New Music to Know: Leon Bridges Takes Us Back to the Golden Age of Soul

"I’ll never be Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. I can only be Leon Bridges."

By Annie Reuter

Leon Bridges has been compared to soul greats like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and with good reason. From the moment the 25-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas opens his mouth he effortlessly exudes the spirit of ’50s and ’60s R&B and soul music, while still managing to put his own personal spin on the throwback style.

A lot of this stems from the personal stories he’s telling on his debut, Coming Home, many of which are about his own family.

The doo-wop flavored “Twistin’ & Groovin’,” which sounds like something from American Bandstand, was written about his grandparents, while the Temptations-esque “Brown Skin Girl” is about the very first time he saw a former girlfriend at a bar.

“All of them are honest songs,” Bridges tells Radio.com. “Of course, I can’t always write a song from personal experience. If I waited on that I probably wouldn’t have any songs. A lot of times it’s me trying to paint a picture.”

On “Lisa Sawyer,” Bridges tells his mother’s life story, detailing her circa 1963 birth in New Orleans, Louisiana with help from a saxophone and a girl group in just a little over four minutes.

The biographical song continues with him sweetly singing about how she grew up without much money but was “filthy rich with wealth” because of all the love she had in her life from her mom, dad, six older siblings and Christ.

When Bridges played the song for his mother she broke into tears. “It really was a shock to her because she didn’t know I was a songwriter,” he says softly over the phone. “So when I first showed her it really blew her away.”

Bridges mom’s shock is warranted, being that her son was working as a dishwasher at the local Fort Worth restaurant Del Frisco’s Grille and seemed uninterested in singing for other people. Unbeknownst to her, he was spending his hours outside of work writing songs.

Having gone to college to study dance, Bridges’ passion quickly changed to music after jamming with a friend, but he soon realized he wanted to be a solo act. “Eventually I grew tired of depending on him and other people to be creative,” Bridges says. “I set out and started writing my own songs and bought a guitar.”

Bridges does say that his experience washing dishes and bussing tables at Del Frisco’s Grille has carried into his music, most notably the importance of hard work and time management.

“I didn’t have anything handed to me coming up. It taught me how to work hard. It taught me to be content on what you had,” Bridges says. “Even if it’s a show for five or 20 people, it taught me to be thankful with what I had. I had to manage my time wisely having two jobs at certain times. Working a job and playing music taught me to manage my time and it was really helpful.”

Bridges even used his time on the job to work on his songwriting, explaining that one night after work he headed to Cafe Brazil, a 24-hour diner nearby, and came up with his song “Smooth Sailin’.” He says he sat down and the song flowed out thanks to some free time spent listening to old gospel songs.

“They were using this ship metaphor talking about God coming back,” he says. “I started writing and I turned it into seeing a nice girl and you want to say hello to her.”

Looking at Bridges it’s clear, it’s not just his music that seems like it’s from another time. A very sharp dresser, Bridges says he began embracing his vintage look after a friend of his mother’s gave him clothes he used to wear as a teenager. However, he admits he wasn’t confident enough to embrace the unique style until he started writing soul songs two years ago.

“The way that I dress is not a show that I put on for pictures or on the stage,” Bridges asserts. “It’s the same way I’m at the laundromat and the same way when I’m at the grocery store. It’s all about consistency for me.”

Bridges isn’t just consistent in style, though. His image, music and even Instagram account, which is filled with black and white images, look like they’re straight from another time, almost like he’s Back to the Future-ing us all. Quite unique for a 25-year-old. It’s these differences that make Bridges stand out from every other pop star in their 20s.

But, what is most important to Bridges isn’t his image, it’s being able to carry the torch for those soul musicians from the ’50s and ’60s that inspired him.

“I just feel like as far as R&B and black music, there hasn’t been anything like this in a long time,” Bridges says. “A lot of it’s the older guys who are still doing it. I felt like as a young man and person who loves music and who writes songs, that’s what I needed to do. Of course I’ll never be Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. I can only be Leon Bridges.”

 

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