You’d be hard-pressed to find a modern R&B artist who doesn’t love the vintage sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. That love can take many forms: Some artists clone the classics in painstaking detail. Others water down the sound. But John Legend is one of the few who taps classic R&B’s emotional depths, while reinventing it for modern listeners.
His latest release, Love in the Future, could not exhibit this more true. Some tracks, like “Who Do We Think We Are,” recall the silky sensuality of a great Marvin Gaye or Philly soul ballad. Others are boldly futuristic: Take “Made to Love,” a song whose deconstructed arrangement sets Legend’s warm baritone against a kaleidoscope of sounds and textures, from African drums and scrappy funk guitar to wailing background vocals and eerie echoes. And when you least expect it, Legend’s signature piano appears in a cascade of classical-style arpeggios. It’s a strange, seductive song that sounds like, well, love in the future.

Piano has always been central to Legend’s sound. His first brush with pop success came as a teen attending the University of Pennsylvania, when he played (under his given name, John Stephens) on Lauryn Hill’s spectacularly successful album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. He went on to write and play for artists such as Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, and Kanye West. When West signed the young singer/songwriter to his new label, Legend’s solo career exploded. His debut studio album, Get Lifted, topped the R&B charts and garnered three 2006 Grammys, including Best New Artist. The album’s success was fueled in part by the single “Ordinary People,” whose boldly minimal arrangement features Legend’s voice and piano—and nothing else.

Legend’s subsequent studio albums, 2006’s Once Again and 2008’s Evolver, built on the foundation of Get Lifted, while 2010’s Wake Up!, a collaboration with the Roots, was a fiery set of vintage R&B covers. Love in the Future has its foundation in all those projects, while branching off in exciting new directions.

We caught up with Legend mid-tour in Nice, France and asked him about his music, his past, and his lifelong love of the piano.

john legendYou’ve often spoken of your desire to bring classic R&B sounds into a modern context.

Yeah. Some parts of Love in the Future are very forward-looking, like “Made to Love.” Some songs sound more classic, like “Who Do We Think We Are.” Either way, I’m always trying to keep soul alive. To keep it fresh. To keep it moving forward.

You’re working again with producers Kanye West and Dave Tozer, the same team as on Get Lifted. Why does that collaboration have such chemistry?

Part of it is just trust. I’ve known them a long time, and I know what they contribute to every situation. They each have different skill sets, different personalities, and I have a level of comfort with them that I don’t have with a lot of people. But we also brought in other co-producers and cowriters. The combination of my usual team plus a lot of fresh energy was good for the album.

Organic, real-time playing seems to be an important part of your sound.

Well, I grew up playing live music, and a lot of it in church, so I always have an appreciation for real musicians. Most of my albums have been a mix of sample-type stuff, some drum programming, and some live drums. The album I did with the Roots was definitely the most purely live project I’ve done.

The production on “Made to Love” is just amazing. It has so many unexpected twists.

That track is indicative of how we made the album, because it’s kind of a mish-mash of different influences and producers. Dave Tozer created the original music with Nana Kwabena. I brought it to Kanye, and he wanted to change the drums. He created a whole new drum track with Da Internz. They’re all from Chicago, so they brought that Chicago house feel to it. And then Dave brought that classical sensibility to it, and some of the African drums. It all came together and made a really interesting track.

And your piano makes a dramatic appearance toward the end.

Yeah. It gets kind of classical, with the piano and the operatic choir. It’s an interesting musical journey.

You’ve played piano since you were really young.

Yeah. We had a beat-up old upright piano, and later we got an electric one. My father dabbled in piano, but my maternal grandmother played a lot at church. My paternal grandmother also played, and I have other relatives who played as well.


Did your folks have to encourage you to play? Or did they have to drag you away from the keyboard?

I begged to take lessons when I was four. So that was the beginning. There were other times in my childhood when I wasn’t as excited about playing, but I never stopped.

Did you have traditional classical lessons?

Yes. I learned Für Elise and all that good stuff. And then I got a lot of gospel training in church, just playing by ear. I started singing in church when I was about seven.

Do you tend to write at the keyboard?

Yeah. Some of the songs on Love in the Future were definitely written on the piano, like “All of Me.” Others were written starting with the backing track and then going from there.

Do you think your music would sound different if you weren’t a pianist?

Whatever instrument you write on definitely leads you in certain directions. I think I would write differently if I were playing a guitar. I was talking to Stevie Wonder the other day, and he was telling me about some new harpsichord-like instrument he was playing, and he said it was making him write differently. Whenever you play a different instrument, it gives you different places to go. There might be certain chords you go to automatically, or different sounds you tend to hear. It would be interesting to see what would happen if I learned the guitar or something, where that would take me as a composer.

“Ordinary People” is so minimal — just piano and voice. Was there ever any pressure to build up the track more?

My original assumption was that we were going to put a beat to it, and we did do some remixes like that. But the more I listened to it, the more I just wanted to leave it alone. I’ve done that a few times in my career, just letting a song stay the way it is. Though sometimes you have to try to produce it up before you realize you should strip it back down. On “All of Me,” the next single, we produced it all the way up, but the final version is pretty stripped down.

It can take courage to be simple.

Yeah. I think it makes me stand out. It makes me sound like nobody else on the radio. That can always be dangerous, but it also can be the best thing for you.

What’s special about playing a really fine piano?

A great piano makes you feel like you’re a better player. Because when the feel isn’t right, it’s almost like it tricks you into thinking you can’t play as well as you actually can. On a piano, everything matters: the resistance, the sustain, everything. When all those things are right, it makes you feel like you can do anything. That’s why I love Yamaha pianos. They make me feel like I’m a better player. [For stage and studio work, Legend requests Yamaha C-series pianos — usually models with silent/MIDI capability, such as the C7X SH and C6XSH.]

Your first big break was playing piano for Lauryn Hill. Did you ever think you might end up going the route of a sideman/pianist?

No. I’ve always been singing and writing my own songs, and always knew that was what I really wanted to do. I knew I was just too much of a soloist as a singer to not be in front.

What was the first song you wrote and how old were you?

I definitely wrote some gospel songs when I was probably eight or nine years old.

Are you the sort of writer who waits for inspiration to strike? Or the kind who works at writing every day whether you feel inspired or not?

No, I definitely go to work every day. I expect to leave the studio every evening with a new song. Or two.

So you write a lot more songs than the ones that make it onto your records.

Oh yeah, there are too many songs. [Laughs.] Way too many.

Do you tend to revise and edit a lot, or are you more likely to stick to the original ideas?

We usually cling to the original. If I don’t love it yet, but feel like I can edit it lyrically, I do that. But if I don’t love it enough to be excited about it, I usually just give up and move on the next song. I don’t try salvaging songs I don’t feel great about, because I know I’ll always write another one.

How do you know when you’ve written a great one?

It takes a while to be sure. I have to play it for people. After a while, you can gauge the enthusiasm of the reaction. If the reaction is strong enough, I start to think, “Okay, maybe I’ve got one here!”