We’ve Got A File On You: John Legend

Dana Trippe

We’ve Got A File On You: John Legend

Dana Trippe

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Just when you thought John Legend had done all he could do, he releases a double album. Legend, out today, is the longest and most eclectic album of the EGOT-winning multi-hyphenate’s career. The guest list is impressive: Jazmine Sullivan, JID, Rick Ross, Jhene Aiko, Rapsody, Ty Dolla $ign, Saweetie, Amber Mark, Muni Long, Ledisi, Jada Kingdom. So is the songwriting, which finds Legend bringing his adult contemporary R&B stylings to bear on sounds both modern and classic, chilled-out and uptempo. It’s likely to go down as a highlight in his discography.

Legend’s life in the public eye extends far beyond that catalog of LPs. In myriad roles such as singer, songwriter, actor, producer, TV personality, and progressive advocate, he’s become one of the most popular and successful entertainers of his time. The Springfield, Ohio native has a long and fascinating history, one that has seen him cross paths with countless other superstars along the way. In a phone call from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles last month, Legend the man spoke about Legend the album as well as Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, the Roots, La La Land, and, uh, conference realignment in college sports. (What, did you think this Columbus resident was going to pass up the chance to ask Legend about his beloved Ohio State Buckeyes?)

Below, stream the new album and read selections from our interview.

Legend (2022)

On this album you have features from rappers like Rick Ross, JID, Saweetie, and Rapsody. How do you decide which rapper will guest on a given song?

JOHN LEGEND: A lot of times it’s just thinking about the song itself and thinking about what the energy of the song is, and then thinking about the artists I’m a fan of and whether or not they’d be the right fit for that record. I’m a fan of Rick Ross. We’ve worked together many times. I feel like certain tracks just sound really good with his voice on it, and “Rounds” was just perfect for our chemistry together as artists, our voices together on the same record. I just knew it was going to be perfect. And then obviously Saweetie is someone I’ve never worked with before. I just felt like the energy she would bring to the song was going to be electric, so the song is that much more fun. I wanted it to be a female rapper as well because the song is about a woman who’s in her own world and I’m trying to be a part of it. I just thought Saweetie would bring a perfect vibe to the song — and she did, of course.

How did “Dope” with JID come together, and why was it chosen as a single?

LEGEND: Well, we have multiple spotlight tracks for different reasons, but “Dope” came together near the end of the album writing process. We were really just finishing up other tracks and we had this chance where Ryan Tedder and Ian Kirkpatrick could all get together and sit in the same room. So we were like, “We might as well write a song together.” So we sat in a room and wrote a song together, and we loved it. We were listening to a few younger MCs that I wanted to think about for the song, and when I listened to JID some more, I was just like, “He’s exactly who I want on this record.” I reached out to him and he recorded a verse for it, and he just made it really special. I love his verse, I love his flow, I love his energy on the track. And we made a really great video together with Christian Breslauer, and we wanted that to be the first thing people heard from the album. And then we’ve put out “Honey” since then, and then “All She Wanna Do,” with a new video for that coming out shortly.

What’s your process like in the studio? Do you have a core group of musicians working with you, or do you tend to switch things up from song to song?

LEGEND: The Dap-Kings were the rhythm section for a lot of the album, so you’ll hear their contributions on a lot of the records. Even ones that were produced by other producers, we would have them come in and replay some things live. So you’ll hear them sprinkled throughout the whole album. I love working with them. We did a whole Marvin Gaye tribute show, a live remake of What’s Going On, back when Sharon [Jones] was still alive. The first half of the show was me and Sharon singing Marvin and Tammy covers, and then the second half was the What’s Going On album from front to back with me and the Dap-Kings. So that’s our history together was doing that. So it was fun for them to be involved in this project.

This is a long album. Was that a pandemic thing, just having lots of time to work on music?

LEGEND: Yeah, honestly. There’s 24 tracks on this album. I wrote over 80, I think, maybe 90, during this time. It was just a really prolific, creative, productive time for me and everyone who collaborated with me. And I think you’re seeing that throughout the industry. You’re seeing there’s a lot of dope artists putting out special work right now because we all had a lot of time where we weren’t touring, and a lot of us used that time to create. And I certainly did.

Is there a way to sum up the new album or situate it within your discography?

LEGEND: Obviously it’s the largest body of work I’ve put out, but it’s also really representative of who I am as an artist, all the things that have inspired me, all the music that’s inspired me over the years. It’s, I think, my most adventurous and creative project I’ve had over the years. And I’m excited for people to hear what we’ve made. It’s sexy, it’s soulful, it’s all the sides of me that I wanted to share with my fans.

Winning The District Spelling Bee In Third Grade (1989)

A few years ago you posted a news article about you winning the local spelling bee in 1989. Do you remember which word you spelled to win it?

LEGEND: [Laughs] I do not remember, honestly. I know that I lost the year before because I didn’t know what a gaffer was, and I didn’t know how to spell gaffer. Then I came back the next year and won.

That article talked about your mom home-schooling you too. What was that experience like?

LEGEND: It’s interesting. My mother was a really good teacher, and she really was motivated to give us the best education she could. We were going to a private school for a little while, but my parents couldn’t afford it, so it fell through. So they decided to just bring us home and teach us there. And they prepared me well for school once I finally went back. I skipped a couple grades and graduated high school when I was 16 and college when I was 20. So I guess they did a pretty good job! It’s hard socially because you don’t get that connection with other kids as much, and it can be a little bit isolating in that way. And I think that was a challenge for me once I started to go to public school and then eventually to college. There were positives and negatives to it, but my mom was a very good teacher for sure.

NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert (2018)

Do you remember who first pitched you on the idea of portraying Jesus Christ?

LEGEND: NBC reached out to my manager and some of the other producers on the project reached out. And they were like, “We really want John to play Jesus.” And I’m like, “Well, if I’m going to do musical theater, playing Jesus isn’t a bad way to make an entrance.” So I was like, you know what, let me look into the soundtrack and the old cast recordings and see if I’m excited about doing the music. I was like, you know what? I can do this. I knew it would be a challenge because I hadn’t really done anything like that in my career. I’d done a little bit of musical theater in high school, but never a lead part, and this was quite a big step for me and a big challenge. But I was like, you know, let’s take on the challenge. And it was so fun. I had a true blast doing it. It was a lot of hard work with a great team, and it came together so beautifully, and I was so proud of what we did together.

Was there anything about the experience that surprised you?

LEGEND: I don’t know about surprised, but it’s hard, you know? It’s hard learning a whole show. I’m used to performing my own music that I’ve written, and doing a whole show full of other people’s music is a new experience for me. And there’s so much that goes into a show. So many dancers and lighting people and camerawork and stage work, all these other things that go into it. It was such an endeavor by so many different talented people, and for it to all come together live in one night was pretty magical.

Becoming The Second Youngest EGOT (2019)

Jesus Christ Superstar is how you became the youngest EGOT as well.

LEGEND: Second youngest! [The youngest is] Robert Lopez, he wrote all those Frozen songs.

Oh, I didn’t realize! When you get a rarefied stature like that, I can imagine it feeling like a conclusive moment in your career, like, “I’ve gotten this far and I’ve checked off my whole list.” But it seems like you haven’t exactly been taking it easy since then.

LEGEND: No, definitely not taking it easy. But I do feel like I don’t need to win any more awards. There’s no awards left that I’m like, “Man, I really wish that I’d won that one.” I’m definitely done with that. But I feel like it doesn’t matter. I still want to prove myself as an artist every time. So when I’m making new music, I feel like I still have to prove myself. I can’t take it for granted that they’re going to love the next project just because they loved the last one. And I want them to love the next one even more than they loved the last one.

Performing “Hey Ya” With Stevie Wonder On Lip Sync Battle (2016)

LEGEND: First of all, the fact that Stevie blessed us with his involvement was well beyond what any of us would have imagined. We were so honored to have him be a part of it. Casey Patterson is a good friend of ours, and she produced Lip Sync Battle, booking talent and getting people to come on the show, and she just wanted every show to be magical and produced to the fullest. And for that live special, she was like, “We gotta get Stevie.” And she got Stevie to do it. Stevie’s come through for me many times in my career and in my personal life. He even did an impromptu performance at Chrissy [Teigen] and my wedding. He’s always been so generous to me and been a true friend to me over the years. So getting him to do that was pretty cool. And I had so much fun doing “Hey Ya.”

How’d you choose “Hey Ya”?

LEGEND: I just wanted it to be fun and big and out-of-character for me. I think the key to Lip Sync Battle is doing something that’s out-of-character, and that’s why I did “Hey Ya.” And the wig was extra fun.

Did you talk with André about it at all? I know you guys have collaborated before.

LEGEND: Not at all. [Laughs] I did not talk to him. I wonder what he thought, honestly.

Playing An Early Version Of “Gold Digger” With Kanye West At The Dynamic Producers’ Conference (2003)

LEGEND: I think he was calling it “18 Years” back then.

Obviously you two were working together a lot at the time. Were you doing a lot of those two-man performances or was this a one-off?

LEGEND: We were together a lot because I was signed to his production company. He was out promoting College Dropout. I think this was before my project had come out. And I would be out on the road with him, I would sing with him and play for him, and he would let me do a song or two of my own at a lot of these events. It was his way of helping to promote me, but also, I was a good musical sidekick to have onstage.

Playing Piano On Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything” (1998)

This was your first big break. How did it come together?

LEGEND: I was playing piano and directing the choir at this church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And one of my choir members, her name was Tara Michelle, and she had gone to high school with Lauryn. And she sang, and she was a musician herself. Lauryn invited her to come to the studio and help with the album. One time she needed a ride over to Jersey to meet up with Lauryn while she was working on the album, and she wanted me to meet Lauryn and see what happened. She introduced us. I was hanging out while they were working on “Everything Is Everything,” and I got a chance to play a couple songs for her, kind of like as an audition. I sang one of my songs and one of Stevie Wonder’s songs for her. And she loved what she heard and was like, “Why don’t you play on this song you’re working on right now?” So I played piano on the track right then.

Have you stayed in touch with her much over the years?

LEGEND: I haven’t seen her in a while. The last time I saw her was like the Governors Ball or something in New York years ago. I haven’t seen her in person in quite a long time.

“Modern And Irreverent” Remake Of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” With Kelly Clarkson (2019)

People hear the original version of this song now and often cringe at the implication of it. Where did the idea come from to rewrite it?

LEGEND: I just thought it would be funny and fun to do a new version and to have some fun with the original. So I reached out to Natasha Rothwell, who you might know from Insecure and White Lotus. She’s both an actor but also a writer that writes for comedy really well. So we thought, why don’t we do a funny modern take on the song? And Kelly, my good friend from The Voice and multiple collaborations over the years, agreed to do it with me.

Everything is perceived as a political gesture now. Did you get any pushback on this?

LEGEND: There was this thing where people thought I was criticizing the original version. I intended our version as just a fun modern remake of it, and I didn’t mean to criticize the original version. The original version was written a long time ago, and it made sense at the time that it came out. Us doing a new version wasn’t criticizing the original writers or the original artists for putting out the original. It was just saying, “Let’s do a new version and have some fun with it.”

Covers Album Wake Up! With The Roots (2010)

You’ve collaborated with a lot of different artists over the years, and you’ve run in the same circles with the Roots for a long time. Is there something unique they bring to the recording process?

LEGEND: Going back in time, I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philly, and I used to go to Black Lily events and open mic nights they were doing at different clubs around the city. So I’ve been a fan of theirs for a long time. Even before they knew who I was, I was following their work and attending events that they were hosting. I even remember giving Questlove my demo way back before he ever knew who I was. I’ve always wanted to work with them over the years. They’ve just meant so much to hip-hop and to soul music over the years.

Once we finally got a chance to do Wake Up together, it was so fun. We recorded a lot of the rhythm tracks, and then we started playing a few of them live, and the arrangements evolved, so we went back and re-recorded some of them to really get closer to what we were doing when we were playing them live. It’s just fun working with a band for an entire project and just connecting on the music, developing the music live, and using that live development to help make the album even better. It was quite a fun process. And Ahmir and I always say we’re gonna do Wake Up 2 at some point. So hopefully we will.

La La Land (2016)

Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian is a jazz snob who sees your character Keith as a sellout. But there’s a lot of gray area there.

LEGEND: Sebastian’s character represents a real type of person that we run into in our business too. He’s kind of very precious and very reverent when it comes to honoring the artists that he’s influenced by and wanting to preserve a traditional style and not really do much to change it, just preserve rather than innovate. I think that was the question for him as an artist was could he be a real artist if he was only just trying to recreate what his biggest influences had already done? And I think that was the question that Keith was posing to him.

And so I had an interesting conundrum of having to write a song for my character that I thought was good but also would represent something that Sebastian would hate. It was like, are you trying to write a bad song? What are you trying to accomplish? What ended up happening was we wrote a song that we really were proud of but Sebastian might not be interested in playing. So that’s what we were trying to do with that. Sebastian’s character represents some of the guys you meet in the jazz world. Some people, they’re almost intentionally contrarian, intentionally seeing modernity and rejecting it. And I think Sebastian was that kind of guy. And it got in his way sometimes, but I think with that kind of person, if they’re making the kind of music that they love and they’re excited about, then more power to them. It may not have the huge commercial success that others might have, but if they’re happy doing what they’re doing, that’s great.

“All Of Me” (2014)

This is your biggest hit, and it had a slow and steady rise. Do you remember when you realized it was blowing up?

LEGEND: It was the Grammys that changed everything. It was slow and steady. It was getting to the top of the urban adult contemporary chart, which is kind of my home chart ’cause that’s where most R&B gets played. But it’s still a pretty limited audience just because it’s not a huge portion of the country that listens to those stations. So it doing well on that format is good, but it’s not sufficient to make it a big hit. So when I played it at the Grammys, we had just started going to other formats with the song — so more pop stations, more Hot AC stations. And right when I performed it at the Grammys, it just opened it up to the whole country and the whole world. And it shot to the top of the iTunes chart and then immediately became a massive hit from there.

At every show people expect you to play that one. Obviously there are tons of songs you’ve poured a lot of emotion into. How hard is it to tap back into that original emotion?

LEGEND: I love playing live. I’m doing this Vegas residency; I’m playing songs that I wrote 20 years ago. And I think what makes it feel fresh is the audience. Because that connection with them is fresh. It’s new, and it doesn’t feel old at all. Singing “All Of Me” — first of all, I love letting the audience sing some of it and feeling that connection with them. Just that energy that we’re exchanging with each other in that room, that’s what makes it feel fresh. It’s not the song itself. It’s that experience of doing it together with other people.

Ohio State Football Hype Video (2020)

You narrated a hype video for Ohio State ahead of the national championship game a couple years ago. What are the Buckeyes’ prospects for this year? Do you think they have a chance at a title?

LEGEND: Oh yeah, of course they do. The offense has never been in question under Ryan Day. The defense has always been the liability recently. So I think now that we’ve got the new defensive coordinator, I think everyone knows that that’s been the weakness, and everyone’s going to do what they can to remedy that. I think this is a great year. I think [C.J.] Stroud is gonna be amazing. I think [Jaxon] Smith-Njigba’s gonna be amazing. [TreVeyon] Henderson. I mean, we’ve got just all the skill players on offense, and the offense is gonna be incredible. And now that the defense is looking like they’ll likely step up to the plate as well, we’ve got a chance to win the championship again.

As somebody who’s from Ohio but lives out in LA, how do you feel about USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten?

LEGEND: It’s weird! I don’t understand it. I don’t even know what these conferences mean anymore. But hey, it’ll just make Big Ten football more must-see TV and even more exciting for the country. And I think Ohio State will even recruit better because of it.

LEGEND is out now on Republic.

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