Three years ago, Leon Bridges made his UK live debut, squeezing his Texan soul revue onto the tiny stage of London’s Lexington, and proceeded to dazzle the tightly-packed gathering before him with that smooth, Sam Cooke voice, subtle yet slick dance moves, and a genuine blast of real R&B in songs like ‘Better Man’, ‘Brown Skin Girl’ and the spine-tingling ‘River’, that were absolutely evocative of the ’60s greats he so effortlessly emulated.
Less than two weeks later, the buzz around his impact had followed him back to his home state; he was the hottest thing at 2015’s South By South West festival, and Austin was fizzing with inquisitive journos and eager music fans keen to catch the hype. Cornering him in a rare moment of relief that week (okay, we interrupted his lunch), Leon surveyed the surrounding frenzy and admitted to Clash: “I wasn’t ready for this to happen so fast.”
Leon wears: Linen trench coat by JW Anderson / Striped polo shirt by Paul Smith / Jeans by Gucci
From Texas to the world; subsequently, his modern brand of authentic nostalgia was making waves - the debut album, ‘Coming Home’ arrived in the summer, its vintage tones proving irresistible, and Bridges found himself in demand across the board from radio, TV and the White House. After performing there at a Ray Charles tribute, Bridges was later personally endorsed by President Obama, who included Leon’s ‘Smooth Sailin’’ on his summer 2016 playlist. It was the crowning achievement of a first chapter that was frenetic and undeniably promising, yet one Bridges was committed to progress from.
“When I wrote ‘Coming Home’,” says Bridges, looking back from the vantage point of February 2018, “I felt that it was necessary to tell my narrative through that sound. I wanted to honour black music, and everybody knows that story, but that was what that was. But even at that time, I was always in love with modern R&B music, and so I had to make that decision. I didn’t want to make a ‘Coming Home Part Two’ because I knew that if I made a ‘Coming Home Part Two’ then I wouldn’t be able to gain a bigger fan base, or I’d feel like I wasn’t being true to myself if I would have made a ‘Coming Home Part Two’.”
Leon wears: Poplin shirt by Calvin Klein / Double breasted jacket by Stella McCartney / Trousers and socks Leon’s own
The difference between his debut and its follow-up, ‘Good Thing’, is striking and immediate; the strapping falsetto in ’70s strings-laden opener ‘Bet Ain’t Worth The Hand’ is a remarkable departure, and stylistic surprises don’t stop coming - there’s the jazzy trip-hop of ‘Bad Bad News’, the clipped beats of ‘Lions’, and the synth-heavy pop-funk bangers ‘If It Feels Good, Then It Must Be’ and ‘You Don’t Know’, two moments certain to startle the retro fans.
“I just kinda felt this weight of expectation from the fans - a lot of my fans, they want that specific sound, and they’d be content if I made that same sound for the rest of my life,” he says of the pressures he faced when considering change, and attributes a realisation he experienced at the 2016 Grammy Awards, where he was nominated for Best R&B Album, as the catalyst for the new musical direction he’d take. Considering his fellow nominees, he noted: “I just thought to myself that I have the talent to be in the same conversations with the Brunos and the Ushers and all those guys, but still stay unique. So that was the whole motivation behind this project: how can we take the elements from the first album but evolve the sound?”
A longtime advocate of R&B heavyweights Usher and R Kelly, Bridges found their natural influence - and that of British producer James Blake - pouring into his writing for the new album, forsaking classic soul records as his go-to inspiration, and so, after collaborating with him on a Dej Loaf track, drafted hitmaking producer Ricky Reed (Jason Derulo, Pitbull, etc) to consolidate these convictions into a decisive direction.
Leon wears: Double breasted suit by Maison Margiela / Striped knit polo shirt by Prada / Shoes by Christian Louboutin / Lace brooch stylist’s own
Working alongside ‘Coming Home’ producers and former White Denim stars Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, Reed was the “one main guy steering the ship,” Bridges explains, adding: “There was good energy in the room, being around professional writers and professional musicians, so that definitely helped me be even more creative and just really pushed me to do something creative.”
That pushing sometimes found Bridges prodded beyond his comfort zone, often with positive results. “I have the way I like to do things and write, and sometimes he would contribute ideas and I’d be like, ‘Nah, that’s kinda wack,’” he laughs. “But I just wanted to be open to the whole thing, and so I’d end up doing it anyway. There was some stuff where I was like, ‘No, let’s not do that,’ but he would contribute an idea and I’d be like, ‘Okay, I’ll try it,’ and end up liking it. And so I just grew as an artist just being open to the process.”
Despite any trepidation during its creation, ‘Good Thing’ is dripping with self-assurance. The cultivated dynamics of Leon’s voice, honed after three years of constant performing, are confident and engaging, particularly on the suggestive ‘Shy’, which also introduces this intriguing sexuality that exudes throughout ‘Good Thing’ - a facet hitherto unexplored by the self-confessed shy loner.
Leon wears: Leather jacket by Sandro / T-shirt by Stella McCartney / Linen trousers by Lanvin / Tie stylist’s own
“Before [all] this, I was very sheltered. I was living at my mom’s house for so long and I had never really been a drinker or partier and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “I had to hide a lot of things, because that’s the kind of environment I grew up in - a religious household. I felt that even writing simple songs about love and all that kind of stuff was not going to be accepted by my mother (the subject of ‘Lisa Sawyer’ from his debut) and the community that I was in.”
“There is more of me,” he says of the album’s character, a true reflection of his personal growth over the last three years. “Instead of writing on the surface, I’m kinda being a little bit more vulnerable with these songs.”
Which all makes for quite a seismic shift, and one that he’s all too aware may leave some disappointed classic soul fans behind - a risk he’s willing to take in the name of evolution. “When I listen to an artist, I want to be surprised by everything they put out,” he reasons. “I just want to show people that I am no longer just the underdog of R&B. I’m a diverse artist and I feel like the album definitely reflects that. I made a statement with the first album, and this is definitely another huge statement, because I feel like people definitely won’t be expecting what we’re putting out.”
But don’t rest easy yet; where Leon Bridges is heading after ‘Good Thing’ is still to be determined. “My next album, it could be a ’70s soul-inspired album, or it could be a trap R&B-inspired album,” he says of his restless creativity. “I’m excited to see what happens next. I just want to have a long career, and I want more of the world to know who I am.”
Leon wears: Emblem print shirt by Burberry / Silk trousers by Rick Owens / Blue calf leather shoes by Christian Louboutin
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Fumi Homma
Fashion: Michael Darlington
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
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