Leon Bridges is a Texas-born soul singer with a Sam Cooke-esque sound that will transport you back to the 1960s. His track, “Coming Home,” was our One For The Road choice back in October. He’s currently working on a debut album and is just one of the many music acts playing South by Southwest this year. Bridges opens up to Brendan about his sheltered upbringing and how he developed his unique throwback sound.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Leon Bridges, welcome.
Leon Bridges: Thank you for having me.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I have a feeling this is going to be a big week for you in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest because your music has been so buzzed about. But, you are also a native of Texas. You’re from Fort Worth. What was it like growing up there?
Leon Bridges: I was, like, in a bubble and a really sheltered kid growing up. But Fort Worth is great. I love Fort Worth mainly because of just my family and my friends. But yeah, it’s just a simple, simple place.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You say you were in a bubble. I’ve read that your mother was a very religious person and you weren’t allowed to listen to secular music.
Leon Bridges: Yes. My mother was very religious, so I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music, and go to parties, and all that stuff. So, I was at home all the time.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And yet, you found ways, like all children, to work around these restrictions. What were your listening practices? What was your first introduction to music when you were a kid?
Leon Bridges: It was just me turning on the radio while she was gone. I remember the first time really [being] introduced to R&B. I was at a community center lock-in, and a guy, he was playing “When a Woman’s Fed Up” by R. Kelly on the piano. And… I was just captivated.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think it’s interesting that your music sounds like it’s from the ’60s, but you’ve said you grew up listening to R. Kelly and other Top 40 hits, and kind of ’90s R&B. Is that right?
Leon Bridges: Yeah. From Ginuwine to Usher and 112 to Dru Hill. And those were actually great R&B bands compared to, I would say, the contemporary R&B today.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And so, did you ever find a moment when you were, say, in Target or Walmart with your mother, and you were humming along to the song, and she busted you for knowing what was going on?
Leon Bridges: Yeah, there was there a lot of that. I remember just being in the car, and her kind of scanning through the stations, and a song came on. I started singing it, and she was like, “Boy! How you know that song?!?”
Brendan Francis Newnam: One of the songs on your EP is called “Lisa Sawyer.” Is that a story about your mother?
Leon Bridges: Yes, it is.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what inspired you to write a song about her?
Leon Bridges: When I first wrote the song, I had the chord progression and I couldn’t think of any lyrics to write to it. So I wrote just a very silly song about crayons to it. And I was thinking that that song might go a long way. So I felt I wanted to write something more meaningful.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Crayons? What were some of the original verses then?
Leon Bridges: It was like [starts singing], “My imagination is running wild and…” something like that. I can’t remember all the lyrics.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You could sell that to Crayola, probably, right now.
Leon Bridges: There you go.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re playing music now. You’re touring now, but in college, you had a different relationship to music. You majored in dance. How did that happen?
Leon Bridges: Well, I had always been fascinated with dance because of Ginuwine and Usher, you know, seeing them in their videos. And so, I tried to teach myself hip-hop from when I was 11 years old. When I got to college — I went there just to take some academic classes — and it was a little community college and they had a dance program there. I took some ballet, jazz, and modern technique. I thought I wanted to be a choreographer, but I really found my voice with writing and singing songs.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, in a way, you kind of are a choreographer because — people can’t tell listening on the radio — but you dress the part here. You wear high-waisted pants and kind of classic, kind of ’60s stuff. You kind of dress a little bit like Sam Cooke. You record using vintage equipment. Your aesthetic is very much of your contribution artistically. How did you arrive at this look and this sound, this kind of ’60s R&B thing?
Leon Bridges: It was actually when the “Lisa Sawyer” song about my mother in 2012. This is before I started to pursue this old sound. A friend of mine, he asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations. I felt bad because I didn’t really know about his music like that. And so, after that, I started to dig in and just really went on Pandora and all that type of stuff, and a little bit of YouTube. And at that time, I was really searching for my voice. And I really found it within this older sound.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, I have to ask, has your mom heard these songs? And if so, what does she think?
Leon Bridges: Yeah. My mother, she’s definitely kind of toned down over time. So I was a little worried with my music. Will they accept it or not? But she’s on board and loving every single one of them.