The river of soul music flows on deep and strong, and 25-year-old Leon Bridges is immersed in its life-giving current. The Forth Worth, Texas native and Columbia Records artist is currently preparing his debut album for release in the summer of 2015. “I’m not saying I can hold a candle to any soul musician from the ’50s and ’60s,” Bridges says, “but I want to carry the torch.”
Humility aside, Bridges’ light is burning bright. Following the October, 2014 release of two tunes that set the on-line world aflame, and accompanied by intimate solo shows from London to Los Angeles and Nashville to New York, the singer and songwriter has proved himself a rare talent who can do smoldering ballads and elemental rock’n’roll with equal aplomb. While he appears to have emerged cut from the cloth and fully formed, Bridges explains in his dulcet voice how he came to be here now.
“As a kid I grew fascinated with modern R&B. In high school I’d try singing songs by Ginuwine and Usher,” he explains, “and I thought well, maybe they weren’t in my range.” Instead, a lithe, nimble physicality led Leon to study dance at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. “I’d been doing hip-hop dance since I was 11 years old,” he says. “I knew there was a dance program there, and I started diving into ballet and jazz and modern technique and learning choreography. I thought that’s what I wanted to do.”
Native inspiration soon diverted his path. “A friend of mine brought his keyboard to school every day, and we’d have these little jam sessions, improvising, and I started to find my voice.” One day a female friend asked Bridges to look after her guitar while she went to class. “I asked her to show me a couple chords first. And she did: A-minor and E-minor. I fell in love with their sound, and that’s when I started writing songs, from those two chords.”
That Bridges compositional bedrock began in a minor mode is revealing. At a moment when popular music seems in thrall to major chord sing-alongs, the blue hues of Bridges’ tunes embrace a subtlety that feels wholly refreshing. “Based on my innocence on guitar and my lack of knowledge of the technical side, my songwriting is something I have to make on-point with melody and delivery to make it shine,” he explains.
With a few early compositions tucked under his belt, a seeming dichotomy surfaced: Bridges’ tunes sounded less like the modern R&B he’d grown up loving than a style he was, in fact, not very familiar with: classic soul. Furthermore, Bridges’ sleek, fastidious fashion sensibility dovetailed with the songs he was writing. He began a tenderfoot period of apprenticeship playing coffeehouses in and around Fort Worth, slowly finding and refining his voice.
A turning point soon came via a pair of selvedge trousers. One night at an Austin bar Bridges was approached by a young woman who complimented him on his snazzy Wrangler’s and said that he should meet her boyfriend, a fellow with a comparable sense of style. Her boyfriend turned out to be Austin Jenkins of the band White Denim. “I hadn’t heard of White Denim at the time,” Bridges says, “but I went and looked them up and thought yeah, that’s interesting music.” After Jenkins and his bandmate Joshua Block subsequently peeped Bridges perform at a low-key local show, they insisted Leon enter the studio to cut a few tracks on their burgeoning bank of vintage equipment.
That initial three-day session, with Jenkins and Block producing, yielded the recordings that set Bridges at the center of rapturous attention from aficionados and labels alike. The buttery, seductive “Coming Home” and the piston-driven, doo-wop flavored “Better Man” demonstrated Bridges’ versatility. Inking with Columbia Records, whose roster includes a certain hero named Bob Dylan, was the outcome of courtship and deliberation. “Columbia has artists I look up to like Adele and Pharrell, as well as Raphael Saadiq and John Legend,” says Bridges. “They way they value artistry makes it feel like home.”
The early 2015 release of another new song, “Lisa Sawyer,” has further burnished Bridges’ promise. With its brushed snares and glowing brass, “Lisa Sawyer” is a remarkably assured offering from so young a talent. The song, about Bridges’ mother, a woman “with the complexion of a sweet praline,” has the flavor of one of Allen Toussaint’s productions for the great Lee Dorsey. Connecting the sacred and the secular, “Lisa Sawyer” feels natural considering Bridges’ churchgoing childhood. And by writing with specificity about his own family, Bridges is creating resonant work about the African-American experience.
“I have a lot of insecurities because I don’t have a big powerhouse voice,” he admits. “I’m not a shouter. I rely on phrasing to get my feeling across.” Bridges’ delivery exudes strength through tenderness. “I guess that’s why I connected with Sam Cooke.”
The name Sam Cooke has appeared frequently in Bridges’ early notices in the press. The point of comparison is apt, but not initially intentional. “When I wrote ‘Lisa Sawyer’ I didn’t know anything about old soul music,” Leon says. “I was asked ‘Is Sam Cooke one of your inspirations?’ I had to say no, because I only knew Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ from the movie Malcolm X, which I’d watched with my father. But from being asked about Sam Cooke and Otis Redding I started digging deeper into soul music from the ’50 and ’60s and realizing this is really the root of what I’m doing.”
What to make of the fact that Bridges is working in a tradition whose existence he was initially only vaguely aware of? “It speaks to the gift God placed in me,” Leon says, choosing his words carefully. “It humbles and wows me to think I was pulling from something I didn’t really know about.”
In the striking black-and-white images that have accompanied Leon’s emergence, one photograph stands out. It depicts Bridges sauntering down a sunlit sidewalk, his shadow falling not behind him but stretching out in the direction of his forward stride. The implication is that Bridges is not walking away from the past, but moving forward with both family history and the tradition of soul music in full view. His ancestors and antecedents walk with him. “They’re with me at all times,” affirms Bridges. Steeped in tradition, drenched with intention and desire, Leon Bridges’ soul music is happening here and now.