Leon Bridges is tired of being pigeonholed into the niche category of “modern soul singer.” Yes, his music may have heavy ties to the sounds of Sam Cooke, Ertha Kitt, and blues singers long before his time, but he is much more than the “next big thing.” Like other artists in modern music, Bridges is genre-less: Tunes like “Coming Home” and “Shy” bring us to an uncharted territory of timeless limbo, fusing the brass bands of the ‘60s with chill-rap beats, smooth ‘90s R&B vocals, and heavy hints of gospel. To put it simply, Leon is surprisingly hard to define—and that’s how he wants to be.
“I wanted to break away from the labels that were placed on me, I wanted to make music without any boundaries, while still maintaining my soul roots,” Bridges tells Cools. “I feel like I’m at a place where I can be honest with my fans about who I am, what I stand for, and the things I love. I felt restricted in the beginning, and now I’m able to create freely. It’s really liberating to be able to create anything, and as I grow, my music will always change in terms of integrity. I don’t feel stuck in a box anymore.”
Now in the studio working on his third album, as well as a side project with psychedelic funk band Khruangbin, Bridges is working even harder than ever before to prove that he’s a versatile, modern musician. Below, we talk to Bridges about the evolution of his career, wanting to stay “anonymous,” and more.
In your music, there’s a very clear tie to blues and soul. Could you tell me a bit about other things that influence your sound? I read that Usher is one of them.
Everything that pours out into my writing and sound definitely stems from more of a subconscious level. It just reflects everything I’m influenced by. Of course I love soul, country, and folk music, but I also love trap music. Those are kind of my main influences right there.
How did you get into soul and folk music? Was it from growing up in Fort Worth?
I would say it’s all just part of my DNA. My mom and dad introduced me to soul artists. My mother was really into Anita Baker and Babyface; my father was into Ottis Redding and Earth, Wind, and Fire. When I got a little bit older, I started getting into guitar and songwriting, and I kind of made the decision to go down the path of this specific sound that people know me for.
But you’ve been clearly venturing out of that, especially when you look at Coming Home and then Good Thing. There’s a big shift in sound from straight 60’s blues to a more enhanced, pop sound. Is your next project going to have some more experimentation?
I wanted to break away from the labels that were placed on me. My second album is a reflection of what I was actually doing before my first one. I wanted to make music without any boundaries while still maintaining my soul roots. For anything coming up in the future, I’ll definitely continue to experiment with different sounds and incorporate different genres, but I’ll always have some sort of tie-ins to the classic R&B roots.
I also notice quite a few religious references in your music. Is religion a big part of your DNA?
Growing up, I was into religion because of my mother. She instilled those Christian values within me, and when I turned 18 I was born again and started to follow God. So, that is the reason for some of the religious tones and references within Coming Home. If you look at songs like “Flowers,” I’m taking a look at the fragility of life and the response to that is wanting to eternalize life with God. Also, if you look at songs like “River,” and many other songs on that album, it’s all about being born again.
Not a lot of artists really experiment with religion.
I was definitely tip-toeing, because even writing the songs I had that weren’t so gospel-centered were still in a way inspired by the Christian community around me. But eventually, I was able to break away from that. But overall, my music comes from the heart and is very genuine, it all speaks to where I was at mentally and spiritually in that moment.
So will religion seep into any of your upcoming music?
I’ll always continue to speak on the gospel. I’m actually doing a side project with this band called Khruangbin. Basically, they came across some songs I wrote back in 2012-2014 that go deeper into the whole gospel concept. But, at the same time, it’s also very raw and soulful.
So, what else is part of the Leon Bridges DNA?
Dance is a big part of me. Historically, my people have been in New Orleans since the 1900s, and dance and music is all part of our DNA. It’s an effortless thing for me, it just flows out.
Your Grammy’s outfit was not just a regular suit—it was a tribute to your roots. Could you tell me more about the conception of it?
It was one of those things that we had to pull together pretty quickly. Seriously, shout out to Bode for being able to make an outfit that was able to reflect everything that I love: Texas and its music, and different quotes from artists I love, like Bobby Womack and Z-Ro. All of that stuff truly represents Texas, and it’s definitely a legendary outfit for me.
Tell me a little bit about what you’re wearing for the CMT Awards tonight.
I’m wearing a piece from a London brand called LaneFortyfive. They’re pretty low-key, and they reached out to me early on and they were very easy to work with. It’s cool to find a designer that you can tell exactly what you want and it’s done. It’s an off 2hite-like floral print vibe, and I was going for more of a ‘70s look, so the pants have a little bit of flare to them.
Who, or what, influences your style?
Of course I could point out people from the past that I dig, but I also dig some of the currents. I love what A$AP Rocky is doing, and I’m very into streetwear. For me, my style has definitely evolved over the years, and a lot of it has to do with me trying to be anonymous when I go home. When I started out, I was really into nothing else but ‘50s and ‘60s fashion. But, I started to realize when I was back home that if I wore a fedora and suited up outfit every time, I would be giving myself away. So, I wear streetwear, ball caps, and some baggier clothes when I go home.
Do you not want people to notice you when you go home?
I mean, it’s fine when it happens infrequently. But, if I’m going to a bar and there’s a hundred people in there, I have to decide whether I really want to be spending the night taking photos or not. It’s rad that people recognize me and my music, but sometimes you have to turn it off to stay sane. I appreciate it so much, but it can become very overwhelming if it happens a lot. I don’t want to turn anyone down, but sometimes I want to be anonymous and have a good night and feel…normal.
What is a good night for you?
Well, when I’m home, I throw little pop-up parties. In Fort Worth, the nightlife is still growing, but there isn’t really a middle ground for a fun night. It’s either college bars or clubs, so I’ve been linking up with DJ Sober and we’ve been throwing parties in my hometown. I love dancing, but I also love being at home and watching some cartoons; it really just depends on my vibe for the night.
How do you think your music has evolved from the beginning of your career to now?
The obvious one would be stylistically. I feel like I’m at a place where I can be honest with my fans about who I am and what I stand for, and the things that I love. I felt restricted in the beginning, and now I’m able to create freely. It’s really liberating to be able to create anything, and as I grow my music will always change in terms of integrity. I don’t feel stuck in a box anymore.