Interview: ‘Coming Home’ With Leon Bridges At SXSW

If you built a time machine and traveled back to Dallas in March 2014 you probably wouldn’t find many people who were all that excited about the music of Leon Bridges. The Texas resident, who started his life in New Orleans, has only been on the national music radar for little over six months at this point. That time has passed like a whirlwind for Bridges, as well as his team, and it seems with each passing day the young soul artist is getting closer to becoming the next big star in pop music.

While at SXSW last week, Bridges performed a number of showcases to packed crowds filled with industry professionals and everyday music fans alike. When not on stage, Bridges dedicated a lot of his free time to speaking with press, and one afternoon those efforts included a near 20-minute conversation with me (James, the guy who runs this blog). We talked about the hype currently surrounding Leon, the moment he knew things were changing, the source of his inspiration, and his goals as a musician. It’s not very often you meet someone in music who has a clear vision for their career, but that is exactly what we discovered while chatting with Leon Bridges. He knows not only what his sound is, but also who he is as a person, and that awareness is helping him navigate the often troublesome waters of the music business with ease. You can find highlights from our conversation, including some insight on when Bridges’ debut album will be released, below:

H: This is an exciting time for you, Leon. I tried to catch your set at Spotify House yesterday, but instead I ended up waiting in line outside the venue and listened to you perform without being able to see a thing. That said, it was great.

L: Thank you. That was a really good set. I’m sorry you couldn’t get in.

H: The thing that stuck out to me, at least at first, was just how much material you had ready to go. The public has only heard the three singles you have released since the fall, so it was a little surprising to learn you had a complete set ready to go.

L: That’s funny, because you’re definitely not the first person to say that. People stop me and ask, “Do you have more than three songs?” I always laugh. I probably have closer to 30 right now, with more on the way. It would be crazy if I didn’t. “Hi, I’m here to play these three songs and it’ll be my whole set.”

H: Well I think you’ve come along at a time when a lot of new pop stars don’t have a lot of material. You hear someone release a big first single, only to later find it’s the only song they have recorded. A lot of radio stars start off like that, and though you’re not a typical pop star I think it’s easy for people to make comparisons because you do have the backing of a major label.

L: Exactly, and people never know if those artists write their songs. I write my material, and I find it very personal. I don’t think I could get on stage and sing songs written by someone else.

H: I saw the Grantland piece that came out this week, which is yet another big publication hopping on the Leon Bridges bandwagon. There was a line in the piece about how things are happening so fast right now, it’s a little hard for anyone to keep up with all the moves you are making. This lead me to wonder when you first noticed that your career was beginning to change. When did you first realize, “Oh, this is becoming far bigger than me and the people I know who enjoy my music?”

L: I would probably have to say that there have been many times in the last few months I have felt like that, beginning with the day we released “Coming Home” through Gorilla Vs Bear. I had never heard of that site prior to the premiere aside from what my management told me, so I did not really understand the reach or impact that they had until the story broke. I was on my way to New Orleans when it went live, and I think within three days we broke 13,000 plays. It was cool to see people respond to a type of soul that is not very flashy. It’s just me, this kid with an alright voice and a unique sound. It’s cool to see people react to that.

H: I saw you comment somewhere about being inspired by Sam Cooke’s live albums. I know you have a studio album coming out, but based on what I heard from the show yesterday I think there needs to be a Leon Bridges live record at some point in the future.

L: Yes. That is one thing that has to happen. There is only so much you can do in the studio you know, and some of those songs have continued to evolve since we recorded them. That stuff you can only give audiences in the live setting, and I want to capture that at some point.

H: So, do you have your debut album complete at this point?

L: Yup, all done.

H: So I assume the three singles you have released will be on it, but how many more tracks can we expect?

L: It’ll be about 7 more, so 10 in total. There is this one called “Brown Skinned Girl,” which I love. Also one about my grandparents, “Twisting and Groovin,” then “Flowers, “Pull Away,” and more. It’ll be a solid record.

H: When do you plan to release the album?

L: June.

H: Are you going to continue releasing a single every few weeks as you have, or are you planning something else?

L: No, I think we’re done with that. We’re just pushing the three we have out right now, “Better Man, “Coming Home,” and “Lisa Sawyer.”

H: I wanted to talk to you about “Lisa Sawyer,” as I believe it’s the best song you have shared so far. I know people have flocked to “Coming Home,” but this is the one I keep coming back to. What can you tell me about the origin of the track?

L: Thank you, man. That is my favorite as well. When people went crazy over “Coming Home” I was a little surprised. That one? Really? It’s not my favorite, but if people are feeling it I certainly won’t complain.

H: So, what is about “Lisa Sawyer” for you that sticks out?

L: I wrote that song, and I had the progression, but for whatever reason I could not come up with lyrics. I eventually wrote a song about crayons just to fit the melody, and I thought to myself as time went on that the song could be a lot better and go a long way. I decided to write about my mother, and after I made that decision the words just flowed. I’ve noticed in music that a lot of artists write about New Orleans, but not a lot of artists have a personal connection to it. So me writing a song about my mother and the city of New Orleans could stick.

H: You mentioned writing a song for your grandparents a few minutes ago, and now you’ve told me “Lisa Sawyer” is for your mother. Do you take a lot of inspiration from your family? It seems to be a theme from what we’ve heard.

L: Yea, absolutely. I write simple music, but I don’t like to write flashy soul music. I like to write stuff with meaning and substance. Right now I’m writing a song about my grandmother, Doris, from the perspective of my father. No one has heard it, but it’s in the works. I’m also writing a song about my father’s father. He started in Mississippi, but he had to flee after fighting with a white man or he would have been lynched. That is how we ended up in New Orleans, and I want to find a simple way to tell that story through song.

H: I think you hit the nail on the head there, because even though you write simple music I feel like there is a lot going on beneath the surface. It’s a lot more intricate than people may believe. Like “Better Man,” for example, can be interpreted in a number of ways. So I’m curious, what is the process behind song creation?

L: It starts with me, for the most part. This first set of songs is mostly material I have had lying around. I needed someone to help me focus on my sound though, and that is why I ended up with he producer I have now. A lot of people had been offering to record me, but what they would tell me is that they may be able to get me a discount. Most never followed up. Austin, however, got the studio, the band, and actually made things happen. The first song we tracked was “Coming Home.”

H: How are you dealing with the pressure? Are you feeling it yet?

L: I am. There are times when I wish I could return to simpler times. It’s mostly due to my desire to avoid negativity, but I guess everyone is like that. There’s also the comparisons to Sam Cooke, which bring a lot of pressure, and really I’m just trying to do me. The good definitely outweighs the bad though, so I feel like I am handling it well.

H: I think it comes with the territory. You play a classic style of music, so people are going to compare you to the best of that genre. There are many people who played soul back in the day that no one remembers now.

L: Definitely. I also think people have no recent reference to what I do. They have never experienced soul music like what I play, unless they are over 60, and I am beginning to find there are a lot of people who want that experience in their life.

H: Especially in the live setting, which in your case is something truly unique. There was a time when soul music being performed live was a special occasion. Couple would get a babysitter, get dressed up, have a nice meal, and then show up to the club with plans to dance. It wasn’t just about being cool or being seen, it was something far more personal.

L: I wasn’t always writing this style of music, but when I decided to go down that path I knew I wanted to carry the torch. I can’t hold a candle to any of those artists from back then, but I can only do me and I’ll do that to the best of my abilities. I didn’t even know other many other artists were playing this sound right now, but I’m learned of a few and they’re all great. I hope I can compete, or at least be as good as them.

H: Well I think you are well on your way to doing so.

L: Thank you.

Written & conducted by James Shotwell. Follow James on Twitter for more music news and insight, as well as lots of photos of his cats.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.