An Audience With Mr John Legend
The Oscar-winning musician on why 2016 has been a year to remember
When Mr John Legend and his model wife Ms Chrissy Teigen welcomed their baby daughter in April this year, one of the gifts they received was from President Obama. “It was a little onesie,” says Mr Legend. “And the President signed a card for her. That was pretty cool.”
We’re sitting in the green room of the Good Morning America studios in Times Square, New York, and Mr Legend is weighing up the highlights of his year. He puffs out his cheeks as if to say, “Where do I start?”
The 37-year-old singer-songwriter has just been on live television to promote his new album, Darkness And Light, as well as his forthcoming movie, a lavish song-and-dance musical called La La Land – a surefire hit for the holidays. So let’s start with that.
Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of musicals. “I’m actually not either,” admits Mr Legend. “I was sceptical because musicals can get kind of cheesy sometimes, so I’m not like the biggest Broadway fan. But this really works.”
It really does. Written and directed by Mr Damien Chazelle (of Whiplash fame), La La Land stars Mr Ryan Gosling and Ms Emma Stone as lovers in a charming if complicated romance. It has already won several film festival awards and is being heavily tipped for Oscar nominations, not least for best song.
Mr Legend – who co-wrote the number that his character, Keith, a commercially successful if creatively compromised musician, performs in the movie – has already got a golden statue. His song “Glory”, from the film Selma about Mr Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, won the Oscar in 2015 for Best Original Song.
“‘Glory’ was the most special moment I’ve had. It was just so moving. Seeing all the audience in tears, seeing the reaction of people around the world, and then having a chance to say something about an issue that I care about. Doesn’t get any more special than that.” It is displayed proudly in his living room, alongside his Golden Globe and 10 Grammys.
Of course, the obvious highlight of Mr Legend’s 2016 was the arrival of Ms Luna Simone. “As soon as we found out we were pregnant, I started writing songs about what it felt like to be a new father,” he says. “I already was so inspired, before I even saw Luna.”
Mr Legend and Ms Teigen struggled with infertility for several years. They ended up having IVF and they have been commendably open about it. “We figured eventually we’d have to go into the doctor and see why it wasn’t happening naturally,” says Mr Legend. “You know, sometimes it’s just harder for some people than for others. We’re just happy that we were able to do it with our doctor. He’s never really told us that there was something specific that he could identify was the reason why it just didn’t work out naturally. We did what we had to do.”
Ms Teigen is refreshingly unguarded, but sometimes things backfire. Earlier this year, she revealed that she and her husband had elected to ensure they had a girl via controversial gender selection of the embryo, which prompted a backlash of criticism from social-media pitchforkers. “What year is this!?” she responded on Twitter. “And for the record I am always happy and open to speak on infertility. The more casual the better. I don’t mind!”
The long road to parenthood has only made it sweeter now that they have reached it. “Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing,” Mr Legend smiles. “We want to have a few more hopefully.” How many? “Three or four. We’ll play it by ear though.”
They’ve got plenty of room for family expansion. “We bought a pretty massive house in Beverly Hills,” he says. The five-bedroom, eight-bathroom property used to belong to the singer Rihanna, who, incidentally, put it up for sale in 2011 for a cut-price $5m and then sued the people who sold it to her for $10m because of its structural flaws (a lawsuit that apparently inspired the delightful ditty “Bitch Better Have My Money”). Mr Legend and Ms Teigen laid down a cool $14.1m for the reconstructed house in January before embarking on seven months of renovations. “We didn’t buy it from her. We bought it from somebody who bought it from somebody who bought it from Rihanna,” explains Mr Legend. “I don’t have a bunch of cars. But we care about having a really nice house and decorating it really well. It’s still being worked on now, but it’s livable.”
They’ve created a home made for entertaining and they are, by all accounts, excellent hosts. “I think we’re good at throwing parties,” says Mr Legend. Before they jet off to the Caribbean for Christmas and Mr Legend’s birthday (he turns 38 on 28 December), they plan on getting all their friends over. “Sometimes, we’ll hire a DJ, but a lot of times I make the playlist. Chrissy does most of the cooking, but I usually help.” Ms Teigen has a cookbook and is a regular guest on TV cooking shows. “I fry some chicken or something, make some wings,” adds Mr Legend. “Then it’s just about inviting good people, and having a good time.”
As for next year, the polymath plans to scale back his many commitments in order to enjoy parenthood. “I want to work less now, you know? I want to be home more, and be able to just help my wife with whatever she needs,” he says. “Also, just be there to experience [Luna] growing up. I want to take them on tour. I want to be around.”
Our interview takes place just days before the US Presidential election and both Mr Legend and Ms Teigen have been campaigning tirelessly on behalf of Ms Hillary Clinton. Mr Legend is already mourning the impending end of the Obama presidency. “No scandal in eight years,” he says. “He’s been a great leader in the way he carries himself, the way Michelle Obama carries herself. Their character, and their elegance and their eloquence has been such a good example for this country. People are going to miss them when they’re gone.”
The Obamas have become personal friends. Mr Legend and his wife were invited to the private post-inauguration afterparty in 2013. “Chrissy was emotional. She’s like: ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’re here! This is one of those moments we’ll always remember and tell our kids about.’ The president was truly having fun. His jacket was off, and he was sweaty and dancing. All the celebrity supporters you could imagine were there. You could just let loose without worrying about who was watching. There were no cameras.”
Isn’t it weird, hanging out with the president? “Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy because as a kid the idea of the president seems so distant to you.”
Mr Legend was born Mr John Roger Stephens and grew up in Ohio. (His stage name began as a nickname given to him by the poet Mr J Ivy, who likened his old-school sound to “one of the legends”; when Mr Kanye West later started calling him “Legend”, it stuck.) His childhood wasn’t easy. Although the Stephens were church-going Pentecostals, which is where Mr Legend first learned to perform music, his mother’s 10-year crack-cocaine addiction tore the family apart. She was in and out of jail.
Prison reform is an issue close to Mr Legend’s heart. He’s an activist and philanthropist who has been putting his time and his money where his mouth is. In 2015, he conducted a nationwide listening and learning tour of prisons and detention centres before forming an organisation called Free America aimed at ending mass incarceration for drug addicts. At the Oscars in 2015, he used his acceptance speech to highlight the fact that “there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850”. He executive produced an HBO documentary called Southern Rites about the racially aggravated killing of Mr Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old black man. And this year his Get Lifted Film Company has produced a rave-reviewed 10-part drama series called Underground about slaves escaping a plantation. They’re currently shooting a second season.
“There’s a thread [to all my projects] and I think it’s reflective of the things I read about, and I care about, subjects that I connect to and reflect what I’m seeing,” he says. “I have to speak out against hate, I have to speak out against racism, I have to speak out for justice. This is my truth, I’m speaking it and living it. I actually care about this stuff.”
Does he have any aspirations to go into politics himself? “I am in politics as far as I’m concerned,” he replies. “I speak out about political issues, I fight for legislation that I think is important. I don’t think I have to be in office, or run for office to do that.”
But “Legend 2020” has a heroic ring to it, and he and his gloriously outspoken wife could make a formidable First Couple for the social-media age. Mr Legend pauses for a second as if to ponder the possibility. “It would be entertaining,” he smiles.