Leon Bridges: Soul Music and its Simple Formula

Music Interviews

If you haven’t heard the return of gospel-influenced soul that is Leon Bridges then you’re not from Fort Worth, Texas—Bridges’ stomping grounds—or you haven’t been reading the right music blogs. Bridges was signed to Columbia Records in December of last year on the strength of two singles posted to Soundcloud that had only been up for three months, and just last month Bridges took SXSW by storm, winning their prestigious Grulke Prize for Developing US Act. When you have a persona and voice to match that draws upon the romance and innocence of soul originators like Sam Cooke, you’re bound to draw adoration from anyone with ears to hear, especially from those who long for the simplicity of ’50s vocal-centric tunes. Seeing that Bridges will open forLord Huronon April 20 at The Depot, we knew we had to catch up with him regarding his rise to fame and his take on soul music.

One of the most mind-blowing facts about Leon Bridges’ rapid success is his short history of singing and playing guitar seriously. “I was going to college and my friends would bring instruments to jam in between classes,” says Bridges. “I just got tired of depending on other people to be creative so I went and bought my own guitar and started writing songs.” The guitar playing in Leon Bridges’ music is a key element but his voice takes center stage when he writes and performs. “My mom’s a singer and I sung around the house as a kid, but I never sang in church or anything. It was when I linked up with my friends from college that I found out I could sing.”

People can rise to Internet fame quickly with a few good songs, but not the way Leon Bridges has. He’s accomplished more major feats within a year than most artists can hope to see in a lifetime. I asked Bridges what’s next when your dreams have been realized seemingly overnight. “It’s crazy because when I was going around playing open mics, I wanted to make this my career but I had a fear of being on the frontline because I’m a shy person,” he says. “Now, everything that I wanted to do has already happened. That’s all been manifested and from here on out, it’s about being consistent in my songwriting.”

Not only has Bridges maintained consistency thus far in his music, he’s also become known for his vintage look. He’s a natural-born performer and part of that comes from his style. “All that [fear] goes away on stage,” he says. “There’s been a lot of good response from people, which motivates me to stay strong.” He once mentioned in an Instagram post that his thing isn’t just soul music. His whole life is rooted in the heart that you can hear in the voices of singers past and that has led to a physical manifestation. “Some people look at me and think Columbia manufactured me, but I was always dipping into the past and into that style. I was hesitant to go fully into it, but when I started writing the music I started to get deeper into the fashion. Singing these songs in skinny jeans and a T-shirt just wouldn’t produce the same feeling,” he says.

It’s that feeling that’s hard to describe but it’s what sets Bridges apart from contemporaries like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley who lean more towards a James Brown style. Perhaps there’s a different sound from pure energy than from pure heart. That’s not to say any great soul artist lacks heart, but there’s something reserved about Leon Bridges in the way he sings, and it may not immediately make you want to dance, but it will make you want to sing back. You can hear it in the orchestrated rhythms and verses of “Better Man.” Bridges is not afraid to harmonize within his verses but there’s a verse-chorus structure that keeps his music simple and sophisticated, the way soul music began. “I think it was the tone of voice and the way they delivered the song. Back then it was a fairly simple layout. There weren’t the type of crazy runs that go on in R&B or any other type of music. It was all based on a passionate voice and you can’t really describe the feeling it gives you when you listen to it. The method was just naturally drawn to simplicity,” says Bridges. That simplicity is consistent in the way Bridges records his music as well. He began recording to tape at the suggestion of White Denim guitarist and producer, Austin Jenkins, and that’s the formula that stuck—a formula built on friends, good musicians and a humble recording studio in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bridges mentioned that when it came to signing with a label, everything boiled down to Interscope, Atlantic and Columbia. “All of those labels could do for us what we needed to have done in order to make the music happen, but I felt at home with Columbia from when we first met in Fort Worth at this place right by my house. I was looking for a label that I could break bread with outside of the music thing. I was most comfortable with Columbia and some of the artists that I look up to, like Raphael Saadiq, are on that label. He was one of the first artists that I heard bringing back that sound. I didn’t know about the Charles Bradleys or Sharon Joneses. He was the first dude I heard,” says Bridges.

Leon Bridges isn’t one to limit his possibilities, which is partly why he decided to go on tour with Lord Huron. “We’re managed under the same company, and I felt it was a good move to go with a band that doesn’t have the same sound as mine. I’m a soul musician but I don’t want to be put in just a soul box. I want to mix it up with a band that has a different style from mine but shares similarities in great songwriting and melodies,” says Bridges.

Along with constant touring, Leon Bridges is also set to release his debut album, Coming Home, later this year. “Around [recording] time, I was dipping into Van Morrison and a little bit of Jessie Belvin. There’s this one note where I carry the word darling, and it’s a small thing but I was thinking of Van Morrison when I did it. Listening to Van and being in the atmosphere of all those amazing musicians in the studio really brought the best out of me,” says Bridges.
Bridges is set to see his dream go a long way, and he has enough heart to help others realize their own dreams in the process. I’m quick to wonder what it would’ve been like to be a fan of music during eras like the ’50s and ’60s. Leon Bridges is one of the few artists around today that make that dream feel like a reality. Don’t miss him when he lights up The Depot’s stage on April 20.