Following the release of his fourth album, Wake Up!, a collection of ’60s and ’70s protest soul songs, we caught up with the 31-year-old vocalist, pianist and choir-leader to discover a few little-known facts.
He’s appeared on Sesame Street twice.
‘It was cool meeting all the humans that play the characters. There’s a big black guy who does Elmo. You hear these squeaky voices on the Muppets and they’re all voiced by actors who don’t look like you might think.’
He abandoned law and politics for pop.
‘Man, I really always wanted to be a star. I always wanted to be on TV and I always wanted to sing. But you know, at times I wanted to be a lawyer because I liked Matlock and I wanted to be president when I was a little kid.’
Church was his radio.
‘We really didn’t get a lot of big concerts in my area – I grew up in a small town that’s in the middle of nowhere. I was in church a lot though, so I was exposed to live music all the time. You could go to Cincinnati or Columbus a couple of hours away, but I didn’t go to those, so the live music I saw was either at church or at school.’
Immortality is a perk of his job.
‘I get to write songs, which is amazing. I love creating something new and having it go out into the world to last forever. It’s an amazing talent that writers have to be able to create something that is listened to by people around the world, and even after you die it’s still there. Of course the feeling of performing on a stage in front of thousands of screaming fans is pretty thrilling as well.’
Some of his fans are messengers from God.
‘They just freak me out most of the time. They have this spaced-out look in their eyes and then they go, “God gave me a message for you” and give me this long note. It’s a little scary sometimes – they might be the stalker type. But I have all kinds of fans. I like to think they have good taste in music.’
Stifler is a fan of his music.
‘Sean William Scott – he has a certain reputation as an actor, you know the kind of characters he plays? He told me that when he was shooting Dukes of Hazzard, the guy from Jackass [Johnny Knoxville] introduced my music to him and I was totally surprised by the fact that Stifler and the guy from Jackass were listening to my music. That was pretty cool.’
And so is Barack Obama.
‘The first time I met him he wasn’t that famous. It was back in ’06 and he was considering running for president. He’s a fan of my music and heard I was going to be in town in Chicago and he invited me to his office. So I went by and talked to him for a little while and I said, “Are you gonna run?” and he was like, “I don’t know yet, I’ll figure it out soon,” and I said, “Well, if you decide to run, just let us know if you need anything as far as helping with the campaign and we’ll do it.” Then two years later he was elected president.’
He nearly spoke to Thom Yorke.
‘One time I met him, and I’m a big fan of his and Radiohead’s, and you could tell he was clearly distracted. I didn’t get the chance to really convey to him how cool I thought he was. I wish I had another chance.’
Apart from his house, the most cash he’s blown is on art. ‘I bought some work that was pretty expensive by Betye Saar, an African- American artist who specialises in doing historical pieces about slavery and African-American history. I bought a couple of her classic pieces.’