Grammy awards, platinum albums sales and star collaborations are now second nature to John Stephens.
It’s a far cry from his days working as a session musician, toiling the nightclub circuit in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington.
In London for the RnB season ahead of his Live Earth apperance, we caught up with the man they call Legend to talk about the past, the present and the future.
When did you first get into music?
I started playing the piano when I was 4 and singing in church at the age of 6. My mum was a choir director, my dad was the drummer and my grandma was the organist so I have come from a very musical family. Me and my brothers even started a band we called the Stephens 5 – I always wanted to be a star.
How did you break into the music business?
I broke into the business in 1998. I was playing at lots of talent shows. I went to the University of Pennsylvania where I met music producers and managers, I networked a lot and also continued to play the keyboard and singing at church.
Then, my good friend Tara Michel, who sings backup with me now, was singing on Lauryn Hill’s album and she introduced me to Lauryn, who asked me to play on her song Everything is Everything (from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill). I was also working with Kanye West who helped me to get my first deal in May 2004.
How important was it to have Lauryn Hill asking to put you on her album?
For me, you definitely need support from others but it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are famous or not, if the people around you believe in you and your music than that’s what counts. The collaborations I did with people helped to open doors for me. Kanye West and my manager helped to open doors for me but even when doors have been opened you still have to succeed.
And what is it like being successful?
It’s so much fun. I get to travel all over the world. I have just come back from South Africa and Paris. It’s great hearing people singing your songs. There is nothing like inspiring other people, impacting them, entertaining them and uplifting them.
If you didn’t make it as a musician, what would you be doing instead?
It never entered my mind that I wouldn’t succeed. I know that sounds arrogant but I really believed that I would succeed at my music. You have to have a certain amount of audacity to succeed and although it is challenging at times, it’s also a lot of fun.
– John Legend.
Who did you listen to while growing up?
I listened to RNB, gospel, Jodeci, Boyz to Men, Motown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin. I listen to everything now from hip hop to rock.
What was it like working with Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park?
I didn’t actually meet him but I worked on the song High Road for them as Mike had asked me to. I sing the hook.
I heard that you were working with Michael Jackson. How is that going?
That’s not true! I have written a song idea for him, but I am still waiting to hear whether he likes it and whether he wants to use it. I hope so!
Which collaboration are you most proud of?
Love of You, is a song I wrote for Chrisette Michele. I also wrote a song for Aretha and at the B.E.T. (Black Entertainment Television) awards I sang with Stevie Wonder.
Can you see yourself putting out a gospel album?
I can see myself putting out a gospel album but I also like singing about love and relationships so I’m interested in other things too.
What are you listening to at the moment?
White Stripes, Fiona Apple, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
I am learning to play the piano. Can you give me any tips?
I learnt through playing by ear, and after a while my ear developed and I was able to hear a tune and then play it on the piano by ear.
Your real name is John Stephens. How did the name Legend start and how did it stick?
One of my friends called me Legend in the studio as a nickname and after a while everyone started called me John Legend. Then when I became successful I had to decide which name I would keep and I liked the sound of Legend – only now I have to live up to the name!
Do you feel appreciated in the UK?
I find that the kids in the UK have a more diverse and eclectic taste in music and a wider appreciation of it. The US is more segregated – Black music is very isolated but UK kids are more willing to listen to different styles and have a more sophisticated taste.
What do you think of music in the UK?
There is great music coming out of the UK, from Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Corrine Bailey Rae. I am working with Estelle at the moment and I have performed with Amy and Corrine – there is a lot of talent in the UK.
Why did you decide to work with Estelle?
I like her attitude, and she is also a prolific writer. She has talent, charisma and connects well with her audience when she performs. I wanted to help her maximise on who she is.
A lot of young black musicians get into gangster rap but feel that they have to sing profanely to succeed. What do you think about this?
I like gangster rap myself, and if that is where you came from then you should sing about it, but not if you haven’t been there and don’t know what its like.
Biggie Smalls is one of my favourite artists and rappers. His music was authentic and eloquent and catchy. My advice to young black musicians would be to be creative and truthful. I don’t want to be in a position where all black music is gangster rap but be diverse. Record labels tend to cartoonise black rappers and it’s also their responsibility to promote you in the right way.
Show me is a song that references God-can you explain where it came from?
Show Me is a song that questions God – it doesn’t beat people over the head about religion. Everybody has questions and Show Me does just that.
Describe your music is three words?
Why only three words?! Ok, I’d say soulful, sensual and thoughtful.