Every now and then, music-biz hype isn’t hype — it’s well-deserved praise for real talent. SXSW is perhaps the most concentrated yin-yang whirlpool of musical talent and hype in the world, so you could be almost forgiven for initial skepticism of Leon Bridges’ sky-high pre-festival buzz: Comparisons to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding — the ones that everyone’s making when it comes to Bridges — don’t come along often, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly.
But for those lucky enough to see the soul singer-songwriter-guitarist at the Spotify House last Wednesday (one of eight shows he did during SXSW), it all made sense. His spot-on throwback look is the easy, lazy part of the comparison: on this day, the polished saddle shoes, the burgundy houndstooth bowling shirt with a wide collar, and a bright, welcoming smile, perfect for a 7-inch-record cover. But then there’s the sound: an effortlessly fluid, embracing tenor that doesn’t need to rely on melisma to immediately pull you in; warm blues melodies and simple but instantly familiar lyrics about love, losing love, his mother’s “rich in love” upbringing. And onstage, leading two talented backup singers and a five-piece band, he beamed the quiet confidence of a seasoned veteran — a particularly impressive feat for a 25-year-old who was unknown just a few months ago, washing dishes and playing coffeehouses in Fort Worth, Texas.
At the end of the thousands-of-bands clusterfudge that is SXSW, Bridges was one of the small handful of acts that everyone you talked to seemed to have either been blown away by or crestfallen that they’d missed. Now — just three months after Bridges signed with Columbia on the strength of two Soundcloud songs produced by Austin Jenkins and Justin Block of indie-rock band White Denim — his as-yet-untitled debut album, due this summer, is suddenly one of the year’s most anticipated. It’s a transformation you could almost see happening before your eyes, and after the show, Bridges spoke with Billboard about what that’s like, where he’s coming from, and, perhaps most importantly, where he gets those killer vintage wears.
Billboard: You‘ve gone from being unknown to one of SXSW’s biggest stories. How does that feel?
Leon Bridges: It’s insane, man. I was washing dishes at a restaurant and playing music on the side year ago. I always wanted the world to hear my music, but I didn’t know how I was gonna go about it.
Before the festival, we wrote about you as the potential breakout act of SXSW, and others have said that too. Is that a lot of pressure?
A little bit. Everything’s been a whirlwind, and I have a lot of insecurities. I started playing guitar about four years ago, so I didn’t have time to catch up and get good before all this happened. I’ll do what I can, but you know, all the comparisons to the soul greats, it definitely makes me a little nervous. On the other hand, I’m just excited to be here and kill it and give it 100 percent every time.
How did you zero in on your early-soul sound?
I was writing a whole bunch of music in the beginning, and it was a lot of alternative/R&B/neo-soul-type vibes, and nothing really clicked. It was cool for a minute, but over time I just wasn’t satisfied with it. I wrote one song during that time about my mother called “Lisa Sawyer.” This is before I started to pursue that old soul, and a friend of mine asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations, and I was like “no”. I felt bad because I had never really listened to him like that. And so after that, I started digging in and listening to those sounds and started thinking, “This is my voice. It would be great if I wrote that type of music”. Another thing I wanted to do was carry the torch. I just felt like I connected with it well because, me being a black man, the artists around that time with that sound were majority black men. Almost all of them. That really was a turning point.
I didn’t know anything about those guys. The only person that I knew about was Raphael Saadiq, and I didn’t know if it would work when I started writing this music. I knew he had his thing going on but at that time he hadn’t released a record in a while. I didn’t really hear anybody talking about it, so I was like, “Damn, do people dig it?” I just went at it and kept writing.
Now that you’re signed to Columbia, have you felt any pressure to take on a more contemporary, radio-friendly sound?
Not really. People are very positive about what I’m doing and receiving it pretty well. I had one guy who told me “I love what you’re doing, but why don’t you do a little more funk?” And that’s not a bad thing, but that’s just not what I do. I’m more on the smooth side of soul. I’m coming from a Ginuwine and Usher background, slow and smooth songs. And that’s why I really connected to Sam Cooke, because he was just very smooth. It’s not like the James Brown types, which is all great stuff, but he was totally set apart from those guys.
How do you see yourself fitting into soul music today? Between the so-called alt-R&B of The Weeknd, the retro-soul of Daptone, pop stuff like Sam Smith and the more straight-ahead contemporary stuff like Trey Songz, it‘s splintering in so many different directions.
I feel like I’m paving out my own path. But those other guys are great. I would love to do collaborations with any of them as long as it fits my vibe and aesthetic.
You have a great song called “Brown Skin Girl.“ Who was the inspiration behind it?
I wrote that song when I first met my ex-girlfriend, she’s Mexican. But now, it goes out to black girls, Mexican girls, Puerto Rican girls — anybody in that vein.
Where do you buy your clothes? You‘re pretty spot on with your retro look.
I got my go-to place in Dallas, it’s called Lula B’s and Dolly Python. They’re vintage stores. I search a little bit around thrift shops, and get whatever pieces I can find. I found these shoes in London recently. I pick up stuff everywhere and anywhere.
You record analog, straight to tape. Why?
I had never thought of recording that way before meeting [White Denim guitarist-producer] Austin Jenkins. I just wanted to record and get some songs down. When Austin first met me, he just said, ‘I love your sound, I want to record everything to tape and just really capture that 1950s/1960s sound.” The first session made me realize that this is what I need to do. It was such a good feeling being in the great room with all of the musicians, me and the backup singers in the same room, the musicians playing at the same time. You just really feed off of everybody’s energy and vibe. If you screw up the take, you do it again, you get the take and it’s good.
D’Angelo recorded Black Messiah to tape as well. Why do you think musicians are going back to these old methods?
It’s all about capturing that raw sound.
Was that a challenge for you coming from the world of Pro Tools, where you can easily fix a line or word or the pitch later on?
That was awesome because it made me bring my game. I hate having to go and punch in here and there, and I hadn’t done much recording before that. It’s cool because it’s like, you better get it now. And if you don’t get it, you’ll get it next time.