Q&A: John Legend on His First Big Break, Kanye West, and Finding Your Magic
"It's about finding something inside you that makes you different."
The last time John Legend teamed up with the AXE Collective at the beginning of 2015, no one had an idea what kind of run he was about to go on. He started the year off bringing the house down at Super Bowl XLIX with one of the most soulful renditions of “America the Beautiful” you’ll ever hear. Later that month he won an Academy Award for Best Original Song with “Glory,” the triumphant, soul stirring record that served as the sonic backbone to 2014’s Selma. To top things off he became the defining voice of every wedding from Temecula to Tarrytown when he teamed up with Meghan Trainor on “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.” (Alright, that’s the second time that happened: “All of Me” was on every wedding playlist in 2013, too.)
Lucky for us he doesn’t show any sign of slowing down in 2016. Legend is teaming up with the AXE Collective again this year to help young artists find their unique voice whether it’s in film or music. This year’s slogan is “Find Your Magic,” a fitting axiom given how supernatural the 37-year-old’s 2015 was. With the help of the AXE Collective, Legend is helping a new generation of musicians, songwriters, and filmmakers let their passions shine. Something tells me he’s the right guy to talk to.
So John, what’d you get up to for New Year’s?
New Year’s Eve we were in Morocco. My birthday was on the 28th and then we stayed through the 1st. It was just me and my wife, so we just relaxed and had some good dinners and some music. It was a very mellow New Year’s Eve.
Very nice, well I know the big news is that your wife Chrissy [Teigen] is pregnant.
Yes, she is. Coming soon. I’m very excited. Very excited.
That’s really great to hear. We’re here talking about the AXE Collective efforts this year and a big part of that project is mentoring new artists in film and music. After the big success last year, what do you want to do in 2016?
We still want to find really talented people. The whole slogan this year is “Find Your Magic,” so it’s focusing on individuality, creativity, and what makes you unique as a person and as an artist. We’re encouraging people with unique voices to show us that and get a chance to be broadcasted to a larger audience.
I like the “Find Your Magic” slogan. It sort of speaks to that whole idea of getting your big break and finding what really speaks to you.
Yeah, it’s not just about a break, it’s about finding something inside you that makes you different.
Can you talk about when that moment came for you?
There’s been many moments that I think showed me what I was supposed to do in life, you know. Even as a kid, when I started taking piano lessons, that was the beginning. I started singing in the choir at church and that was another thing that kind of pushed me in a certain direction. The more I’ve gotten to be on stage, the more I got to perform for people, the more I knew that that was what I was meant to do. Then, of course, I’ve gotten good breaks along the way. The first time came when I was a college student at UPenn. The first album I ever played on was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
That’s a hell of an album to debut on.
I played on “Everything is Everything.” That was my first big break. Then, of course, meeting Kanye was a big break for me. Us working together over the years has been really important for my career and helped me define what my sound would be. I’ve had a lot of good breaks in my career, those are just a few of them.
Can you talk a little bit about what mentorship has meant to you in the past and if there are any mentors that you’ve had that brought you up through your career?
I think my first big mentor is my grandmother. She was the church organist where I grew up, and so I was around her a lot, got to see her play all the time and it still influences the way I play now. I’ve had, you know, teachers, drama directors, choir directors, all of them have been in my life and mentored me. Then, of course, Kanye has been a mentor as well and a friend and collaborator over the last 15 years we’ve known each other.
2015 was such a huge year for you, between winning an Academy Award for “Glory” from Selma to playing the Super Bowl. What’s on deck for 2016?
I don’t know how we can top 2015, but we’re going to try! We’re having a baby, so that’s the start.
That’s the topper right there!
Well, I’m going to put out a new album this year too. I’m excited about that. We’re in the midst of recording now and it’s always fun, every time, because I love writing and I love the creative process. I feel like every time you do it, you really are trying to find that magic each time. With songwriting but also with the production and arrangements; trying to get the sound exactly right and really say what you want to say in the right way. That’s what we’re focused on right now.
And my film and TV production company Get Lifted Film Company, we have a few new projects coming out. Our first one is in March on WGN America, it’s called Underground. It’s about the underground railroad and, while it’s a scripted series, we’re putting it out based on the history of that time period. I’m really excited about that.
Yeah, it’s going to be a good year.
What were your favorite albums from 2015?
Sound and Color by the Alabama Shakes. That was the one for me.
Are there any artists you’re excited about coming up this year? Any new guys you want to work with or that you’re interested in listening to or want to hear more of?
I’m not sure. I’ve actually been working with Blake Mills, who produced Sound and Color. He’s working with me on my album, so that’s exciting. I’m not sure about any other new artists yet.
What do you hope to bring to the table for the AXE Collective this year? What do you want to offer these young artists coming up?
I think there’s just an evolution of what we were doing last year and it’s a new product line, of course. As far as what we’re looking for, we’re looking for artists that are really talented and have a unique voice.