through when you talk on the phone with the singer, who will perform tonight in Seattle at the WaMu Theater. But before the big show, we caught up with Bridges — who’s worked with Emerald City standouts, Macklemore and Odeaza, on recent tracks — to chat with him about his early days as a young musician at open mics, how he developed his other-worldly voice, and what he thinks about love at this stage in his life. His most recent full-length, Good Thing, is out now via Columbia.
KEXP: Your voice is astoundingly rich. How did you develop it?
Leon Bridges: Man, a lot of it comes from playing a bunch of shows and just really discovering that I could go in different places as far as melodies and range and stylistically.
Do you remember the first record you sang to when you paused and realized how well you could actually sing along with it?
There were a lot of different moments but I’d definitely have to say it was on some Usher stuff back when I was in high school. That was when I figured out I could sing a little bit.
I used to love that song “My Way.” I’d sing to it during Total Request Live!
Oh my god, yes. Classic.
Is there a lesson or maxim that you heard on a song as a young man that you keep with you today?
I would have to pull something — and this is the thing at the top of my head — from the lyrics from R. Kelly: “Don’t bring your girl to meet me, ‘cause I’m a flirt.” I’m kind of joking here, but you know…
Your songs often tell stories about your family. What about family inspires your creativity?
For me, I’m always looking for inspiration. And in the beginning, I didn’t really have much to write about, so I pulled from stories of my family. But also it was just about keeping their stories alive within my music. It was a way to honor them and honor my mother, that kind of thing.
You sing about love in your music, too. Have you learned something about love over the years that’s been particularly valuable?
Man, there are some places on the album where it talks about finding love and a lot of times there’s moments when I feel in that place of falling for someone but I’m holding back out of fear. A lot of times I hold back out of fear of falling in love. I’m trying to stay away from love right now.
Is it too much to juggle?
Yeah. And, you know, I’m not in a place in my life where I want to be in a serious relationship.
Early in your career, you performed at a lot of open mics in Texas. What did these opportunities mean for you as a developing songwriter?
They definitely prepared me on a level to where it helped me appreciate the small, intimate platforms. Back then, there were nights where I’d be playing to no one or to maybe 20 people. So it helped me appreciate that, that level, and sharing my gift on that platform. I was able to become a better guitar player and songwriter as a result of those times.
Was there something early on that pushed you to believe you could have a career in music?
Oh, definitely. I would point back to 2007 before I even picked up a guitar. There was a show, Making The Band Season 3. It was an R&B season. So that inspired me to pursue singing. It was so dope to see, like, the whole R&B thing come back to the surface because that’s all I grew up on — Dru Hill, that kind of stuff.
What did you learn artistically between releasing Coming Home and recording Good Thing?
I think when I went into writing Good Thing, the idea was not having any boundaries around. I felt like with Coming Home, after a while that type of sound kind of became a little restrictive. I wanted to try out melodies and cadences that didn’t necessarily lend themselves to 60s R&B music.
You’re a part of this great lineage of soul and gospel musicians in America. What is it like for you to be making modern-day soul music?
I definitely take pride in that. In a sense, my mission is something that wasn’t initially my mission. But now I’m seeing it as, like, I want to bring soul music and R&B to the forefront. And I always look at it — it is a narrow road making this music because it’s not always relevant and it doesn’t always chart. But I’m sticking to this. Because I love it.
Do you have a favorite story working with Macklemore or Odesza?
Man, both were great collaborations. I thought it was really rad that Mack wanted me on a song and that he’d bring me out to Seattle. I’d never kicked it over here before. And the Odesza collaboration was really awesome. That was what opened me up to new things musically, actually. The whole process was really fluid. I got in there, found an awesome track and we just wrote the melodies we wanted.
Bridges plays tonight at the WaMu Theater in Seattle with Khruangbin, with many worldwide tour dates up ahead. Good Thing is out now via Columbia.
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