In the past six months, life has changed dramatically for Fort Worth native Leon Bridges. He went from washing dishes to having a record contract with Columbia, and his world turned on its ear. But it was during a recent photo shoot in London when that fact was driven home: A man stopped traffic to yell Bridges' name and wouldn't move his car until he got a selfie with the young singer.
“It’s crazy,” Bridges says. “At heart I am a low-key person.”
This weekend, he returns to North Texas to celebrate the release of his major-label debut, Coming Home, with a series of shows: first one tonight in Dallas as part of the Barefoot at the Belmont series, and then a couple of very sold-out shows at Scat Jazz Lounge in Fort Worth. Aftermarket tickets for those shows are starting at around $350. He may be a low-key person, but he's had to get used to the attention quickly.
As recently as January, Bridges performed a daytime set to fewer than 100 people at Trees. Looking back, he remembers thinking the turnout was “beautiful” for an early set. “I’m very grateful for the times when there were 10 or 15 people in the crowd,” he says. But he admits that it was his last small show: After that, he went on tour and started selling out venues. He is now used to playing to around 1,000 people.
Around March things really started to pick up. Bridges was the undisputed "find" of SXSW, appearing on Later...with Jools Holland and The Late Late Show with James Corden, getting a song on an Apple commercial and performing at both the Sundance Film Festival and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony. He just got back from his second overseas visit, and he'll be on tour again through the summer and fall.
That, of course, is part of settling into the major-label machine; as a reminder of that fact, his phone call with us was monitored by Columbia. But it's also pushed him in bolder directions as a performer: Gone is the timid singer who stands in place throughout his set, replaced instead by a sharp-dressed man swinging back and forth, accompanied by a crew of backup singers.
So, where to next? Will we soon see hear him expanding his sound into new musical territory?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. “I’m very content with the style I have now,” he insists. You won’t find many people who disagree: After trying out a couple of different genres, Bridges started honing a chilled out blend of Southern soul, R&B, blues and gospel, something teenagers, parents and grandparents can all get into. Still, Bridges finds that being referred to as the "next Sam Cooke" is strange. “I think that it’s very clear that he’s one of my biggest influences,” he admits. “But I can only be Leon Bridges at the end of the day.”
A soul sound is something everyone loves, he says, but he never thought about being successful when writing his songs. “I did it because it felt right,” he says. And writing soul songs is not something just anyone can do. “It’s a gift I feel that comes from God,” Bridges says. He makes it clear that he will be sticking with the writing style and sound he has.
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The songs from Coming Home have been gradually getting rolled out online in recent months, but hearing it in its entirety reveals plenty of surprises. Bridges is particularly proud of the album’s arrangements, the way it captures the voices of the backup singers and the silky sound of the saxophone. Beyond a constantly in-rotation hit like "Better Man," he says “Brown Skin Girl” is one of his favorite tracks. “I wanted to shine a light on brown girls,” he says. He describes “Flowers” as a song about the fertility of life and living for something that isn’t temporary. Some of the other songs aim to paint a picture rather than focus on personal experiences. For example, “Twistin’ & Groovin’” is about his grandparents meeting.
And, much as he plans to stay true to his current sound, don't expect him to compromise his signature style of dress, either — something that he carefully honed in unison with his music. He is always clean-shaven with a haircut reminiscent of 1950s doo-wop groups. His attire — some of it acquired from Dolly Python and Lula B’s — consists of items like preppy cardigans, high-waisted trousers and wingtip shoes that recall dapper streetwear from the 1960s. He also has a photographer who seems to follow him everywhere he goes, taking black and white photographs for social media. “The music and the way I dress go hand in hand,” he says. But he insists that it's not for show. He dresses the same way when he goes to the laundry mat or store, he says.
After this weekend's celebrations, Bridges will be off to Europe yet again, where he will spend the rest of the summer touring. After a short break in August, he will be right back on the road again for an extensive U.S. tour playing legendary venues like The Apollo Theater in Harlem and Tipitina’s in New Orleans. “I’m very happy with where I’m at right now,” he says, which probably goes without saying at this point. “I’m ready to see the world.”