‘If It Feels Good’ (then it must be Leon Bridges)
Leon Bridges is not a retro-soul man. But the 29-year-old, Texas-based singer/songwriter understands why, in just three short years, he’s been branded that way.
His 2015 name-making debut, Coming Home, peaked at the sixth spot on U.S. Billboard 200, while also topping the R&B charts both here and in the U.K.
But it also racked up every possible throwback description from “nostalgic” to “vintage,” and found the two-time Grammy nominee constantly compared to legendary soul singers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.
It didn’t take long for Bridges, who counts Usher and Ginuwine as musical inspiration, to realize he was in danger of never escaping the revivalist label. So with his sophomore effort, the May-released Good Thing, he did as much as he could to ditch that retro-soul tag forever.
Yet even with slick co-production from Ricky Reed (Pitbull, Meghan Trainor, Twenty One Pilots) and the inclusion of dance-pop tracks like You Don’t Know and If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be), Bridges made sure the transition of Good Thing was a nuanced one.
“It’s crazy,” Bridges said recently from New York where he was appearing on Good Morning America. “When I was writing for Good Thing, I went through all of the emotions of wanting to give something to my fan base without changing who I was. But it feels good to break away from the ‘retro-soul man’ label. Soul music is always going to be a part of me. But it’s going to be done in different forms.”
Purists may balk at Good Thing’s contemporary feel and obvious pivot, but album singles Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand, Bad Bad News and Beyond, are meticulously constructed songs that help to expand Bridges’ musical palette, while also honoring the album that put him on the scene.
Much of that balance can be credited to Reed. Before his involvement, Bridges and his Fort Worth team (which includes former White Denim guitarist Austin Jenkins and drummer Joshua Block) had been pushing even further, jumping decades ahead and constructing sounds from ’70s soul to ’80s R&B.
Reed was instrumental in helping to make Good Thing a suitable middle ground between the bandleader’s existing catalog and constantly evolving creative impulses — something Bridges ultimately knew was integral to the process.
“That was a hard thing going into this album,” he said. “It was definitely a conscious effort when we were writing. It was important for us to incorporate some elements of Coming Home, and soul, within this project. But for me, I had to put my own vibe on it through modern production. That was the only way this project was going to work for me.”
The tempered alchemy paid dividends. Good Thing debuted at number three on the U.S. Billboard 200 and earned high praise from a variety of outlets including Rolling Stone and NME.
But for a relatively new artist who has already toured the world, performed at the White House for President Obama, and collaborated with everyone from Odesza and Macklemore to Luke Combs and Dej Loaf, the success of Good Thing was actually a secondary objective.
“The thing I loved about making this project,” said Bridges, “is that it gives me freedom. It really opened a door for me to make whatever I want to make. Coming Home is still a part of me. It was just a place in my life when I wanted to make that statement. Good Thing is not only a reflection of who I am, but it also gives me the opportunity to expand my creativity without being judged for it, and to make whatever I want to make in the future.”
That includes making forays into the fashion industry, where Bridges recently teamed with Paris-born, L.A.-based eyewear designer Ahlem Manai-Platt on a run of limited edition, solid-gold-framed sunglasses.
A whopping 70 percent of the proceeds from each pair will be donated to Westminster Elementary — a magnet school in Venice Beach that primarily services students of color.
And while the always elegantly-dressed singer and record producer has long been known for his style, Bridges has plans to make his recent collaboration with Manai-Platt the first of many into the world of philanthropy.
“I’ve been working with my father,” he said. “He works at an organization that helps run a homeless shelter back in Texas. But I’d love to get more plugged in. My life has been so ‘go, go, go,’ that I haven’t had time to really sit down and think about what I really want to do. And that’s what it comes down to — using my resources to help other people. Once I find out what that is, I’ll definitely be involved.”
As for that newfound creative freedom and what his third album might bring? Fans should brace themselves for just about anything.
“Good Thing is an amazing project,” said Bridges. “But I think on the next album I’d like to dig deeper. More funk. Jazzier. We’ve set it up where we can really do anything. For the rest of my career, I think it’ll be fun with each album to do something that is unexpected. I think it’ll be fun to get weird. There’s definitely going to be some new vibes on the third one.”
Leon Bridges: Good Thing Tour
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 5
Where: Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego
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