Tonight, Leon Bridges is not wearing his usual attire of high-waisted trousers, a starch-collared striped shirt, and a cardigan; instead, the unfailingly stylish Texas soul singer sports a crisp, tailored tuxedo with an elegant bow tie. Because tonight is important: He’s returned to his hometown, Fort Worth, to kick off a large-scale U.S. and U.K. tour with two sold-out shows on June 20 and 21 at his local dream venue, the Scat Jazz Lounge.
Much like a ‘50s jazz club or a Prohibition-era speakeasy, the Scat hides in an alley. Below a large red and yellow neon sign, an elevator leads to the actual lounge, where pictures of Louis Armstrong and other celebrated musicians of the past hang on columns and candles accentuate already dimly lit silhouettes. The only area where everything can be seen clearly is the venue’s centerpiece, a small stage enveloped in a velvet blue curtain and filled with vintage equipment — a busted-looking guitar amp, a rustic saxophone, and a retro microphone.
From the back of the bar, Bridges walks in to the accompaniment of turned heads, intermittent muted conversations, and hushed comments of recognition from visibly thrilled bystanders, some of whom wait awkwardly to talk to him. Though his warm, welcoming smile seems perfectly engineered to soothe their nerves, it does nothing for his own. His eyes dart around the room. “I take it as it goes, but I feel the heavy weight at times,” he tells SPIN.
It’s already 7:30 p.m. and Bridges’ first set is already half an hour late; his second performance is supposed to start at 10. A few minutes later, however, applause opens “Better Man,” a standout off of Bridge’s sterling debut, Coming Home. And then, suddenly, we’re no longer drinking dry martinis with a twist: We’re sipping milkshakes through straws in a red leather booth in a soda shop, listening to Otis Redding, the Temptations, or the Valentinos. When pressed about the unmistakable comparisons, or about perhaps reveling a little too much in the throwback factor, the 25-year-old appears indifferent. “I mean, it’s something easy for people to latch onto, but I feel it causes people to sometimes think negative of me and be like, ‘Oh, this ain’t no Sam Cooke,’ but it’s cool,” he says.
It’s a little hard to believe that Bridges, who refers to girls as “darlin’” and “cutie pie” in his wholesome tunes, grew up listening to the prepubescent male anthems and soundtracks to clap lights and silk sheets like “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly and Usher’s Confessions album— and always at a low volume for fear his mom would hear and get mad at him. “My father would play Stevie Wonder in the car but that never sunk in.” It wasn’t until Bridges dug into Cooke on Pandora and YouTube that he knew he “had to write music like that,” he says. “It’s crazy that even though I grew up on Ginuwine, the soul has always been in me,” he says. “I just had to tap into it.”
Though stuck bussing tables and washing dishes to help out his family financially, Bridges snuck in some time to play the guitar during breaks at work. At open mic nights, he tested material that later made it onto Coming Home.
“When I first had ‘Better Man,’ I was only singing and playing it on guitar to, like, ten people,” he says. Now, Bridges finds it odd that Coming Home — which recently topped the Billboard R&B/hip-hop albums chart — rocketed to success on songs that had been “sitting around for, like, two years.”
Still, Bridges remains humble. “You know, I’ve just always been around great songwriters. To me, they were the standard,” he says. “I’d see my friends like [Fort Worth country-folk songwriter] Jake Paleschic play, and I’d think, ‘How do I write stories like that?’”
By drawing from his own past, naturally. “Lisa Sawyer,” a shivery, organ-led ode to New Orleans, where much of his extended family lived and grew up, overflows with ba-ba-doos and musings on the familiar. Set in 1963, the song describes his mother with a “heart warm like Louisiana sun” and his “fierce as fire” grandmother, who also makes it onto the sassy mashed-potato groove that is “Twistin’ and Groovin’.” “This next song is about how my grandfather first met my grandmother,” Bridges says to the crowd before introducing the song at the Scat, perching up on his toes, and landing with a pop of his Oxford heels. “The first thing he saw was her long legs in a red dress.”
The intense pride and affection Bridges feels for the Big Easy’s Bourbon Street and pecan bun-sticky summer nights — “Even as a kid I would always say, ‘Oh yeah, my family is from New Orleans,’” he says, grinning like a boastful school kid — belies a decidedly more mundane upbringing in dusty Fort Worth. “Life was simple, man,” he says. “It was only school, work, and home.” And after a quick pause, he says “Oh, and church.”
As such, his album is riddled with biblical references to the river, sin, and salvation. On the tambourine-speckled acoustic closer “River,” Bridges asks “The good Lord / To wipe [his] slate clean.” And on “Shine,” a warm mid-tempo number glinting with horns and gospel vocals, Bridges prays, “Use me as your vessel, I want to shine like the candle.” When he wasn’t secretly learning to bump ‘n grind, the young Bridges was only allowed to listen to pop music free of profanity, or his church’s music. “Gospel music played a huge part of my life,” he says. “I was too scared to audition for the choir, but through my own music, I was also able to find spirituality for myself.”
Despite his resistance to the Cooke comparisons, it’s hard to avoid pointing out that “River” seems like it may be inspired by the line “Born in the river” in “A Change is Gonna Come.” Bridges politely skirts the question by answering, “The river represents salvation to me in many ways.” He then sings quietly in an introspective tone, “Oh brothers, let’s go down / Let’s go down, come on down, down in the river” from the traditional American hymn “Down In the River To Pray,” popularized for the 21st century by Alison Krauss. That song, which he heard at one of his local open mics, moved him deeply enough to write “River.”
“It just really amazed me,” says Bridges. “And it helped me find God in my story.”
Sometimes it can be hard to tell where Leon Bridges the artist begins and the shy, former churchgoer ends. “I’m gonna take y’all to church,” Bridges tells the crowd before stepping up to the mic to sing “Shine,” flashing that charming smile again. “’I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold,’ my mom would always sing to me.” But then, just when you think it’s all an act to sell out 1,500-capacity venues — which Bridges has been doing on this tour, easily — he comes back down to earth again. “See, when I think of music, I think of music where my mom can approve of it,” he says. “It’s like how she said, ‘I don’t want there to be any craziness’ or her telling me, ‘Boy, what is this?’”
After the show, Bridges actually looks happy as he stands near the stage with a Sharpie in his hand, waiting to talk to his fans. In the next three days, he’ll be blinded by the big city lights of the The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and following that, he’ll fly to the U.K. to perform at Glastonbury Festival. But there will be no private planes or expensive vintage clothing or diva behavior — well, except for his James Brown-impersonating head toss and rasp when he sings, as if warning everyone he’s coming, “I’ma tell ya, and I’m gonna tell ya right now!”
“People have this perception of soul music of somebody shouting,” says Bridges after that, at the end of the night. “But that’s not what it’s all about; I’m a subtle dude, and my album reflects that.”