John Legend & Blake Mills on Recording 'Darkness and Light': There Will Be No 'Songs About Nothing'

Stevie Wonder and John Legend
Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Columbia Records

Stevie Wonder and John Legend attend the John Legend performance at The Underground Museum for Belvedere Darkness and Light listening event on Nov. 16, 2016 in Los Angeles.

During the recording process for John Legend’s forthcoming Darkness and Light album, a strict policy was established. According to album producer Blake Mills, the pair agreed early on that “there were not going to be any songs about nothing on the record. And there was not going to be a single moment for which there wasn’t an artistic reason.”

Mills’ anecdote was just one of several behind-the-scenes moments revealed during Legend’s Darkness and Light listening party at Los Angeles’ Underground Museum last evening. Prior to a short Q&A session moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ Gerrick Kennedy, Legend played several album selections, including the title track with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, “I Know Better,” “Overload” featuring Miguel, “Right By You (for Luna)” and the recently premiered “Penthouse Floor” featuring Chance the Rapper. Right after screening the video for lead single “Love Me Now,” Legend treated the audience to a live performance of that song and new album track “Surefire” before closing with his smash hit “All of Me.” Among the celebs spotted in the intimate setting: Stevie Wonder, Lindsey Sterling, saxophonist Kamasi Washington (featured on “Overload”), Consequence, Ray Ellis (Insecure), Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple), actress Tika Sumpter and actor Omar Benson Miller (Eight Mile).

Arriving Dec. 2, Darkness and Light not only marks the first collaboration between Legend and Mills (Alabama Shakes). It’s also the first time that Legend has worked solely with one producer. Besides their no "songs about nothing" edict, Legend and Mills also shared several more insightful tidbits about their creative process.

What inspired the decision to work together:

Legend: I really loved and was inspired by Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color. I found out that Blake had produced it. I’d heard his name before in musician circles, that he was a cool producer and guitarist. But I hadn’t really studied his work before. I asked if I could play him some music and see about working together. We met and he wasn’t repulsed by me [laughs], so we decided we could embark on this journey together.

Mills: That’s the gist of it. The conversations we had about what kind of record we could make together seemed to resonate at the core of some common interests with regard to our favorite R&B records of the last 50 years. Every one of those records had a political undertone as well as a personal one. There was this hole in John’s material that I felt like a huge part of his personality could come through. We’re still talking about “What’s Going On” some 40 years later. Yes, “Sexual Healing” is a great track. But when we think of Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” is the song that comes up. With him, Curtis Mayfield, etc., there’s this throughline, and I really wanted to be a part of a record where an artist was emoting on that wavelength.

Pushing each other out of their comfort zones:

Legend: We had some songs that were more challenging than others because a lot of the songs I wrote with other writers were more in the pop world. So a lot of it was trying to marry the quality of the song but produce it in a way that felt like it was right for what we were trying to do. The struggles we had weren’t about fighting with each other. It was us fighting with the songs, trying to figure out exactly where a song should land, what the production and arrangement should be around it. The joy in doing that is eventually you’re going to figure it out. And once it feels right, then you know it’s time.

Mills: it was a shared goal between the musicians and writers that we worked with. In everything on this record, the vocal has such a spotlight. And if the lyric isn’t communicating something that the singer is passionate about, I just feel like everybody knows it. You can tell if it’s just another song about nothing. There was a very strict policy that there were not going to be any songs about nothing on this record. And there was not going to be a single moment for which there wasn’t an artistic reason.

Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Columbia Records
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Blake Mills and John Legend attend the John Legend performance at The Underground Museum for Belvedere Darkness and Light listening event on Nov. 16, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

Collaborating with Chance the Rapper on “Penthouse Floor”:

Legend:  That’s one of the songs we rewrote the lyrics for. It started out as a sexy groove about escapism and ascension, trying to feel good and escape whatever problems you’re dealing with. It’s still a sexy [groove]. But the lyric is pretty much completely political now. It talks about what’s happening in our streets and how it’s often ignored until something blows up, wanting to take your rightful place in society and finding a place where your voice and life matter. Chance and I were going back and forth as he was figuring out exactly what he was going to write about. I love how he sets it up with him knocking on the door like an outsider, a fish out of water. But he’s ascended for some reason or another. Both Chance and I come from pretty humble backgrounds but our talent and music have allowed us to get into rarefied air. You can tell Chance is dealing with a conflict in the verse in which he’s talking about his folks being downstairs and still waiting in line. They’ve never been in these rooms. He gets to be here but he still feels like a bit of an outsider. If you listen closely, the verse is kind of profound. He does it in a kind of fun way but it’s really smart as well. He captured the essence of what the song is about.

Choosing the album’s title:

Legend: Some artists come up with the title before the album. For me, I write the songs first and discover where I’m going. While “Darkness and Light” is the name of one of the songs, those words also just kept coming back to me. There’s a lot of darkness in the world, pain and conflict. But the album also represents the desire to find light, optimism, love and joy in the midst of all of that. Then there was another thing I didn’t put together until a few weeks after my daughter Luna was born. The song that was playing when she came out was Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly.” I was just randomly playing songs when [wife] Chrissy [Teigen] was like, "Speed it up, I’m tired of these mellow songs." So I played more uptempo songs and “Superfly” happened to be playing when Luna came out. And the first line of that song is “Darkest of night with the moon shining bright.” We didn’t think of that when deciding on her name. But in deciding the name of the album, all of these separate things ended up coming together, kind of a confirmation.