This year, Christmas came a few weeks early for Leon Bridges: On December 7 he was nominated for a pair of Grammys, Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” and Best R&B Album for his sophomore set, Good Thing. By nature, Bridges is an it’s-just-an-honor-to-be-nominated type, but in this case it’s actually true. Good Thing is dramatically different in tone and texture than his debut record, 2015’s Coming Home, so he sees the nominations themselves as validating his instincts.
“It’s really beautiful to see that I was able to evolve, craft a different sound, maintain my integrity, and get nominated again,” says Bridges, who shared the November 2017 cover of Texas Monthly with Gary Clark Jr. “If I would have made an album that was similar to Coming Home, I feel like it would’ve been successful, but it’s really rad to get noticed a little more in the R&B world and the hip-hop world, alongside peers and people I’ve always looked up to.”
Although Good Thing’s shift toward more modern variants of R&B may have initially surprised fans, it’s opened the door to a banner 2018: Bridges played sold-out date after sold-out date on his biggest tour yet, which included selling out Denver’s legendary Red Rocks. This year, Bridges also appeared on the big screen, playing Gil Scott-Heron in director Damien Chazelle’s First Man; made cameo appearances on Bun B’s latest record and Shawn Mendes’s remix of “Why”; and shored up what until now has been a studio-only supergroup with John Batiste and Gary Clark Jr. with a live performance at the Newport Folk Festival.
This podcast, Bridges’s 2018 exit interview, was recorded at Niles City Sound, the Fort Worth studio that he used to record his earliest demos and Coming Home. In our conversation we discuss his controversial appearance at the Houston Rodeo’s annual Black Heritage Night and his September show in Austin with Willie Nelson in support of Beto O’Rourke. Bridges also outlines his early ideas for his third album and details what’s perhaps been a less easy adjustment to fame then it might appear on his Instagram account.
Some highlights (edited and condensed for clarity):
On cultivating a different sound for Good Thing
I wanted to break away from being the guy that was labeled the retro soul man that people thought can only can do the the blues/soul stuff. I wanted to prove a point and show people that this is the kind of music that I’m inspired by as well. It’s funny how people see change within an artist and they immediately call it selling out. But they don’t know me as an artist, and this is music that is part of me as well. I remember being at the Grammys for the first time with my bandmate and producer Austin Jenkins and we were just so inspired by the whole thing that I remember us talking during the ceremony and saying, “Going into album two, it’s blood on the mics.” We set out to go all in.
On stage fright
There’s always stage fright. When I’m onstage, I’m always in my head, thinking, “Is the audience digging this? Maybe I’m not handsome enough? Am I a good enough dancer?” I think of all that stuff . . . But I try to get into the zone. I want to give people an amazing show, and I don’t want my fear to show. So I just get locked in and go.
On playing President Obama’s birthday party at the White House in 2016
There’s no words to describe meeting Obama. I’m just not good at articulating that experience. You know, it’s like, what am I going to say? “Oh, that was dope”? But it was rad to be able to represent Texas and represent my family. I wish my grandmother was alive to have seen that moment. She lived in a time to where she didn’t have the right to vote and she had to sneak out of her mother’s house to vote. And so for her to see me meet the first black president, that’s regal. (Bridges was on Obama’s 2016 favorite songs playlist and has a spot on this year’s as well.)
On the pressures of fast fame
Now that people know me and there’s more eyes on what I do, it’s kind of pushed me to withdraw some. It’s pushed me to be more isolated. I was already an introverted cat . . . I want success, but at the same time, I’m afraid of it because it feels like it leaves me out in the open and more vulnerable.
On his short-term goals
It would be rad to win a Grammy. It would be rad to make an album that’s nominated for Album of the Year. It’s dope to set some goals. And it’s rad to have a radio hit without compromising. And beyond that, I want to be able to use my resources to help those around me—so I can put my sister through college and take care of my mother and brother.
On the inspiration for the next record
I look at Good Thing and it’s a beautiful project, but it’s sonically very shiny. And so moving forward, I want to take songs with the raw vibes like “Georgia to Texas,” “Shy,” and “Bad Bad News” and kind of expand on those ideas. I’d like to add more jazz elements, more psychedelic elements, more funk. But it’s super early too think about it too much . . . But as far as inspiration, I wonder: what would some combination of Jodeci, Funkadelic, and Dr. John sound like? I don’t know what that looks like, but that’s kind of the inspiration going into the third album.