On Saturday night, patrons of the Santa Barbara Bowl will be treated to an experience that everyone should have at least once in their lives-a full-on soul show by a serious singer in the prime of his career. Since his smash debut in 2004 on the Kanye West-produced Get Lifted, John Legend has gone on to set the standard for contemporary vocalists, writing hit after hit and releasing two additonal great albums, including Evolver, which hit shelves at the end of 2008. Last week I spoke with Legend by phone from the road, where he will remain for the next six weeks, finishing a worldwide itinerary that will take him from Santa Barbara on to Berkeley, Maui, and eventually to the Coca-Cola Dome in Johannesburg where the whole thing winds up on October 18.
You are touring on the strength of three great albums, is that correct? Yes. I’ve done some live CD/DVDs, but Evolver is my third studio album.
Get Lifted, your first CD, was a huge hit, and you won a Grammy for it. Did you feel pressure about trying to follow up on that kind of success? I always felt I could do better. There was never any question in my mind that I could still improve what I was doing, so it didn’t bother me in that way.
There are some exciting collaborations on Evolver, including a great track with Estelle, which has almost a dancehall feel to it. “No Other Love”; that song is reggae, no question. We recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and the producer was Supa Dups, who is one of the most respected guys over there. Estelle and I are still working together now because she is on my label, and I’m producing her next album.
On “Greenlight,” the first single from Evolver, you also collaborated with Andre 3000 of Outkast. How was that? Andre is a genius as far as I am concerned. And he doesn’t do a lot of guesting on other people’s tracks, so I was just blessed on that.
I know you’ve been a New Yorker for the last eight or nine years. How was it to finally headline Madison Square Garden last week? Oh yes, that was a milestone for sure. We did it up. Madison Square Garden was a psychological breakthrough for me, to headline there, and to bring India.Arie there, and my brother, Vaughn Anthony. It was great.
Your vocal quality is up there with the greats-Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke-but you have a distinctive sound that’s all your own. Does anybody sound like you? You mean besides my brother? [Laughs.] We actually get that a lot, that he sounds like me. It does make sense. He is my younger brother.
Your songwriting has universality to it, and a sense of uplift, that puts me in mind of Curtis Mayfield. How do you think about your writing? To me, what I am trying to do, both with my voice and with my songs, is to create something that feels good and is sustainable, that is going to still sound just as good years from now. I try to be direct, to tell a story, and to create something that is instantly relatable, that pierces to the core of the matter. I also try to be a little clever, ’cause it’s got to have that hook, but not at the expense of an honest connection. I think Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson are both great examples of what I am after, which is something that is clear, artful, and poetic.
John Legend headlines the Santa Barbara Bowl with openers India.Arie and Vaughn Anthony this Saturday, September 5, at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and info, call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.