Leon Bridges is only a three-hour drive away from home, but his third trip to Austin, Texas, is quite unlike his first two, the consequences of which could mean he won’t be seeing Fort Worth again for some time.
His was a name being overheard in many a tipster’s conversation at this year’s South By South West, a festival showcasing emerging acts that thrives on word of mouth discoveries, which meant that each of his performances during the exhaustingly competitive week were heavily over-subscribed, generating lengthy queues outside venues, and disappointed latecomers crying on the sidewalk. A marked improvement, then, on the club gig of his last visit to Austin, and his first, a birthday jaunt that ended with his car tyres being slashed.
The buzz around Leon then emerged from just two tracks that were online – ‘Coming Home’ and ‘Better Man’ were premiered on Texan blog Gorilla Vs. Bear, and the reaction to these authentic slices of vintage soul was immediate and unequivocally positive. Who was this smooth troubadour promising to swim the Mississippi river in exchange for a new start with his girl? Who was this dapper devotee of ’50s fashion? Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know more.
Escaping a rare bout of Texan rain, Clash caught up with Leon in a seafood joint on South Congress to learn more about this evocative enigma, and discover his take on this sudden interest in his music.
“I wasn’t ready for this to happen so fast,” he says, pushing aside a ravished plate of fish and chips. “I’m a very shy person, and I have never had to play in front of a big crowd, so I’m learning a lot about the performance aspect, and still, you know, being very energetic but still keeping everything very subtle and just me. But I’m loving everything, man. I’m learning.”
Growing in time with his increasing profile, Leon is slowly but surely finding his footing as a performer. Some weeks before SXSW, Clash was in the audience at his first ever UK date, at The Lexington in London. He looked stunned yet undaunted; buoyed by his tight-as-hell backing band (more on whom later) and the crowd’s visible awe, Leon powered through his short but dynamic set, yet shunned much communication between songs other than a humble “Thank you”. Just hours after our interview, Leon will take to the pulpit of St. David’s Church on 8th Street and forcefully preach his message to a zealously reverential congregation, looking every bit the self-assured showman. It’s profound progress considering he only started playing guitar four years ago.
He picks up the story of his most formative forays: “I was going to a local community college and there was a girl who would bring her guitar every day,” he recalls, “and one day she was on her way to class and she asked me to watch her guitar while she was in class, and I asked her to show me some chords. So she wrote down on the chart A-minor and E-minor, and that was the beginning. I started strumming that. And another situation: there were these old guys that would like kinda sit and post up at this little Starbucks and play Crosby, Stills And Nash songs. I was curious. I was drawn in by their sound, and I would just sit in with them and try to harmonise with them, even though I didn’t know the song, and they were like, ‘Man, you should borrow a guitar one day.’ So all those situations kinda led up to me finally getting a guitar. And I was just tired of depending on other people to be creative. There was a guy at school who would bring his keyboard and we would sit around and sing songs, and I just wanted to make my own songs, so I bought a guitar and started writing.”
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Forsaking the option of joining a band (“They’d play too loud and I wouldn’t be able to hear myself”), he instead ventured out alone, playing open mic nights in Fort Worth, forging an individual interpretation of neo soul by playing guitar over hip-hop instrumentals, and eventually landing a regular Tuesday night gig at the Magnolia Motor Lounge. It was here that Leon’s future patron and collaborator Austin Jenkins finally caught his live set and proposed a coalition. The paths of Leon Bridges and Austin Jenkins, the towering guitarist from White Denim, had previously crossed in a somewhat awkward situation, as Leon explains:
“I first met Austin’s girlfriend. They were at this bar called The Boiled Owl. She came up to me. I was wearing my high-waist Wranglers denim, and he wears Wranglers every day - he has like a thousand pairs of the same looking jeans, I guess. She was like, ‘Hey, you should meet my boyfriend. He wears Wranglers.’ And I was like, ‘This is weird…’” he laughs. “I didn’t know that he was the guitar player for White Denim. I thought he looked interesting and so we just kinda clicked right there.”
The pair stayed in touch, until Jenkins eventually witnessed Leon in action.
“He was like, ‘Man, we go to make a record,’” Bridges says. “He was like, ‘I want to record straight to tape. I want to make it sound exactly like it came out the 1950s, 1960s.’ I was like, ‘Cool!’ There had been a lot of people around that time offering to record a record for me, but they’d tell me that they’d discount me… I was like, ‘That’s cool, but I’m determined that I’m gonna meet somebody that will do it because they are passionate about the music.’ So Austin, he found me and didn’t bullshit. He got the players and he found a space and we recorded all my tunes on his phone, and he sent me some arrangements, and right then and there, I saw that it was something special.”
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We all became a big family over the process.
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The first song tracked upon entering the studio was ‘Coming Home’. Leon’s homesick appeals (“I’m coming home / To your tender loving / You’re my one and only woman”) dance gracefully over light, airy drums, and slick, percussive Steve Cropper-like guitar flicks. The breathy backing vocals suggest an intimacy that’s instantly captivating. “It was cool to see their interpretation of my little acoustic songs,” Leon smiles, picking at his cold chips. “It was a great experience, man. We all became a big family over the process.”
It was the beginning of a productive alliance whose first real physical manifestation – Leon’s debut album, ‘Coming Home’ – is released on Columbia Records on Monday. Its 10 tracks immaculately introduce the range and potential of his song writing talents, underpinned by the faithful production of Jenkins and his drumming counterpart, Josh Block. He’s sweetly sultry on the R&B strut of ‘Brown Skin Girl’, playfully tempting on the swinging ’60s soul of ‘Smooth Sailin’’ (“I like the way you sail your ship down / Let me be your captain,” he croons), broken hearted on the doo-wop infused ‘Pull Away’ – a kissing cousin of The Penguin’s ‘Earth Angel’ (“My pillow bears a tear of a man in pain”), and charmingly remorseful in the ecclesiastical closer, ‘River’. Stripped of instrumentation bar his guitar, his confessional pleas are nakedly poignant. “Tip me in your smooth water,” he sings, “I go in as a man with many crimes / Come up for air / As my sins flow down the Jordan”.
Such divine undertones are unsurprising – Leon is devoted to his strongly religious mother. So much so, in fact, that he wrote a song about her. ‘Lisa Sawyer’ is a highly affecting album highlight, and tells the story of the New Orleans-born matriarch, born poor, but “rich in love”, who found Jesus at 16. Its melody, like its theme, is elegant and unaffected. “I’m a simple person,” he reasons, “and I don’t try to over complicate things or make things deep - I just write whatever comes out. If it comes out as a deep song, then that’s what happens. Or if I want to write a simple song about dancing in a club or at a party or something, I’ll write that.”
Comparisons to Sam Cooke are bountiful and all too obvious, but Leon’s fairly recent exposure to the handsome, honey-voiced soul sensation was the product of his curiosity after their many similarities had been pointed out. His original influences came from the likes of Portishead and underground hip-hop (he also name-checks Ginuwine and Usher as early favourites on his Twitter feed), which helped define his phrasing and delivery, but his story telling truly began to unfold upon embracing those older classics.
“I was writing and writing and I just wasn’t satisfied, and at the time I was searching for my voice, and then I finally started listening to the classic R&B and started to realise that that was where my voice was,” he says. “I had hit a wall where I was writing before, and I found a new lane within the classic R&B, and all the doors started opening and it started to flow. I felt like this is something I was destined to do.”
The notable triumph of ‘Coming Home’, however, is that Bridges, Jenkins and Block have crafted a sound that is unashamedly retro (they recorded on the Grateful Dead’s tape machine, for crying out loud), yet absolutely contemporary in its authenticity and integrity. It’s a style that Leon is keen to sustain for as long as he can.
“This way of writing is something that brings me joy, and I’m very passionate about it,” he says of the genre. “I couldn’t do it any other way. It’s something that I want to make for a long time. It’s like, I enjoy other music and other styles of R&B, but it’s something that I will be doing for a long time.”
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I felt like this is something I was destined to do.
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It’s a nostalgic dedication to a more refined era that extends to Leon’s appearance, and the whole aesthetic of him as an artist, from his live shows to his Instagram feed. All official photography is black and white, and in those monochrome prints, Bridges is never anything less than dashing. Usually resplendent in a vintage suit, or open-collared, short-sleeved ’50s shirt and high-waisted slacks (largely sourced from his “go-to” places in Dallas – Dolly Python and Lula B’s – although today, he wears a sharp pair of spats he found in London), Leon’s commitment to his creative direction is ensuring his swift ascendance to style icon status.
“I wanted everything to be consistent, from the way I dressed [to everything else],” he explains. “It wouldn’t be the same feeling if I was on stage with a T-shirt and some skinny jeans - which isn’t a bad outfit, but it’s not my thing. But it’s great to be consistent, and when the audience sees that, it brings them to that place, and to that time that they never experienced - some long to have that experience. But I just like consistency.”
Subsequent to our meeting in Austin, Leon made his TV debut (on The Late, Late Show with James Corden in the US and Later… with Jools Holland in the UK), performed alongside his hero Steve Cropper at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in honour of The “5” Royales (also sharing a stage with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Legend and Beck during the show’s finale), smashed a national tour of the US, returned to further glory in London (James Bay called his Village Underground show “mesmerising”), and currently has a string of international festival appearances lined up for this summer. It’s all happening for Leon Bridges, and while we think he deserves every success, we’re mostly just relieved he decided to persist with his musical dreams – it could all have been so different if he’d stuck with studying choreography.
Despite learning an array of techniques – hip-hop, ballet, jazz, modern – the competitive world of dance dissuaded Leon from continuing, and ultimately chose music as his means to open his heart and express himself freely. However, his training still feeds into his craft, and has made him the astute and sophisticated performer he is.
“I’ve always been a very shy person, and so when I started taking dance and performing in front of people, I really got out of that shell. I’m still a shy person, but that helped my performance aspect,” he says, as we both contemplate going back out in the rain. “And, when I’m on stage, I can dance, but I do it tastefully. I don’t like to do a big flashy type of dancing, so I stay true to myself - I don’t want to be somebody I’m not.”
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Words: Simon Harper
'Coming Home' will be released on June 22nd.