If Leon Bridges' story followed the typical plot line of a made-for-TV biopic, the Fort Worth R&B singer would have already unraveled after his quick rise to fame. In the span of a year, the now 27-year-old signed a major label deal with Columbia Records, performed on late night TV and for the president at the White House, sold out the Apollo Theater and received a Grammy nomination. So now, there's only two ways to go. Continue up, or slide down.
So far, Bridges seems to be handling the whirlwind of stardom without much trouble. "When people bring up Saturday Night Live, that was fun, but it moved by so quick. I was on TV for that one little second. And it's done. Gone. But the White House was one of those things that I never thought I'd be able to do." He still remembers President Obama's words to him: "He would say something like, 'I see you, an upcoming Texas soul star,'" he recalls, shifting into a smooth voice.
Today Bridges is home in Forth Worth, sitting with Joshua Block, Austin Jenkins and his former tour manager, Chris Vivion, in the Niles City studio, where Bridges' album Coming Home was completed. Surrounded by friends, he's as gentlemanly as ever. Block owns the studio with Jenkins, and it's adjacent to the bare, white-walled warehouse space where Bridges actually did all the album's recording, in a Fort Worth building which also holds the venue Shipping and Receiving.
While his rise to fame has been the stuff of fairy tale, he's had his share of naysaying — including suggestions that his music is nothing but a throwback. "If I was being retro then I'd be like, 'I'm going to the diner in my '64 Cadillac,'" he says, breaking into song. "But we're trying to write heartfelt songs and speak truth. I would say there's nothing new under the sun, there's only 12 notes in the scale and only so many rhythms you can do with that."
Block does his best to put the matter in perspective: "He's in his mid-20s and he grew up in modern times, so his songs are modern. I guess it's easy to say that that's retro or referential, but it's literally just a technique and it's a way of presenting something," he says. "I guess we could've taken Leon's songs and put them in techno beats that have no meter and don't make any sense to his lyrics."
Bridges started out with hopes of becoming a rapper, and demonstrates a profound line, bursting out laughing as he remembers it: "It was like: 'You alone provide a bed to rest my trust, but I'd rather lay on the floor staring at dust,'" he says, rapping. He eventually discovered Sam Cooke, and his repurposed brand of irresistibly simple old soul found its way to Block and Jenkins, from the Austin band White Denim, who invited him to record.
"People always say my style was put on after I got signed with Columbia Records, and of course people who don't know me get it twisted," he says. "Who's entitled to classic R&B? It's open to anybody who wants to take it and make it. If I decided that for the rest of my life I was making music like Coming Home, then, that's cool." Bridges says that while he does wear different clothes at home, he remains in his signature dapper retro ensembles: "This style is life to me. I don't get off the stage and go out in Jordan's and a fitted cap."
Still, Bridges grants that he'd like to take a new direction in the future. "In this next record, I want to do something that's not so period-specific," he says. Jenkins thinks that will happen naturally, though: "Now that he's traveling, the lyrics are coming from a different place. He's a songwriter before he's a style or a classic feeling," he says. "And he is a stylish dude. ... I don't feel that if he did a hip-hop or '80s record that he'd look like L.L. Cool J all of a sudden."
Bridges has stated in interviews that he hadn't always felt support from DFW, but with the Observer he's careful to clarify, saying that he had only been referencing things that he'd heard back when he first started. "People were going to my friends, saying that I have this big record label machine behind me, but those same guys would take the opportunity if it was given to them," he says. "You see a guy on the rise and you can easily get jealous. I felt that in my heart before about some people, it's just a natural thing."
He now says that he now feels the weight of DFW rallying behind him. "And I've always felt it. It's just that in any city, any artist that comes up, there's gonna be those that — " He pauses searching for the right word. "Hate," he finally says. "But there's nothing but love in this city, from Dallas to Fort Worth and all of Texas."
One bit of criticism Bridges says he found "hilarious" was an NPR article that accused him of glorifying a time of segregation, particularly in his "Coming Home" video. In the video, he sits at a barber shop, has a white love interest and sits at a diner without problem, which the author found problematic. "The person who wrote it doesn't know anything behind the story," Bridges says. "That's the diner where I eat at every day. Should I have put 'White Only' on the water fountains in the video?"
Some of those details in the video resulted merely from circumstance: the white love interest, for instance, is Bridges' photographer, and she happened to be the only person available at the shoot who could fill the role. "You look at Sam Cooke, who didn't write a protest song till the end of his life, and he was inspired by Bob Dylan," he points out. "I think it's silly to point me out to write about social issues. Those guys didn't even give me a chance to breathe; I was coming out of my first project."
Block, Jenkins and Vivion can't help feeling protective of Bridges. "It wasn't that we had a crazy parental responsibility to Leon, but it felt weird to just push him out, to go do radio in Canada. We really care about Leon as a person," Block says, remembering their early days working together. At the time, Bridges had only been performing for three years. "He didn't have to learn any less than anyone else, he just had to do it in an insanely short period of time," says Block.
Typically, though, Bridges is too busy thinking about the people around him to worry about himself. "My favorite thing is the fact that the songs that I started have been able to provide cool opportunities for my band. And I was able to pay my mother's debt off," he enthuses, looking back on the whirlwind of the past two years. "People pay attention to me, which is weird. I have people looking out for me already."
LEON BRIDGES performs with Leanne La Havas, 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, at Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 1st Ave., 214-565-1116 or liveatthemusichall.com. Sold out.