John Legend Talks Ruling the Yule In 2018 - And His Upcoming 40th Birthday

Courtesy of NBC
John Legend and Chrissy Teigen in a promo photo for A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy.

John Legend is having a, well, legendary Christmas season. Fresh off his Emmy Award-winning turn on NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live! (which gave him an EGOT), Legend released his first holiday album, A Legendary Christmas, on Oct. 26. Now he's in the midst of a themed tour supporting the album, which wraps Dec. 30 in San Diego.

On Nov. 28 he and wife Chrissy Teigen will host their first TV special A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy, also on NBC with a star-studded guest list that includes Stevie Wonder, Awkwafina, Adam Levine, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Meghan Trainor, Jane Lynch, Zach Galifianakis and others. Legend will also be featured in the Christmas in Rockefeller Center on NBC the same night. He's definitely the voice of Christmas present. 

Legend, who will also be coaching on The Voice during its spring 2019 season, took a few minutes to talk to Billboard about ruling the Yule this season.

Why a Christmas album this year?

I've wanted to do it for a long time, and everyone around me was like, "Yeah, that'd be great." I just never got around to it before, and I had enough time this year and I was focused and excited enough about it to really dedicate a lot of energy to it, and I did. I called Raphael Saadiq early in the process and said I wanted him to produce the whole thing and we just started thinking about what songs we wanted to do, and he put together a kick-ass band and we started making the record.

How did you go about choosing the repertoire?

I love Christmas music; I grew up as a fan of, like, Nat King Cole and some of the early Motown stuff. And right before we started recording we started writing a few songs, too, 'cause I wanted to try to have at least three or four originals on there, but I ended up liking six of them enough to put them on the album. So we had six originals and eight covers.

Is it daunting to write a new Christmas song to add to what's already an established liturgy of material?

Yeah, it is, and it's hard to break a new song into the kind of canon of Christmas songs. But I'm a writer as much as I'm a performer, and it's hard for me to make an album without writing a song for it.

What makes a good Christmas song?

I think part of it is what makes a good song, anyway. Does it feel honest? Are the themes ones that connect to other people and feel like they're universal? And then, does it have a good melody, a good beat -- all those other things you look for in a good record. At the end of the day it's got to be really listenable, so we wanted all the tracks to just feel really good and feel like something people would want to listen to. That's the fun thing about this album -- we were making it for posterity. We don't expect to make a bunch of Christmas albums. Most people only do one in their career, maybe two. So we wanted to make something we would want to listen to every year.

What did you want to do with the live show?

Well, with the entire album there's a kind of nostalgic feel, from the songs we chose to the way we chose to arrange them, the photo shoot, the video shoot -- with everything we've been embracing the legacy of great Christmas music that I grew up listening to -- Motown, Nat King Cole, just a lot of the classics. So since we've been embracing that classic vibe with the music, we wanted to embrace it visually, too. You see that in the show with the production, with the wardrobe choice. Everything's got a classic, nostalgic vibe.

Complete with cardigan sweaters, right?

No cardigans, but it's kind of like the skinny ties, suits. I grew up as a fan of Nat King Cole and some of the early Motown stuff, so a lot of the looks reference some of those vibes.

Do you foresee this as an annual kind of thing?

I probably won't be doing the tour annually, no. There's only so many times I can go to this well. I think this year I'm having a lot of fun doing it, but I don't see myself wanting to do it every year. But I'm sure I'll bring it back at some point.

Is a Christmas EGOT sweater on your list this year?

(laughs) That's a good idea. You need to tell my friends.

So what kind of trip was that?

Oh, it was pretty amazing. It's something I never thought about several years ago; Only when it got closer to being a possibility did it cross my mind. Once we had the G (Grammy) and the O (Oscar) and the T (Tony), it was in my mind that all I was missing was the Emmy. I don't pick projects because of that, but this project with Jesus Christ Superstar came along -- but even while we were making it I wasn't thinking about the possibility we could get Emmy nominations. But once it was so well received and acclaimed and loved by the fans and all that stuff, we started getting a lot of questions about the EGOT, and it became clear to me it was a possibility, and I was excited for it to happen.

Are you planning a next album yet?

I've already written some songs for it, but I've been focused on Christmas for the last six months. It'll be nice to get back to the normal thing, but I'm going to enjoy this Christmas vibe for the rest of the year.

You have a big day coming up on Dec. 28.

Well, yeah, I turn 40 this year. I'm fine with embracing it. I'm not running from it. It's weird because my birthday's so anticlimactic, since it's between Christmas and New Year and everyone's always gone. So I'll probably do a party in January.