"It's crazy -- I didn't grow up with any of this music," reflects Bridges during a rare schedule break at home in Dallas. Since signing with Columbia in late 2014, he has toured constantly, including a spellbinding Late Late Show performance, in the lead-up to his debut, Coming Home, released June 23. "All this shows that you can't teach soul music. It has to be something already inside you. It's not something that you can try to do -- it's who you are."
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A century ago, his effortlessness and out-of-nowhere ascent would've led people to suspect a crossroads pact with the devil a la blues legend Robert Johnson. But to sing soul like he does takes hard work and hard times. Painfully shy as a kid (and still noticeably reticent when he's not onstage), Bridges has a beatific gospel timbre that suggests church-choir experience -- but he was too insecure to actually audition. "I didn't think I could sing," says Bridges. "I knew I could do stuff here and there, but didn't think I was good enough to fit."
He describes his childhood persona in much the same way -- as a pariah. After his parents separated when he was 7, he split time between suburban Fort Worth and inner-city Dallas, where his father worked at a community center. His family was poor, and shortly after Hurricane Katrina, 10 relatives from New Orleans temporarily came to live with him, his mother and his half-sister. He was surrounded by people, but still felt alone. "I didn't know where I fit in," he says. "I didn't have any friends at school. People didn't want to be friends [with me]. I had no place."
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Bridges idly dreamed of escape, drowning himself in the same music other kids his age were listening to. He didn't even know of the soul greats he'd later be compared to. "Nostalgia for me isn't Sam Cooke," he says, "as much as it's listening to a Ginuwine song or hearing Dallas hip-hop and remembering dancing to it in my garage."
At a nearby community college, Bridges studied dance, inspired by seeing his dad moonwalk as a kid, he says. He picked up singing and guitar as a hobby at first, and eventually began playing at open mics and small shows. His sound evolved from neo-soul, to folky R&B to traditional soul with horn -- ideal for the last slow dance of the night. "A friend asked if Sam Cooke was an inspiration. I'd never listened, but I wanted to know my roots, so I looked him up on YouTube and Pandora," says Bridges. "Once I heard it, I saw it -- that was the music that I wanted to write."
But after a couple of years playing locally, Bridges struggled to attract more than 20 people to shows. He bused tables and lived at home. After his mother lost her medical-field job, he got a second one washing dishes. Then he met Austin Jenkins, guitarist from Austin psych-rock band White Denim, at a Fort Worth bar. He noticed Bridges' singular '50s fashion style -- crisp slacks, starched collars, high-waist jeans, exquisite vintage suits. ("It all started when one of my mom's older friends gave me his childhood clothes when I was a teenager," says Bridges of his look. "It's funny when people think it's just a marketing scheme.") They took a photo, had a beer and figured they would probably never meet again -- until Jenkins randomly stumbled upon Bridges two weeks later at a local dive, where he was playing to a crowd of five. The first song he played? "Coming Home."
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"He's singing to you, not at you," says Jenkins, who co-produced Coming Home with fellow White Denim partner Joshua Block, recording live on all-analog gear, including a soundboard once owned by The Grateful Dead. "He listened to Texas blues, gospel and R&B, and filtered it through himself. It's authentic and direct."
The songs on Coming Home are somehow simultaneously urgent and nostalgic, smiling and tearful, conjuring forgotten memories of a vanished America. "Twistin and Groovin" describes the meeting of his grandparents: "Up under that red dress are legs long as the bayou trees/She got a golden smile, I know she's the one for me in the room," he sings. "Brown Skin Girl" is a love letter to his ex-girlfriend. "Lisa Sawyer" pays tribute to his 1963-born mom of the same name. One of his proudest moments in a year full of them was paying off her debt in January.
"I don't like to write flashy soul songs," says Bridges. "I'm writing from the heart, stories about family and truth. I just want people to see a genuine person."
Listen to Leon Bridges (and other artists from this issue of Billboard) in the playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the July 4 issue of Billboard.