John Legend talks to Chanelle Tourish about the success of ‘All of Me’, comparisons with Pharrell Williams and his latest Oscar-nominated piano ballad ‘Glory’, soundtrack from the movie Selma.
It’s the day after Stevie Wonder: Songs In The Key Of Life – An All-Star Grammy Salute, the special tribute concert to the Big Man in Los Angeles. And John Legend is on a high. Sharing the bill with an A-list line-up of artists including Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Hudson, the 36-year-old American singer-songwriter, musician and producer is feeling grateful. ‘Stevie [Wonder] has been a good friend of mine for a long, long time,’ the softly-spoken Legend begins. ‘He sang at my wedding, he’s done charity events for me and he’s just been a really great person to me. It’s good just to spend time with him because I’ve grown up loving his music for a long time and look to him as my biggest musical influence, so it’s a real privilege to be able to call him. Last night was really beautiful, it was such an amazing night and we got to thank him for his music.’
The nine-time Grammy Award winner has been described as ‘a genius’ by music industry pioneer Quincy Jones and is known for his legendary voice and soulful R&B sound. The Ohio native rocketed to stardom with his debut album Get Lifted in 2004, after working as a vocalist for Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Since then, the former management consultant has gone on to write chart-topping hits, ‘Ordinary People’ and ‘All of Me’. The latter was one of the biggest hits of last year alongside Pharrell Williams’ track, ‘Happy’. It saw Legend’s career propel to new heights after his spellbinding, flawless rendition at the 2014 Grammy Awards ceremony.
‘I think “All of Me” was just the right song at the right time for both me and for Pharrell. It’s funny, we get mistaken for each other every once in a while, too. This woman came up to me the other day and thought I was Pharrell. She started telling me how much she loved “Happy” and that’s happened to me quite a few times. Pharrell and I have been friends for a long time. We work together and I’m happy for him and his success. It’s happened for both of us later on in our careers, so it’s very cool,’ he laughs.
Legend penned ‘All of Me’ for his wife, Chrissy Teigen, a model who he met on the set of the music video for his 2007 single ‘Stereo’. The couple married in 2013 at Lake Como in Italy and the video for the song features footage from the ceremony. ‘People were really loving that song more than other songs on the album, so I had the feeling that it was going to be a big song and by the time it came out I told my label it could be the biggest of my career – which it ended up being,’ Legend says.
The song quickly became a favourite at wedding ceremonies across the world due to its emotional and heartfelt lyrics, with fans uploading their versions to YouTube. So after such a public declaration of love, how does he impress his other half these days? ‘That’s always the issue. Once you set the bar pretty high, you have to find ways to keep it up. You just try to be creative and I surprise her every once in a while and you have to try to be a good listener as well. I think part of gift giving is listening to your partner and knowing what they like and dislike,’ says Legend.
Bringing his melodic soundscape to Dubai for the second time, the singer will return to perform at the 13th edition of the Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival on Friday February 27 at the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre.
‘Dubai is such a beautiful city. It has cool architecture and an international crowd, and it’s going to be a lot of fun,’ he says. The singer will perform a new Middle East mix of the global smash hit ‘All of Me’ at the jazz festival. Acclaimed Arabic music producer Jean Marie Riachi teamed up with Sony Music and Legend to create a unique composition, fusing some of the region’s leading Arabian instrumentalists with musicians from across the region.
‘My record label approached me with the remix and I loved it. I always encourage remixes, especially if they’ll bring the song to a different audience who may not have heard it before,’ says Legend.
His success from last year has continued into 2015. The star has already won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award alongside American hip-hop artist Common for their soundtrack ‘Glory’ to the movie Selma. Inspired by the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and the Civil Rights Movement in America, the song is nominated for an Academy Award on Sunday February 22. ‘I don’t get too caught up in what people’s predictions are because you never know who is going to win, and as we have seen with other awards shows, there are always going to be surprises,’ he says.
But he knew he wanted to write something special. ‘This is the first major motion picture about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so I wanted to write an important song.’ While the stirring anthem has been nominated for an Oscar, the movie itself came short across the board with just one other nomination for Best Picture. ‘I was disappointed as I think Ava DuVernay [director and co-writer of Selma] did Oscar-worthy work.
There are all kinds of rumours floating around about why she didn’t get nominated and one is that not enough people saw the film in time. I think that’s a plausible explanation,’ says Legend. ‘It’s disappointing because I think if enough people saw it then they would know that she did a great job.’
With his signature mix of jazz, pop and soul, Legend looks set to rule the charts this year and has even written a song with One Direction’s Harry Styles, titled ‘I Wasn’t Ready’. While the release date is unknown, it’s clear that the soul singer is open to various collaborations. ‘I think you always want a balance and with the radio you have big dance and hip-hop anthems, but I think my songs provide a nice variety to radio.
You don’t want everything to sound the same, but I don’t think that means that we are going to have a bunch of sparse ballads. Even though Rihanna has just put out a pretty sparse ballad [‘Four Five Seconds’], it’s a good thing to mix that in there with more dynamic tracks,’ he says.
Confirming that he is working on a new album from March, as well as a few documentaries in the pipeline with his company, Get Lifted Film Company, John Legend is certainly living up to his name.
Dhs295-1,250. Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival, February 27, 8pm. Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, www.dubaijazzfest.com