Spiritual inspiration fuels John Legend’s creative engine. Signs of faith abound throughout the career of this great-grandson of a preacher. It’s in the title of his 2004 debut (Get Lifted), his portraying the title role in the 2018 NBC adaptation of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar or indulging a passion for social activism that saw him founding the #FREEAMERICA campaign in 2015 created to change the conversation surrounding criminal justice policies and to end mass incarceration.
Closer to home, it’s also what he heavily leaned on in getting through the recent pandemic, an otherwise challenging time that included a major personal loss for the Legend family.
“We’ve had some ups and downs as a family and some tragedy,” he recalled. “But we’ve also had some beautiful times in rallying around each other, taking care of each other and being with each other and for our kids. That’s been a huge part of the last year. We did a preschool pod—we wanted to make sure our kids had interaction with all their friends and get them schooling at home. We spent more time together than we ever would have any other time pretty much. That was the silver lining—the creativity and family time—for this tough time for everybody.”
As the world slowly starts to reopen in the face of another COVID-19 outbreak, Legend is finally getting to bring Bigger Love to the audience following its release in April of this year. The Ohio native completed his seventh studio album shortly after the March 2020 coronavirus lockdown went into effect. A self-described “…celebration of love, joy, sensuality, hope and resilience, the things that make our culture so beautiful and influential,” this collection of songs is driven by a spirit of collaboration held together by Legend’s ability to bridge the old and new schools, aided and abetted by executive producer Raphael Saadiq. Highlights include opening cut “Ooh La,” which fuses trap with a sample from The Flamingos doo-wop classic “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “I Do,” a sparse yet springy dance jam co-penned by Charlie Puth and “Remember Us,” a silky duet with rapper Rapsody that rides the groove from Al Green’s “I’m Still In Love With You.”
Elsewhere, Saadiq and Legend tapped the talents of guitarist Gary Clark Jr. to lend some of his six-string magic to “Wild.” It all made for the kind of uplifting journey Legend experiences whenever he hits the studio.
“It was really just a joy to make the album—it’s such an exciting and affirming process,” he said. “It’s a process of connection and creativity. I love the collaborations. I think one of my favorite songs on the album is ‘Remember Us’ featuring Rapsody. I just love collaborating with her—the back and forth we had about lyrics, what we wanted the song to say and what her final product was as the verse was just beautiful, emotional and nostalgic. I loved working with Oak Felder. He’s a really phenomenal producer and really helped inspire the core of the album, which I see is ‘Ooh La’ and ‘Actions,’ which is why I wanted to start the album with them. I love working with Oak. He’s on the next album as well.”’
Legend is equally effusive with his praise for Saadiq, who also produced 2018’s Legendary Christmas and is a friend dating back to the duo meeting after the release of the former’s 2004 Grammy-winning single “Ordinary People.”
“I’d always been a big fan of [Raphael] in all the different work he did as a solo artist, his work with Tony Toni Tone, with Lucy Pearl and as a producer with D’Angelo and others,” Legend explained. “He’s always been one of my favorite musicians. I met with him after my first album came out and I started working on the next album. We wrote a song called ‘Show Me’ that’s on my Once Again album and is one of my favorite songs from that record. We’ve had a connection ever since. He opened for me on tour way back ’08. I just love working with him and his great energy. He’s a Mr. Fix-It of music who can do everything. And if he can’t play it, he knows who can.”
The next step for Legend is The Bigger Love Tour, a string of dates that opened in Atlanta on Sept. 1 and is slated to run through the late fall. The 42-year-old singer-songwriter is currently fronting an 11-piece band and promises to mix in new material with old favorites that he hopes to “…still preserve the essence of the original but take it in a different direction.” If you’re expecting a festive mood along the lines of a church revival, you wouldn’t be too far off.
“The show is going to be joyful and a celebration of love and connection,” Legend explained. “We want people to dance and have a good time. The band and arrangements are really beautiful. We’ve had so much fun building this show together. Every time we approach a new tour, we allow ourselves to look at the music anew and give it a fresh look and approach. Some songs will sit closely to what the record sounds like. But sometimes we’ll breathe new life into it, particularly some of the older songs that are fan favorites from albums past. I think overall, it’s going to be a really fun, soulful and joyful night and I think people are going to really feel good when they leave.”
And while Bigger Love doesn’t qualify as being a pandemic album given the fact that Clark Jr’s contributions were the only ones recorded off-site under COVID-19 conditions, Legend and Saadiq were busy working on a yet untitled follow-up. With an already-busy schedule that includes his duties as a judge on NBC’s singing competition The Voice, Legend hopes to see his next project released some time in 2022.
“I don’t know and don’t like to say when the next record will come out,” he said. “There are a lot of people whose voices are involved figuring out what the timing is. I’ll just do my job and get the music ready and then we can figure when it’ll come out. [That said], I get joy from making every album. It’s such an exciting and affirming process. It feels really good when you come together with really interesting people and make something new. And I get to do that for a living, so I feel very fortunate.”
John Legend will be appearing on October 15 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, NYC. For more information, visit www.msg.com/hulu-theater-at-msg or call 212-465-6741.