It’s 9am in Los Angeles when John Legend picks up the phone, but he sounds fresh as a daisy. Softly spoken, polite and direct – it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Legend’s charm. Despite his eye-wateringly impressive CV, Legend speaks with a calm, understated certainty; he is quick to laugh, but unembarrassed to correct me (albeit gently) when I get things wrong. When at one point during our conversation I accidentally refer to him as Jane Legend, he is quick to step in and rescue me from embarrassment: “My female alter-ego!” he exclaims. Legend has always been a high achiever. By age three he was a piano prodigy; a star in the making whose feet could barely reach the pedals. Fast forward to 2018, and Legend made history by becoming the first African-American man and second-youngest person to ever win an EGOT. Only fifteen people have ever been awarded an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar and a Tony – it’s usually the stuff of sitcom legend, a fantastical impossibility (think Tracy Morgan’s hilarious quest for an EGOT in 30 Rock).
The “All Of Me” singer talks about his resemblance to Arthur, his tribute to Nipsey Hussle and being married to Chrissy Teigen.
There is no doubt Legend has earned his lofty name, but early on in his career the star was reluctant to adopt this alias. “You know, I had no plans to take on a stage name,” he tells me. Legend had already been performing under his real name John Stephens for some time before the poet J. Ivy came up with the nickname. “I think because I reminded [J. Ivy] of the soul artists that we grew up listening to,” he explains. Soon enough Kanye West, one of the musician’s earliest collaborators, started to introduce him to people as John Legend. The nickname stuck, but it posed a challenge for the young artist: “I was reluctant because I’m kind of a little more humble by nature and didn’t want to put so much pressure on myself and my career with that name. But the other side of me was like, ‘you know what? Let’s make a statement.’” I ask the musician where he draws the line between John Legend and John Stephens. He pauses for a moment. “I don’t really think there’s that big of a difference between who I am most days and who I am at home,” he says, “It doesn’t feel like I’m transforming into a new person. It still [feels] very much like an extension of who I am as a person.” For Legend, music is a way of reconnecting with his roots and the music he listened to as a child, a way of channelling the legends that came before him. Growing up in a deeply musical family, Legend became musical director of his Pentecostal church while still at school, an experience that he considers integral to his music, even today.
“A lot of the time I’m not even trying to consciously incorporate gospel; it’s just a part of who I am,” he tells me. This gospel sensibility was an important touchstone for Legend when he joined forces with DJ Khaled and the late Nipsey Hussle for the 2019 single, “Higher”. “I feel like I’m almost purely a gospel pianist more than anything else,” he says. Legend owes much of his piano style to his grandmother, whose own style he likens to that of Aretha Franklin. Legend’s piano playing in “Higher” and its accompanying video undoubtedly evokes the same jubilant and deeply charismatic musical spirit as his two greatest musical influences. “Higher” went on to win the Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Performance and in his speech, Legend paid an emotional tribute to Hussle, who was shot and killed in March 2019. Legend called for the audience to “lift up” Hussle’s name and it’s clear that the artist is a firm believer in the transcendent, immortalising power of music. “I think the only solace we have is that their music is truly eternal,” Legend explains, “Musicians are fortunate enough to create work that outlives us every time and I think that’s a beautiful part of what we do.” Legend has two children with his wife, Chrissy Teigen, whom he met on the set of a music video in 2006. I’m curious about how his family life fits in with an international music career, and keen to know how Legend balances family life with touring. Legend first went on tour with Kanye West after the release of West’s iconic 2004 album College Dropout. Now, in 2020, the artist is gearing up for his Bigger Love Tour. “I’ve toured through the different phases of my life,” Legend tells me, “[from] being a bachelor in my mid-twenties, to being a forty-year old husband with two young kids.”
The bacchanalian tour bus days are over for Legend – now he takes his kids. “I love bringing the family along and I’m excited to have them with me on the tour bus. It’s fun to see the world through their eyes.” Even though Legend enjoys sharing his world with his children, he is also keen to keep them grounded. “[They’re] growing up in a very rarefied space,” he says, matter-of-factly, “one that I don’t have an experience dealing with as a child.” Legend grew up in a working-class family in Ohio and takes pains to ensure his kids have some semblance of normality in their lives. The star begins to chuckle. “I always try to figure out a way to make sure they’re not assholes,” he laughs down the line. This sort of candour may be unsurprising, given how open and unpretentious Legend and Teigen are about their family life. Teigen’s tweets have passed into popular canon. When researching for this interview, I came across a list of 148 of Teigen’s best tweets. At first, I thought I’d found maybe the least selective countdown on the Internet. A full thirty minutes later I had read every single one. Legend seems pleased when I tell him this: “They hold up really well, a lot of them, and some you’re like, ‘what – what was going on at that time?’” One tweet in particular caught my eye and Legend seems unsurprised when I bring it up. The tweet in question points out Legend’s striking resemblance to Arthur, the iconic yellow sweater-wearing aardvark. Legend explains that at first, he was confused; he had been a fraction too old to catch the Arthur fever that was pandemic in the late nineties and early noughties. “I would see these memes online and have no idea who this character was,” he explains, “But, you know, I could see the resemblance.” “I think it’s still in my Twitter bio,”
Legend ponders after a while (I’ve checked, and it totally is). Legend seems genuinely delighted whenever I bring up Teigen; his voice brightens, and he drifts easily into warm laughter. Together, they’re a perfect double act and they love playing with their image as a Hollywood power couple. Legend has appeared as himself in Zach Galifianakis’ >Between Two Ferns: The Movie and Larry David’s hilarious (and occasionally teeth-grindingly uncomfortable) Curb Your Enthusiasm. “I could see a version of that show being built around Chrissy,” Legend muses, “[…] she makes me laugh so much.” Earlier this year, Legend transmuted the seemingly infinite warmth and tenderness with which he talks about his wife into his latest single, “Conversations in the Dark.” The song is a quiet, soulful track about what Legend calls the “pretty inconsequential, minor things that define so much of the core of your relationship.” “More than these big, major milestones,” Legend says, “it’s the little, simple things that are so meaningful and so memorable and I wanted to write a song about that feeling.” The track is filled with modest, heart-felt affection, with lyrics like “[let’s] watch / Movies that we’ve both already seen / I ain’t even looking at the screen.” This is Legend’s writing at its best: delicate, playful and universal. “Conversations in the Dark” is paired with a touching Super 8-style video, a patchwork of home movies celebrating those “simple things” that the musician cherishes so much. As for watching old movies in the dark, “That’s literally one of me and Chrissy’s favourite things to do,” Legend says fondly.
I ask the musician if it’s ever difficult to find time for these precious family moments, but these “lazy times,” as Legend calls them, are still an important part of his day-to-day life. Legend likes little more than sitting on the couch with his family and watching reality TV. But what’s his go-to reality fix these days? “The Voice, of course,” he says, laughing. Legend has been a coach on The Voice US since 2018, having been drawn to the show by the opportunity to mentor aspiring artists. “So much of the show is building a team that you coach as an expert,” he explains. His role on the voice reminds him of his early days in music, “working with other singers and helping them be the best they can be.” Legend’s immensely generous nature shines through much of his work: he is an incessant collaborator, having worked with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Jay Z and Alicia Keys. Legend’s next album is due to drop at the end of Summer and will doubtless contain a number of scintillating features. The album, Legend tells me, is “honest, soulful and sexy,” and deeply personal to him. “I’ve written about the complexities of relationships,” Legend tells me, “the ups and downs, the thrills and the disappointments.” It’s a pleasure to hear so established an artist speak about their work with such excitement and optimism. “I think the overriding message is one of love, hope and resilience,” he says. A message we can all get behind.