Multi-award winning John Legend opens up about how he’s coping at home, working with Aretha Franklin, playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything”, working with Frank Ocean and a young Kanye West, and how he feels about releasing new music at this time.
Give us your perspective on this time…
Well, it’s an interesting time for musicians. So much of what we do requires other people being around, and as much as we want to connect to people it’s not as easy to do it this way as it would be otherwise, but we’re trying to make the most of it and we’ve been trying to help people get through this time by giving them some music, some inspiration, spreading some love. We’re just hoping everybody stays safe and stays healthy, and we all get through this, and then we can go back to getting together for concerts and doing all the things that we love doing with our audiences.
How is staying home with Chrissy and the kids?
The kids, I think they love it. They’re so used to daddy going to the studio or daddy going to film The Voice, or going away for a couple of days and do some shows. I think they love that I’m home so much and that mom is home much too, so they’re loving it. I like to work and I like to go away to write, and I like to go away to record and do all the things that I do for a living, but we’re just waiting until the time is right for that to happen again, and in the meantime, I really am enjoying hanging out with the kids. We’re having a good time.
How was it working with Aretha Franklin?
I got to write for her and record with her. We did a song called What Y’All Came To Do. She was looking for an uptempo song, and it was pretty amazing. We recorded together in New York, and she famously likes to have the studio very warm so we were all sweating in there, it was like 87 degrees inside, but she sounded fantastic as usual, and it was an honour to even just be in her presence.It’s just amazing to be around someone who’s so good at what they do and also has that level of confidence. She knew what she wanted. She came in there with a sense of her own direction. She didn’t need a lot of direction from me. It was just amazing to watch a master at work.
How was playing the piano on Lauryn Hill’s Everything Is Everything?
I played on Lauryn Hill’s Everything Is Everything. So I’m part of the piano hip-hop pantheon now, I guess. Oh, it was incredible. I was at the beginning of my music career. I was a student still in college. I was about 19 years old. I had met her through a friend of mine who sang with her named Tara Michelle. And they had gone to high school together and known each other through that. She was like, “You got to come hang out with me in the studio with Lauryn. She’s working on her solo album and I’d love for you to meet her and maybe get a chance to work with her.” And so that’s what we did. And it was such an important album for so many artists of my generation, I think. We were all pushed and inspired by the work that she did. And I think if you look at people like me or Kanye or so many other artists on the soul side and on the hip-hop side, I think looked at that as an album that made us want to create. So I was honoured to be there. I didn’t know that it was going to be that important when we were working on it. But wow was it.
And how was working with a young Kayne West?
By the time he came out and really started to blossom as an artist, it was just a phenomenal thing to be a part of, and it put me on a pathway to be able to release my own music as a solo artist and have the career I’ve had.
How was it meeting and working with Frank Ocean?
I met him as a writer. He was writing for other artists and he wrote a song for me on my Evolver album called Quickly. And I didn’t even meet him when I had cut the song. I cut the song, me and Brandy sang it together and it was on my Evolver album, but I had not met him at that point. But at some point, Tricky Stewart brought me in the studio and he said, “I want you to write with this guy, I’ve been working with named Lonny Breaux.” And we wrote with him and we hit it off good vibes in the studio. He had like a mystery about him. And I think that’s part of what his appeal is to the masses, is that he’s just kind of mysterious. You don’t know a lot about him as a person, but he writes these really beautiful introspective songs with incredible lyrics and these interesting arrangements. I think that sense of mystery is what is part of his appeal. And he’s also just really good at what he does. It kind of creeps in because sometimes you’ll listen to the records on first listen and they don’t, there’s nothing like especially catchy about them. You’re not like, “This is going to be a smash hit or something like that.” But they just kind of creep into your psyche and they just live with you and you find yourself humming them in all kinds of different moments in your life and it’s really powerful music in that way.
How do you feel about releasing new music at this time?
It’s hard. I think it’s kind of risky to put it out now because it’s like, “Are you going to maximise its potential if you put it out during this time or should you just wait?” But then the artist in you, you know you spend all this time on a project, it’s like waiting to be heard. And I can’t imagine waiting another year until we have a vaccine and everybody feels completely safe. It just feels like by that point I’ll have inspiration to write some more stuff and it might create a whole new album. I don’t want to not put this one out that I worked most of 2019 on it. So it’s hard. It’s hard for everybody to figure it out. It may not do as well as it normally would have done, but part of me is just like, “It needs to be out.”
You are quite a cook, how have you had your recipes landing in Chrissy’s Books?
Oh, I can cook all over the place. I’m good on the griddle and the grill and I can do whatever I need to do. I don’t make up a lot of recipes, but I’m good at following a recipe and executing very well. Then occasionally I’ll write my own recipe. Well, nothing you know, invented. It’s just my own variation. Like, I have my own fried chicken, I have my own mac and cheese that I make. They’re all in Chrissy’s books.
This conversation was between John Legend and Zane Lowe on Apple Music to run through his ‘At Home With’ playlist.
Video: Here. Credit: Zane Lowe on Apple Music