A year ago chances are you’d probably never heard of Leon Bridges. The then 25-year-old had gained some attention by releasing what would become his debut single, “Coming Home,” on the radio, but he was barely on the public’s radar. 12 months later and the Texas native has a top 10 album on the Billboard charts that was nominated for this year’s Best R&B Album Grammy Award. If all works according to plan Bridges will have another major awards show to attend this February, the 88th Academy Awards.
Bridges co-wrote “So Long,” the track that plays over the closing credits of the new Will Smith drama, “Concussion.” Songs that aren’t played within the context of a picture usually have a hard time earning an Oscar nomination (last year’s winner, “Glory,” is a rare exception), but Bridges’ soulful track is thought to have as good a shot as any for a nod.
Speaking to Awards Campaign last week, Bridges still has the humble demeanor of a singer who only started writing songs just four years ago. To say it’s refreshing is something of an understatement. Here’s our conversation where you’ll learn more about one of 2015’s breakout talents.
Awards Campaign: Hey Leon, how you doing?
Leon Bridges: I’m good, how you doing?
Not too bad. So you signed your record deal with Columbia just a year ago, right?
Yeah, just a year ago.
What’s your reaction to what’s happened over the past 12 months? Are you living the dream?
Yeah, man, I really can’t believe at all, man. I think that I’m going to wake up tomorrow, and I’ll be, like, a janitor or something, somewhere, you know, it’s just not real. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I started writing songs about four years ago, and I didn’t think that it would take me a year. I just look back on everything, and I’m just, like, totally, I mean, in awe of how it’s all happened for me. It’s pretty crazy.
Before we talk about your song from ‘Concussion’ I want to talk about you musical background. Did you take any classes in high school or college or anything along those lines?
I didn’t take any classes. It was just something, I was just around people who loved music, and this didn’t happen until in college. I was actually studying dance in college, and I met some guys who were really into music. Just being around them really inspired me. A lot of what I do now comes from that, you know, of that feeling inside. I know when some things feel good, or sounds good, to me. You know, I also think of the listener, what type of melody, or phrasing, or lyrics can I use to really capture them.
Where did your old school style come from? Was this something that piqued your interest recently, was it something, as a kid, you always thought was cool?
Yeah, well, growing up, I was introduced to soul music, from my father. He loved Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, and so I heard of soul music through him, and I loved it as a kid. It wasn’t until I got older, until I was about, like, in my twenties, like twenty-one, to where I really got back into soul music. Basically, when I first started writing, I was writing more of a neo-soul style, and I switched on over because I thought of, like black music today, you know? I asked myself ‘Why isn’t there anybody doing this style of R&B within black music?’ I felt that I needed to go back to the roots, one, because I loved it, and two because I felt that I just wanted to honor those musicians of the past.
Was your dream to make this your career or was it something you were just doing for creative fulfillment?
My thing was that I wanted creative fulfillment, but I [also] wanted the world to hear my music. I separated the thought of being famous or being on big stages from that. I’m a really shy person. I’ve definitely grown a little bit out of it, but in the beginning I didn’t want to be in front of a lot of people or be known around the world. I just wanted to make music. I never thought of ever making it to this level.
I’ve got to tell you I’ve talked to shyer people for interviews. You’re not as shy as you think. You’ve had some amazing opportunities to perform at big events this year and on shows like ‘Saturday Night Live.’ What was the most intimidating, ‘Can I actually go out and do this?’ sort of performance?
Definitely when I sang at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because you have every single influential musician that’s ever walked this earth there, and I had to sing ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ by The “5” Royales, and last minute, Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ That was a big stretch for me vocally, but it all came together.
I swear I’m going to ask you about the movie, but has there been any reaction from anyone you’ve idolized, any of your peers, that has meant the most to you? Anyone who’s sort of supported you, that you just were surprised or stunned by?
Definitely meeting some of the older musicians, but meeting Gary Carr and him being real supportive and just very excited to see a young black man, like me, from Texas, that’s doing my thing out in the world? That was incredible.
Let’s talk about the movie. How did the project come to you? Did the producers ask you about writing a song?
The director, Peter Landesman, he had heard the record ‘Coming Home’ and he reached out to my management about me writing a song for the end credits of the film. We went and watched the film in London. After watching the film, I just felt that the country, soulful, gospel vibe would work well for it. It was just a matter of me going back to my hotel, taking out my guitar and the first thing that came out was the ‘So Long’ part that you hear, the chords, and just kind of built on it from there. All the lyrics are mine, but I collaborated with my guitar player and producer, Austin Jenkins, as far as the chord structure of the verses and everything.
This may be a stupid question, but many of the journalists you’re talking to today are people who deal with people in the movie business or maybe the TV side and we don’t always talk to a lot of musicians or songwriters. On this side of the business people take months or years to write scripts. It’s rarely a quick process. Sometimes you hear these stories from musicians saying ‘Yeah, I wrote a song in forty minutes’ or ‘I did it in an hour.’ How long does it normally take you to write a piece of music and how long did it take this? Can the inspiration come right away? Can it be something that you sort of hit the nail on the head within thirty minutes, and you’re like ‘Yep, that’s it’?
It really comes in waves. For this [project] what surprised me is that the idea for the song came so quickly. Writing for myself, just what I like, it doesn’t usually come that quick. Sometimes I can write something and be stumped on it forever. I really just put everything in gear, because I knew I had a deadline on this. So, I was just trying to get the idea as soon as possible.
How much time did you actually have?
We had about a week to get it done. We had just got off a tour, or something like that, so we had [about] a week off at home. In that time, we were trying to get together some backup singers and figure out what we wanted to do. The first thing that we did, we did a full band thing, and we sent that to them, and they were like, ‘No, we want something a little bit more stripped down.’ That’s when we just kept simple with the guitar, organ, three backup singers and some light drum.
What did you think about it when you first saw it? You live in Texas so I’m going to assume you’re a big football fan…
When I first saw the film, I didn’t know that it was a true story. All I knew, was that I was going to watch a football film, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, not another football film.’ Seeing that it was a true story, something so very different from the norm, was totally inspiring. I’m not a sports fan at all, I don’t watch football or basketball.
You were nominated for a Grammy this year. Are you excited about going to the Grammys? Have they asked you to perform? Do you have any interest in performing?
That would be great to perform, but no, I haven’t been asked yet. I’m totally fine, being able to go, and I’m bringing my mother. It’ll be great.
Well, congratulations on all your success and have fun with everyone catching this song in theaters over the holidays.
Thank you, man. Nice to talk to you.
“Concussion” is now playing nationwide.