Of all the perks newfound fame has brought him – tours, television appearances, opening for Pharrell Williams at the Apple Music Festival in London – the one that seems to get fast-rising soul star Leon Bridges the most excited is being able to afford the clothes he likes. He’s always had a thing for the clean lines and slim silhouettes of mid-century menswear, and for a singer-songwriter who got his start playing open mics at Potbelly – yes, the same sandwich shop chain you’ll find in The Dubai Mall – that used to fall a little outside the budget.
“At the beginning, I didn’t have the money to do it like I wanted to,” the 26-year-old Texas native recalls. “I still found ways to look stylish in a very cheap way. Some of it came from my mum’s friends, who gave me the clothes they wore as teenagers.” The short path Bridges took from pouring his heart out during lunch-break sets at chain restaurants to attending the Met Gala and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony (where he shared a stage with Miley Cyrus and performed a goosebump-inducing version of When a Man Loves a Woman) might seem suspiciously meteoric. That is, until you actually hear the dude, whose golden voice recalls peak-era Sam Cooke and whose songs – even when they’re about heartbreak – have a classic, warm, retro-soul sound that makes you feel good. And people are latching onto that feeling – fast. We catch up with the talented singer to see what he has in store for 2016.
In the course of getting your career off the ground, has there been anything that’s made you nervous?
Yeah, when people compare me to the greats – that weight of being one of the few young black men to bring back an old sound. A lot of eyes are on that. Some people think this type of soul should have been left back in the ’50s and ’60s. Some people love that it’s being brought back. Really, I’m cool. I’m going to do my own thing. I’m going to do what I love.
Walk us through the start of your performing career.
When I first started writing songs four years ago, I was determined to show them to people, so I would do a lot of open mics, you know, at Potbelly. I was hungry, you know? I had a couple of shows here and there. I never really got big in Texas before this happened. It’s really hard to get people to come out to shows.
What inspired you to start writing in the first place?
When I was like 19, I was really into this artist named Lecrae. This was before I really fell in love with soul music. He was the one who really inspired me to start writing.
What were some of the soul points of reference that you had when you started writing this stuff?
Sam Cooke was one of the first people I really started to listen to when I started to write this type of music. I really connected with him, because for one, he was a very smooth singer. That’s the background I come from – very slow-jam, smooth R&B. Also, he came from a gospel background. I was only writing gospel songs before I started venturing down this path. I was definitely worried what my peers, people in the church and my mother would think about me writing pop songs; love songs.
A lot of soul singers have worried about that transition. Does that still make you anxious?
No, not at all. It’s cool. There’s something pure and wholesome, even when you talk about love.
What are you listening to right now?
Whenever I have downtime, I mostly listen to my R&B playlists. Avant and Ginuwine, Day26, 112. Just a lot of R&B dudes. That’s the music I grew up on. I also love James Bay. I love Hozier. I love Lianne La Havas. There are so many great new artists.
A lot of the current interest in old soul music is… a really white thing.
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. If you go back to the ’50s, that was all black people had. Now, everything has changed. Most black people would definitely come to a Young Thug show or to see an R&B act, but as far as a singer-songwriter – what I’m doing – it takes a while for my people to really get on with it. Not saying that it can’t be done, but… personally, if I wanted to go to a concert, I’d want to go see Migos. And a lot of black people aren’t aware of the indie blogs that white people are into. It’s just a matter of finding a way to get into their world.
You’ve come really far, really fast. What goals do you still have to accomplish?
I feel like I’ve come to do everything that I wanted to do. This year, you know, I was able to pay off my mother’s financial debt. I can play music for a living. I think that’s amazing.
To hear Leon Bridges music visit www.leonbridges.com.