John Legend bet on himself

“I’m not dressed for public consumption,” John Legend apologized, before turning on his Zoom camera. He was wrapped in a flower-on-black robe, sitting outside what looked like a tasteful villa: tiled roofs, cream-colored walls covered in ivy. The legend was a three-day family vacation to Lake Como, he told me. But I already knew that. The press had breathlessly covered his wife, model/cookbook author/social media maven Chrissy Teigen, and her pregnant belly. Teigen herself had given her thirty-nine million Instagram followers an up-close look at their Italian getaway: posing with Legend on a cobbled street; dress up with their daughter, Luna; adrift on a boat with their son, Miles. Lake Como was where Legend and Teigen tied the knot, in 2013, the same year Legend bolstered their power couple in his hit song “All of Me.”

It was early evening, Italian time, and Legend was coming out of a long day without much. “We just hung out by the pool, ate great food, drank great wine and, yeah, just chilled out,” he said. He was so laid back it was easy to forget that when he’s not playing Wife Guy and Instagram Dad, he’s one of the most successful musicians of his generation. He is one of the youngest and the first black man to reach the EGOTand his honors also include the NAACP President’s Award and People “Sexiest man alive.” (SNEGOT?) When his first studio album, “Get Lifted”, was released in 2004, he was twenty-six, but his expressive voice was that of an old soul, reminiscent of crooners such as Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. He was a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform and other progressive causes, and his political beliefs were at the heart of a very public rift with his first producer and champion Kanye West, who backed Donald Trump before launch its own disconcerting presidential race, in 2020.

Born in 1978, John Stephens renamed himself John Legend before he even signed a recording contract, in what he describes as a “bet on myself”. His eighth studio album, which comes out this week, takes up the challenge: it is simply called “Legend”. We talked about songwriting during a pandemic, his extremely online family life, the loss of his expected third child with Teigen, religion, President Biden’s criminal policies and what happened. passed between him and Ye. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

“Legend” is a double album, with an Act I and an Act II. How are they different?

The conversation I had with my team is that Act I was like a Saturday night and Act II was a Sunday morning. Saturday night is more about sensual pleasures, more about partying, more up-tempo. Sunday is more introspective, intimate and spiritual.

We immediately hear the pleasure and the sensuality: the first song, “Rounds”, begins with the lines “Cotton candy fingertips / paint my lips”. Much of the conversation about, for example, Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” has been about getting people out dancing and being together in their bodies after so much isolation. Have you thought about that?

Yeah. You’ll probably find, when people analyze this era of music, that all of us musicians were disconnected from the world in 2020. And then, as the vaccines started coming in and Biden was elected, you just feel like that the future is going to be better, even if it’s not all the way yet. A lot of people were, like, “Hey, let’s celebrate!” And that thread will likely be common to much of the music that’s been created over the past eighteen months.

Well, there was a kind of thwarted hedonism. Last summer was supposed to be ‘hot vax summer’ and then a variation comes along and spoils the mood.

When I was writing “Waterslide” it was last spring, and I was like, “Oh man, summer is gonna be awesome!” [Laughs ruefully.]

One of the things you’re known for is political anthems, like “Preach” and “Glory.” Did you consciously want to go back to love, sex, pleasure and feelings this time around?

Yeah. I wanted to write about, like, celebrating our ability to see and touch each other again.

In Act II of the album, there is a ballad about grief called “Pieces”, which has the phrase “we learn to live in pieces”. Where does this come from?

I’m someone who generally tends to write and perform upbeat songs. This song has a bit of that optimism – we’ll get through this, we’ll get through this – but we’ll never be the same as before this heartbreak. I certainly felt that after the loss of our baby, in 2020. You learn to live with that grief and carry it with you. It doesn’t have the same weight and pain, but you’re never the same again.

There’s a line in “Pieces” that you repeat several times: “Didn’t you tell me grief was a teacher? Was this a real conversation with someone? Who is “you”?

It wasn’t exactly a real conversation – there’s no specific “you”, I’ll say that – but I felt like it worked for that place in the song, to put it that way.

Do you agree with this idea, that grief is a teacher?

Absolutely. It’s an unavoidable part of life, but it can be something that helps you. Especially in my relationship with Chrissy, it made us stronger, going through this together, even if it broke us in a way, because we had to stick together and support each other. It’s a way of forging you, if you handle it properly as a couple, and I think that’s what it did for us.

You and Chrissy were very open about the pregnancy loss, even sharing the name you chose for your third child, Jack. What was the conversation like, how much to talk about such a difficult and personal thing in public?

Chrissy felt she needed to share it. Everyone knew we were pregnant. Everyone knew that she even had problems with pregnancy. It was dishonest and weird not to acknowledge the fact that something had happened. I was more reluctant, because I’m more careful than her about sharing the pain. But, once she did, I almost immediately saw the wisdom of her action. Not only was it the honest thing to do, but it opened up more of a conversation between people who were afraid to share those kinds of details, who were ashamed if they lost a pregnancy. We still meet people who thank Chrissy for sharing this, because they went through the same thing and it made them feel less alone.

In a way, it has to do with being famous and having a pregnancy in the press. But, from the women in my life, I know there’s so much angst about what you share, when you tell people you’re pregnant – all these supposed rules – because if you lose the baby, you have to tell the people. But friends of mine said, “Why do I have to keep it all a secret and then suffer it alone?”

Exactly. You are allowed to publicly mourn these other losses. Everyone knows when someone close to you dies, and you have every right to praise them. But, when something so hard and painful and tragic happens [with a pregnancy], a lot of people feel like they need to be quiet about it. I’m just glad Chrissy was bold enough and honest enough to break that taboo.

I was surprised when you just said you’re more reserved about sharing pain, because you obviously do that through music and a song like “Pieces” is share the pain.

About Michelle Anderson

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