By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
Soul prodigy John Legend played the piano at age 4, started the University of Pennsylvania at 16, and, at age 30, took home his sixth Grammy and made this year's list of Time's "100 Most Influential People." B-Sides spoke to Legend about inspiration, his collaborations and an upcoming album.
B-Sides: You're just getting back from a tour in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. How was the reception there?
John Legend: Yeah, my flight actually came in last night. The crowd was enthusiastic and seemed to know my music very well. They were my favorite part.
[2008's] Evolver is a little more uptempo than your last work, and the collaborations are upscale. Why the name "Evolver"?
Evolver just means growing musically, and experiencing new things.
Do you think it has hints of where you're headed stylistically? More electronic?
I did collaborate with MSTRKRFT for "Green Light," and I'd love to work with them again.
I don't think that those collaborations really work like a learning process. I wrote the music, sent it to them, and they participated. Of course Andre3000 brings something new and different, but that's his thing — what he brings to your music is still his.
You have an upcoming album with the Roots called Wake Up Sessions coming out in 2010. Any hints of what's to come on that?
I don't want to speak too much about that since it's still a work in progress, and we're still working on it.
[Roots drummer] ?uestlove seems like he would be the ultimate collaborator, like a DJ with a band...
It's great to work with ?uestlove. He's an incredible producer. He's a curator. ?uestlove is a musical curator.
You'll be singing with neo-soul legend India.Arie when you come to St. Louis. Was she in Spain with you? Any duets?
We're working on that, but no, she was not in Spain. I think St. Louis will be our first stop together. I'm looking forward to it.
You quoted James Joyce in your commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania last month: "A man's errors are his portals of his discovery." To someone on the periphery, your life seems pretty free of blemishes, though. What does that statement mean to you?
For me, it's about reading and turning away from closed-mindedness, about coming from a small town, but learning how to think differently for myself.
What prompted you to read Jeffrey Sach's The End of Poverty, and why do you think it affected you the way that it did?
I saw him on the Colbert Report, and I think it affected me the way that it did because my mind was open. But his writing style is also very practical; he made [ending poverty] seem doable for anyone with will and resources. The optimism of [The End of Poverty] also appealed to me — I'm an optimistic person. At least that's how I like to think of myself.
You've actually been on the Colbert Report before, right?
[Laughs] I've been on there three times now. It's a great show, a relevant show. I always enjoy my time there.
What was/is it like having your family so heavily involved, from the very beginning, in your development as a musician? Is it as wonderful as it sounds on the Get Lifted track, "It Don't Have to Change," where your family sings backup?
Yes. It is that wonderful. And I couldn't imagine it any other way. I don't have any other situation to compare it too.
Really? It's not a pain sometimes?
We have our disagreements, but we get along where it counts.