Mr Leon Bridges
Raised in Texas on a steady diet of gospel and Ginuwine, this 25-year-old sensation may be the next big thing in soul
Last summer, Mr Leon Bridges was standing in The Boiled Owl – a bar in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas – when a young woman approached. “She came up to me and was like: ‘Hey, you’ve gotta meet my boyfriend. He wears high-waist Wranglers, too,’ he recalls, his lean frame folded over a candlelit table in the restaurant of the Bayside Hotel in Santa Monica. He’s here to refuel with a plate of short ribs and mashed potatoes, having just wrapped today’s shoot against a pastel-perfect California sunset.
The boyfriend turned out to be Mr Austin Jenkins, guitarist for Texan indie band White Denim and a local producer who shared Mr Bridges’ passion for both retro denim and – they quickly discovered – the classic soul sounds of Messrs Lee Dorsey, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. Three weeks later, they were ensconced in Mr Jenkins’ Fort Worth studio, recording Mr Bridges’ self-written debut single “Coming Home”, a song that was posted online in October 2014, and which earned him a million SoundCloud plays (and a deal with Columbia Records) in less than a week.
Mr Bridges has travelled to California to shoot the video for his forthcoming single “Better Man”, for which the former dance student has choreographed his own routine. He arrives fresh from Austin’s SXSW Festival, where he played beyond-capacity shows at Hype Hotel and The Spotify House (“Coming Home” is one of the online streaming platform’s Top 10 Most Viral Tracks of 2015), and picked up the Grulke Prize for Developing US Act. Last year’s prize went to Future Islands who went on to get, according to Pitchfork, “about as close as an indie rock band can to being a household name”. One suspects Mr Bridges will follow a similar trajectory.
Just a few months ago, 25-year-old Mr Bridges was still a dishwasher and busboy in Fort Worth, where he’d sing at local open mic sessions on his rare nights off. He describes the Texan city as “…a very simple place. I grew up kind of a sheltered kid, I wasn’t allowed to go to any parties or anything. My mother is very religious.” The family would listen to contemporary gospel singers such as Messrs Donnie McClurkin and Kirk Franklin, appended by young Mr Bridges’ taste for early 2000s R & B: “Ginuwine, Usher, 112, Dru Hill… It ain’t no Motown, but it’s still really good music. Great songwriting, great melodies. Nobody is making stuff like that any more.”
Proclaiming himself “way too shy” to perform at church while growing up, Mr Bridges began singing at Tarrant County College, where he would improvise between taking modern dance and choreography classes. A song that was originally about crayons wound up as “Lisa Sawyer” – Mr Bridges’ soul-stirring ode to his New Orleans-born mother, which he identifies as the point he really found his voice. “I started thinking to myself: this song is going to go a long way. I want to write something more meaningful to it than a chorus about crayons.”
Indeed, the song carried him straight into Niles City Sound studios, a former golf club warehouse in downtown Fort Worth, converted by Mr Austin Jenkins with original recording equipment from the 1950s and 1960s. Forbidden to switch on air conditioning for fear it might affect the sound quality, Mr Bridges worked alongside Mr Jenkins and his band for three sweltering August days, recording 10 songs. It was, understandably, an intense period – “We were sweating our arses off!” – but it resulted in eight of the tracks on Mr Bridges’ forthcoming album, also entitled Coming Home, due for release on 22 June.
Despite there being only a handful of songs in circulation, these tasters hint at a sophisticated debut. This is proper, old-school soul, infused with the sunbaked warmth of a Texas summer, the smoky tinge of his Louisiana heritage, and something a little more contemporary; an echo, perhaps, of the slick R & B production of his teens. Admitting that he prefers “everything to be consistent”, Mr Bridges’ personal style follows suit: today he’s wearing a vintage denim jacket, paired with his uniform high-waisted slacks. (“You will never catch me in a pair of sweatpants or shorts; not even if it’s a thousand damn degrees outside.”) As opposed to his contemporaries who go in for sartorial braggadocio, Mr Bridges cuts a clean silhouette.
“I’ve always dipped in and out of this style, but I really dialled it in when I started writing this music,” he says, referencing the aptly-named Dapper Rebels – a dandyish 1960s LA gang – as his style icons of choice. “It would bug me if I was on stage singing my songs in skinny jeans and a graphic T-shirt; it wouldn’t bring that same feeling,” he insists. “But I didn’t decide to myself, ‘Right, I need to be a 1960s soul man.’ I just started playing this music and dressing this way, and it became a part of me.”
A cynic might dismiss Mr Bridges’ pitch-perfect soul and his perfectly pressed slacks as marketing schtick, but the young singer expresses genuine nostalgia for the musical era he so precisely evokes. “We missed a lot, we really did,” says Mr Bridges with a sad shake of his head. “I think that’s why people are gravitating to this revival of soul music,” he adds, citing fellow southerners St. Paul & The Broken Bones as a source of contemporary inspiration. “You feel like you have a shot to know what it was like to be at an Otis Redding concert in 1965.” His raw Mr Cooke “Chain Gang” cover on YouTube makes the point powerfully.
The following night at Hollywood’s historic Troubadour Theater, Mr Bridges takes the capacity crowd on a trip back in time. Dressed in a midnight-blue suit, rocking on the tips of his polished leather shoes, Mr Bridges and his nine-piece band serenade the audience with an hour’s worth of pure, unfiltered soul. With an impressive, assured voice that warms the crowd and a physical elegance that underscores his dance training, Mr Bridges’ show transcends pastiche. There is artistry behind his act and, more patently, sheer delight.
“It brings me joy to dress the way I dress, and make the music I make,” Mr Bridges says later that night, when asked how he foresees the next twist in his own exciting tale. “I’m not gonna wake up tomorrow and be like: ‘I hate this. Sorry Columbia, I wanna write Tejano music, cool?’ I mean, I’m 25, so you never know. But right now this feels right. So I’m just gonna keep doing what I do.” He laughs, popping his collar with a playful shrug. “Doing me.”