John Legend's Musical And Personal Ascension
Life is good for John Legend. The GRAMMY winner is in the middle of world tour in support of his fifth studio album, 2016's Darkness And Light, this time with his wife, Chrissy Teigen, and 1-year-old daughter, Luna, in tow. Legend is also showing his versatility as an actor/producer (La La Land), film/TV composer ("Master Of None," Fifty Shades Darker), and now the multitalented singer/songwriter has launched his own production company, Get Lifted Film Co.
Legend took a breather from his tour to visit our headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. With a big, warm smile, he talked about his latest single, "Penthouse Floor," his personal growth as an artist, the roster of talented collaborators on new album, family life on the road, and more.
Your latest album is Darkness And Light. Can you tell us about the new single, "Penthouse Floor"?
The single "Penthouse Floor" features Chance The Rapper. The song is about the idea of upward mobility and what it means to strive to make it to the penthouse, but also to remember what you left behind. As someone who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Ohio, small town, I had dreams of being an artist, I had dreams of being successful [and] being a leader. But I never wanted to forget where I came from, and the song is really about the idea of ascension, the idea of upward mobility, but also the tension that one might feel reaching that level, and also knowing there's a lot of people from our neighborhood or from our community that are left behind.
It's evident from track one of Darkness And Light that this your most reflective piece of work. Why do you think that is?
I think this album is my most personal album, and I think I matured a lot as a writer and as a person and having just gotten married and had a baby. I think all of those life circumstances gave me more perspective. Also, just my perspective as an activist has kind of matured as well. I think the way I approached this album was to try to tell all those stories and encompass all that I am in the music in the most honest way that I could. I think a lot of the album is about being uncertain and not knowing exactly what the future is going to bring. It's about striving and struggling for greatness and for justice and for love, and being a bit uncertain that you're going to get there.
Photo: Elliot Van Hazel
How does this album differ from your previous albums?
I'm the same artist that I've been all those years, but I think you evolve and you grow, and like I said, I've grown personally and also collaborated with some new people on this album. Some of the recording approach was a little bit different. I've only made two albums with the same band throughout the album. One was with the Roots, [the] album called Wake Up, and this album with the same rhythm section throughout pretty much every song, and Blake producing every song. So this is only the second time I've done something like that as a recording process. I think the result of that is a more musically cohesive album, and I think you feel the collaboration of the musicians in a way that is a bit different from some of my other albums that weren't as consistent when it came to the rhythm section and the live band.
What is the difference between writing music for yourself, for your own album, and writing for a film?
Well, composing for film is different because it feels like more of a specific assignment, which actually makes it easier when it comes to the writing process because you know where you're going, whereas when you're writing your own album, it's pretty much a blank slate. You could write about anything, and that range of choices can actually be more difficult than just being able to directly say, "Well, this is for this particular scene, and this film is about that, and I know what the character's motivations are, and I know the feeling of the film at that moment." It gives you a little more direction when you're trying to compose and actually makes it a little bit easier to write, and I've had some good results collaborating with filmmakers and coming up with song ideas that fit the moment of the film that we're working on. We'll have a few more of those come out next year too, but it's been fun collaborating with the film community. And of course now I have a production company that produces TV and film. I've had the chance to work with a lot of great filmmakers and storytellers, and that collaboration between music and film is really a lot of fun.
Can you tell us more about the tour you've been on?
Yeah, so I've been touring in the States over the late spring and early summer, and now we're heading to Europe for the fall. We'll be in Europe in September and October, and then we're going to go to South Africa in November, we just announced those dates as well, so that's exciting. The Darkness And Light Tour has been going really well. Bringing the music to the stage is always fun and connecting it with the audience is always fun. It's been a really fun tour and I think the best tour of my career as far as the creativity and the visual design and everything that we've done with it. So hopefully people get a chance to check it out if they haven't already.
Any memories from this tour that stick out?
We've had some great moments. This is the first tour with my daughter so we brought her on the bus pretty much the whole time, and that was fun. Luna's first tour went well! And we really had some great shows, great audiences throughout the country and we're looking forward to taking it overseas now.