Leon Bridges: ‘My transition was dishwasher one day, star the next’

The speed of the soul singer’s stardom left him reeling. As he releases his best album yet, he explains how he shook off his insecurities – and confronted love, loss and a racist US

Leon Bridges leans back on a gold velvet couch at Gold-Diggers, a compound in east Hollywood that includes a hotel, nine recording studios, a bar and a live music venue. Here in Studio 2, sunlight streams down from a skylight, bathing Bridges’ sky-blue madras shirt and buttery-brown leather loafers in a soft glow. His sartorial combination places him somewhere between a soul singer and country star circa 1970.

Now 32, Bridges was working as a dishwasher just seven years ago, vying for attention at open mic nights in his home town of Fort Worth, Texas. In 2015, he released his debut album, the Grammy-nominated Coming Home, and soon the sheltered Christian found himself performing his spiritual, gospel-imbued song River on Saturday Night Live and covering Ray Charles for the Obamas at the White House. Music journalists hailed this soul singer/songwriter as the second coming of Sam Cooke.

More accolades were to come, but Bridges says he’s spent much of his six-year career “coming to grips with my reality. My transition was dishwasher one day and being somewhat of a star [the next]. It’s so weird that this is my life now. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.”

Though Bridges is generally in a “healthy mental space today”, there was a period between Coming Home and his second album, Good Thing, released in 2018, when the speed of his success led to depression. “This was just an accumulation of all of these feelings – feeling like I don’t deserve to be here or I’m not handsome enough or a good enough singer. I would randomly just burst out in tears in front of my friends, and I’m grateful [they] helped me work through it.”

Blue Mesas, the song that closes his new album, Gold-Diggers Sound, reflects on that period over sombre violin. “There’s a solitude and weight that comes with gaining a little bit of success and notoriety. Initially, it was rough for me,” he says. “Number one, losing my anonymity in my home town was tough. And then, as someone with insecurities about my physical appearance, being thrown in the limelight, and having to deal with that. Blue Mesas was that feeling of loneliness even in the midst of people that love me.”

At the beginning of our conversation, Bridges struggles to answer questions at length, having just done several telephone interviews. When he picks up an acoustic guitar, however, he becomes talkative and relaxed, lightly plucking the strings between words. Although Bridges plans to remain in Fort Worth, his body language suggests he feels at home here in California. And for several months in 2019, this was home. He slept in the hotel, drank and socialised at the bar, and composed Gold-Diggers Sound in these studios.

A remarkable and progressive R&B album, Gold-Diggers Sound has the most eclectic compositions of Bridges’ career, as well as his most emotionally transparent songwriting. Every song seems to answer critics who claimed his early work lacked originality and suffered from emotional naivety. On Why Don’t You Touch Me, its music walking a forlorn line across country and contemporary R&B, Bridges agonises over a lack of physical touch that seems to foreshadow the end of a relationship. Lead single Motorbike, however, is a tender, sensual ballad that coasts on ethereal guitar, Bridges’ honeyed vocals shining. With Magnolias, Bridges offers a thumping spin on late-90s and early-00s R&B, his lyrics dripping with carnality.

‘I had a hard time doing the relationship thing’ ... Leon Bridges’ Motorbike.

He has previously described his Christian faith as salvation – “I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality,” he once said of his dishwashing days pre-fame, “the only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God” – but the fear of offending his fellow congregants was creatively stifling. “When you look at my first album, I was still in the Christian bubble,” he admits now. “I was a little apprehensive even writing love songs around that time, just out of fear that the community I was in wouldn’t accept the more secular route that I was going. A lot of those songs were definitely surface level.” For Gold-Diggers Sound, though, “it was finding ways to be more transparent without being super direct. Every album, I want to inch my way toward more transparency about some of my relationships and some of my struggles.”

He elaborates a little. “During the pandemic, I was able to build a relationship with a girl. It’s so weird saying that, because my life has always been just casual encounters, to the point that I had a hard time doing the relationship thing. It’s funny, because I write so much about love. But that’s the beauty of songwriting. Sometimes those things aren’t always derived from life experiences. I know that this story or concept can resonate with someone else.”

After finishing Good Thing, Bridges, Grammy-winning producer Ricky Reed (Halsey, Lizzo) and guitarist Nate Mercereau decided to make a third record that better reflected the broad range of Bridges’ influences – everything from Ginuwine’s irrepressibly sexual R&B to Townes Van Zandt’s despondent country. Moreover, Bridges hoped that in doing so, he would challenge some people’s myopic notions about the kind of music he should be making.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that fans tend to want to put boundaries on Black expression. If I wear a grill or dance to some hip-hop with my homies, people are in the comments like, ‘What happened to …?’ ‘I wish you were …’ They want me to play it safe,” Bridges says. “I can get down on some Marvin Gaye shit and some Young Thug shit, and it’s all us. This is our culture.”

Leon Bridges in dark water against a sunset sky
Night-time Leon ... ‘can we get this guy in the studio?’ Photograph: Justin Hardiman

To make the record, he, Reed and Mercereau drank tequila in the afternoon and coffee at night, piecing together songs from extensive jam sessions. Reed pushed Bridges to reveal more of his personal life on record. “Our sessions were like noon to five,” the producer explains. “Then every night Leon goes out, does his thing, and comes back the next day: ‘Ah, it was crazy, man. We started here, then went there, and had dinner with so-and-so.’ And I’m like: can I get that guy in the studio? Can we get night-time Leon on record?”

Gold-Diggers Sound offers sides of “night-time Leon” – the aforementioned Magnolias or the southern blues-soul-gospel hybrid Sho Nuff – but it also shows Leon at his most vulnerable and political. Sweeter finds Bridges yearning for peace for Black people, an escape from “those judging eyes”. Though the pandemic stalled his plans to release Gold-Diggers Sound in 2020, Bridges released Sweeter at the height of last year’s protests against police brutality. He couldn’t remain silent.

“One of the positive things that transpired out of the pandemic was people having the time and stillness to pay attention to the horrors of police brutality,” he says. “If it weren’t for the pandemic, a song like Sweeter wouldn’t have had the impact that it did. I wrote that well before all the riots and everything with George Floyd. That’s just a testament to the perpetual narrative of unarmed Black men dying at the hands of police. Hopefully, in a minuscule way, Sweeter was a beacon of hope and light for the Black community.”

Sweeter isn’t the end of Bridges’ activism. In 2020, he co-founded The Big Good, a philanthropic organisation giving back to his community in Fort Worth. In addition to holding a turkey drive last Thanksgiving, Bridges hosted and performed at a Big Good-organised dinner that raised more than $200,000 (£145,000).

While he deliberates over where to allocate the funds and prepares for his Gold-Diggers Sound tour, he is considering a move that could increase the intensity of the once uncomfortable spotlight.

“I honestly want to make a country album. There aren’t too many Black artists making country music today,” he says. “All I need is time.”

• Gold-Diggers Sound is released on 23 July on Columbia Records

Max Bell

The GuardianTramp

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