It’s apparent within a few moments of speaking with Leon Bridges that the cool he exudes is genuine. The singer-songwriter’s subtle southern drawl and off-the-cuff humility are undeniably infectious. And both perfectly reflect his conservative Fort Worth upbringing as the son of a church-going single mother.
He begins more than one response with “I’m a simple person,” and measures each question before answering thoughtfully. His polite and straightforward manner never wavers.
In an age dominated by shameless self-promotion, Bridges’ modesty is almost at odds with his unbridled success. His June-released, retro-leaning debut, “Coming Home,” premiered at number six on the Billboard 200 and he’s currently in the midst of a completely sold-out world tour.
“It’s insane, man,” Bridges recently told CityBeat before playing to a capacity crowd at Chicago’s Vic Theatre. “Everything’s moving so fast. It’s totally blowing my mind. I just had no idea. Some people might think I did this because I knew it would be successful. I didn’t think that at all. (laughs) I wish I did.”
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the 26-year-old’s meteoric rise to stardom is the mythology that is helping him get there.
And it reads like a Hollywood script.
Once on a path to becoming a choreographer, Bridges spent downtime between college dance classes writing songs with a fellow keyboard-toting student. When his Usher and Ginuwine knock-offs sounded more like the “old school singers” to a friend, Bridges was encouraged to check out Sam Cooke via YouTube. It stuck.
Combining his already astute fashion sense with the simplicity of Cooke-era songwriting, Bridges initially floundered as a retro-soul act in Fort Worth clubs while working as a dishwasher on the side.
That is, until high-waisted Wranglers came into play.
One night, Bridges was introduced to Austin Jenkins of Texas garage rockers White Denim because they were both wearing the same kind of jeans.
A week later, Jenkins saw Bridges perform and asked him to record in the studio that he and White Denim drummer Joshua Block just set up. That was a year ago. And they haven’t looked back.
“What’s crazy is that none of this was forced,” said Bridges. “I had my own thing going on when I met Austin. He was like, ‘Let’s record these songs,’ and we did. The fact I found the most amazing band, team, management, and record label just from that is amazing. And now everything is going so well. I did not expect any of that.”
He also didn’t expect the label frenzy that hit epic proportions when he first released a few of his songs online. But that didn’t stop high-level execs from flying in from overseas or the endless barrage of invitations to a variety of pitch meetings.
Although he finally settled with historical powerhouse Columbia Records, Bridges did it with the caveat that “Coming Home” would remain unchanged from the way he delivered it.
“If the labels weren’t down with what I was doing,” he said, “then I’d be totally fine being an independent artist. And really, it was almost like an experiment for them, because they didn’t know how the crowd was going to react. We’re doing the old school formula and you just never know. But to see how people are reacting to it, and to see labels totally accepting of what I’m doing, it definitely gives me the confidence to keep doing my own thing.”
Confidence isn’t exactly an innate quality for Bridges. But with each sold-out show, he’s admits to gaining more and more traction. Things like a recent collaboration with rapper Macklemore haven’t hurt either.
But despite the many requests for contributions to various other projects, as well as past opening slots for a diverse range of headliners like Lord Huron and Sharon Van Etten, the low-key crooner has absolutely no plans to change his formula.
“I mean, I do want to make the next record better than the first,” said Bridges. “But it’ll be the same approach. Right now, I’m just really presenting it to the crowds and saying, ‘this is what I’ve got.’ We only have a 10-song record out and a lot of those songs aren’t the types that immediately get the crowd up and dancing. But it’s working.
And I think it’s great that what I do is nothing new.”
Bridges isn’t divulging any of the surprises his follow-up to “Coming Home” might contain. But it’s obvious that his interests go beyond classic-era soul/gospel when he casually mentions his love for singers like Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zant.
And while his current tour has now been extended all the way through next summer, Bridges admits new material could arrive sooner than later.
“I write wherever I am,” he said. “I could be in the grocery store and think of a whole song right there. I don’t need a certain place to do it. I just write whatever is in my mind at the time.”
Whenever the next thing comes, Bridges knows it’ll be hard to compete with the unfathomable run he’s currently enjoying. But he’s determined not to lose himself along the way.
“I look at myself as a songwriter,” said Bridges. “I want everything I do, and everything I put out, to be a reflection of me. I write under the umbrella of soul music, and my songs are about love. I’m just trying to package it in my own way.”
Originally published in San Diego CityBeat