John Legend Talks About His Album Evolver, His Hit “Green Light,” And Writing His Songs

John Legend
John Legend

Critics have been raving about John Legend since his breakthrough as a solo artist with his platinum 2004 debut album, Get Lifted. Judging from the five-time Grammy winner’s hectic fall 2008 schedule, he’s more committed than ever to living up to that promise and looking ahead. In the weeks before his third solo album Evolver debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200 album chart, he campaigned tirelessly for President-elect Barack Obama, including performing at the Democratic National Convention and at an NYC benefit concert with Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. With his latest hit single ‘Green Light’ (featuring Andre 3000 of OutKast) a hit on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, Legend is hitting the road for an extensive concert tour.

Just as the clever, Beatles-inspired title of his new album would indicate, the Ohio native (born John Stephens) who grew up singing in church choir, has come a long way since launching his professional career behind the scenes as a session writer & musician working and performing with Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z , Kanye West and others. West, who gave Legend his first major break as an artist by signing the singer to his production company in 2004, has contributed as a producer to all three of Legend’s albums. Get Lifted featured the hit singles ‘Ordinary People,’ ‘Used To Love U’ and ‘So High’ and earned Grammys for Best New Artist, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Album. Legend then followed-up in 2006 with the platinum album Once Again, which earned him a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance (‘Heaven’). His fifth Grammy was for his participation with Joss Stone and Van Hunt on a popular cover of Sly and The Family Stone’s ‘Family Affair.’

Calling his latest project Evolver provided Legend with a one-word mission statement that defines his ongoing desire and ability to grow as a musician, songwriter and performer. ‘Some people have been making the same album for years and don’t really push the envelope,’ he says. ‘That’s never been my style. Expect me to experiment and always approach the music in new and different ways. I’m constantly evolving as a person and an artist. You still have the legacy of what you did before and the people’s memory of that will always be there, but with each album you get to question that, to play with it and even rebel against it if you want to, and I did that with this album.’

Throughout his career, Legend has been successful with all-star collaborations. On Get Lifted, his producers included West, (of the Black Eyed Peas), and he worked on tracks with Snoop Dogg and Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari. Once Again featured productions by West,, Dave Tozer and Raphael Saadiq, plus an appearance by Mary J. Blige. Legend continues that tradition on Evolver, adding top producers Midi Mafia, Trevor Horn, Supa Dups, the Neptunes and Teddy Riley to the mix while featuring tracks with West, Andre 3000, Brandy and U.K. hip hop artist Estelle (who will be touring with Legend).

“Each project has its own sound, and the key to being an artist that can endure is collaborating with different people to write and produce great new music,’ Legend says. ‘All those life experiences and adventures I have built up over the years are reflected in my writing, both musically and lyrically, and with me, there’s always this attempt to balance a sense of staying current and modern with being classic and timeless. I think it’s possible to do both, and I try to incorporate elements that capture both vibes. I can write a song that I think can stand the test of time yet approach the production on a very hip, contemporary level. It’s crucial to pick the right person for the right song, and everyone I picked to work with me on Evolver was my first choice.”

While radio has been all over the rollicking ‘Green Light,’ Legend gets dumped in a good way on ‘It’s Over’ and ‘This Time’ finds him vowing to give up his playboy ways, the singer’s socially conscious heart and soul ultimately shines through strongest on the Obama-inspired ‘If You’re Out There,’ which he debuted at the DNC in August. ‘The song is a rallying cry,’ he says, ‘and when I was writing it I knew I didn’t want to temper it with cynicism. I wanted to be unabashedly hopeful. I think people’s expectations of Obama are very high, which is great, but they also need to understand how Washington works and the push and pull the president always has with Congress. Still, it’s really exciting to have a president whose head and intentions are in the right place, who is sensible, balanced and informed, and can communicate that to us while taking a methodical approach to making important decisions. We have missed that over the past eight years. For African-Americans like myself, his presidency will be special, a source of pride and inspiration. We have always voted for Democrats, but the enthusiasm he has inspired has taken everything to the next level.’

Beyond his involvement with the Obama campaign, Legend is one of the most philanthropic artists in pop music. In 2007, he and his team launched the Show Me Campaign whose mission is to fight poverty through fostering sustainable development. Driven by the singer’s work with economist Jeffrey Sachs and Millennium Promise, the Show Me Campaign has adopted a village in western Tanzania called Mbola. The campaign funds a robust program to help lift this village out of extreme poverty. Additionally, Legend and Sachs have traveled the U.S. on a ‘Poverty Action Tour’ to bring the message of sustainable development to the nation’s college students. Notably, Legend has recently been honored with the 2008 Humanitarian Award from CARE.

‘I want to touch human emotions with my music,’ he says, ‘and while I talk about relationship issues everyone can relate to, I also want my fans to pay attention to and become emotional about issues that affect our world. I not only reflect some of my feelings about these in my lyrics, but I also believe it’s important to use my position as a musical celebrity to promote these messages. There are a billion people in the world in extreme poverty, and as part of the collective society of the developed world, we can all do our part to combat it.’

Legend, who cites his early influences as new jack swingers like Jodeci and 90’s vocal groups like Boyz II Men and En Vogue (he turned to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as role models later), believes that it’s not enough for up-and-coming singers and songwriters to recognize their gifts; they must take the time to cultivate them. ‘To become a great singer, writer or producer,’ he says, ‘you have to work hard on it and surround yourself with great people who bring out the best in you. Never be afraid to stretch and challenge yourself, and be persistent. It’s not an easy road for sure, and you have to be prepared for 20, maybe even 50 no’s before you get a yes. Those rejections offer you the opportunity to reassess your music, your style, your approach, but they should never make you give up hope or make you stop believing that you’re doing the right thing.’

Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected].