John Legend on Producing & Acting in 'La La Land,' Broadway Plans, 'Role Model' Quincy Jones

Dale Robinette/Lionsgate
John Legend and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.

While John Legend is presumably in Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama’s farewell party (“We don’t speak about those invitations,” he said with a laugh when asked), the 10-time Grammy winner will be back in Los Angeles on Sunday for the Golden Globes. 

As one of the executive producers of La La Land, he’s rooting for director Damien Chazelle’s love letter to Los Angeles and the golden age of musicals. Legend also appears in the film as bandleader Keith and performs “Start a Fire,” which he co-wrote with La La Land composer Justin Hurwitz, Marius De Vries and Angelique Cinelu. The Oscar and Golden Globe winner -- best original song for “Glory” from Selma -- talked to Billboard about how he picks his projects, his humbling guitar lessons, and his mentor, Quincy Jones. Coming up for Legend: the second season of WGN America’s Underground, which he and his production partner Mike Jackson executive produce, and the Broadway debut of the August Wilson play Jitney on Jan. 19. Legend, who released his latest album, Darkness and Light, on Dec. 2, and Jackson are among the producers in the show, which stars Moonlight’s Andre Holland.

When you first met with Damien Chazelle, was it about playing Keith, even though you had no prior acting experience? 

I wasn’t exactly clear as to why we were meeting. I figured he wanted to collaborate on something, have me write a song for it and have us [executive produce] it. But after the meeting, he had me look at the script and then he mentioned the idea that he thought I’d be a good Keith -- someone who understood the point of view that Keith had and be authentic as a musician. 

Did you understand Keith, who is someone who has embraced mainstream popularity instead of remaining more traditional musically?

I understood him. I didn’t always agree with everything he said, but i think he had some wisdom for Sebastian [a jazz traditionalist played by Ryan Gosling]. If I had a friend that wanted to be that person -- the guy that kind of preserved a specific form of jazz and knew it wasn’t popular now but still wanted to make that kind of music and wanted to open a club in L.A. -- I would  encourage him. It might not be on the Hot 100, but if there’s an audience for it, i wouldn’t discourage him from doing that. It’s just a different plan. If you want to make a big impact on music, you have to do something that’s fresh. It can have retro leanings, but it still needs to feel like it’s new to add to the conversation and not simply a remake of something that already exists.

Or as Keith says in the film, you can’t be a traditionalist and a revolutionary at the same time.

I don’t know if that’s completely true, though that’s what my character says. I think there’s ways to be innovative while still having reverence for things you’re influenced by. But I think if you’re simply trying to remake what already happened, it’s hard to be hugely impactful.

What kind of instruction did Damian give you for “Start a Fire”?

The main instruction was make it a fun song that you can see as a single that still has some jazz influence, but could tell it was leaning in more of a pop direction than most music you would call jazz. It had to feel like it was still good and a viable alternative, but Sebastian would feel like it was selling out a bit. It was having to thread the needle because you don’t want it to be so bad that it’s embarrassing, but you want it to be something that Sebastian wouldn’t want to make. Something he wouldn’t be proud of.

Everyone’s so used to seeing you on piano, but Keith plays the guitar. Was that weird for you? 

Yeah. [Laughs] I had to take lessons just to look like I could play guitar, even though I still had the sound turned off on my guitar. I at least knew how to find the chords and to give the appearance of playing it.

Has working on La La Land sparked any desire to write a musical yourself?

I could see that. If it was a theme or subject matter that would inspire me to write, I think I could pull it off. I think of myself as a songwriter just as much as a performer, as much as a pianist, so i’m up for the challenge of doing that. It’s not something I’ve done before but I grew up loving soul and pop standards and jazz standards and I could see myself writing stuff influenced by those things.

On the second season of Underground, you play iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglass. How do you prepare for that daunting task?

It’s a huge honor, but honestly, it’s a fairly small cameo in the overall scheme of things, so it was really focused on thinking about what that specific scene called for and thinking about his role in that scene. I didn’t want to overthink it.

You’re getting ready to open on Broadway with Jitney. You executive produced the critically acclaimed Southside With You and Underground. How do you make your choices as to which projects to put your money and name behind? 

Enlighten, inspire and entertain. I feel like those are the things we look for in projects. Obviously, my day job continues to be music, but I feel like we want to put out art that makes the world more interesting and more beautiful, and we’ve been able to do that.

Who is your role model?

Quincy Jones is certainly of them.

Have you two talked about that how to pick projects and use your clout for good? 

We talk about a lot of things. He’s hugely influential to me and he’s always been a role model to me. Both of us have been in a position where music has opened up a lot of doors for us and given us a lot of influence and we wanted to carry that into other areas and particularly into film because music and film are so related. 

Any plans to work together? 

We’ve talked about it. He and my father actually have a hat line they’re doing together. Popz Topz is my father’s hat brand, and Quincy’s going to do a special collection with him. 

As a Golden Globe and Oscar winner, what advice do you have for your fellow musicians who may be first-time nominees? 

I think you have to just try to enjoy it. We’re used to going to the Grammys and the AMAs and those kinds of things. I was like, “Wow, this is fun being at a different place than I normally am.” Obviously, the world’s watching and the opportunity to perform at the Oscars was just incredible and pretty monumental part of my career. I say, just enjoy it.