Tag Archives: Texas

Leon Bridges’ Old-School Cool

Leon Bridges press photo 2 - record player - photo credit rambo

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

Jolie Holland’s Covered In Blood

Jolie Holland is not a simple interview. The 36-year-old Texan turned musical vagrant is articulate, opinionated and not afraid to tell you what’s on her mind — or call bullshit if she doesn’t like what’s on yours.

But what makes her a dangerous subject is exactly makes her an interesting and exciting singer/songwriter. During the course of five ANTI- albums, including this summer’s Pint of Blood, Holland has blurred the lines between Americana, country, folk and blues in endlessly engaging ways.

What really separates the multi-instrumentalist from many of her talented peers, however, is that voice. Her husky timbre reeks with authenticity and has an undeniably timeless quality. Whether it’s one of her meticulously crafted ballads or a stripped-down cover of a tune from one of her influences, the vocals seem as natural in a New York City concert hall as they do in a backwoods juke joint. Along with her band, the Grand Chandeliers — Indigo Street, Carey Lamprecht and Scott Magee — Holland is embarking on the second leg of the Blood tour and will make a stop at UCSD’s Loft on Monday night. I caught up with her — while she was at sound check at a recent gig in Portland — and talked about her new album and beyond.

Scott McDonald: I was surprised to find that the new record was recorded at home.

Jolie Holland: Oh, that’s a lie. And you should know — as a journalist — that so much bullshit gets quoted out there. It wasn’t recorded at home. That is complete bullshit. We used really nice equipment. But, my piano was in a great mood. The weather is so crazy in New York. The heat gets turned on in the winter, and it’s really hard on pianos, but right in the middle of the summer, they’re really happy, and mine was in a super-good mood when we recorded. So we did do that at my house. But we were working with Shahzad Ismaily, who is a very creative and talented engineer, and I also know how to get sounds that I like. So technically, we worked in homes for a couple of things, but not for most of it.

At this point Holland excuses herself for a moment: 

“Hey! Can you pick me out an amp? Great. Rad.”

[She returns to me for a second]  It’s so nice to work with a great touring band.

“Indigo — I’m so grateful for you. Thank you. I’m so happy you’re picking out an amp for me right now. It’s so rad. You are the fucking best!”

JH: Sorry about that.

SM: No sweat. This seems like a pretty personal record.

JH: I like a lot of songwriters who are kind of naïve in their writing. Two of my favorites are Willie Nelson and Daniel Johnston. There’s just a naïve quality to their songwriting that I’m incredibly interested in. So, I don’t know if I’m being more personal or vulnerable, I may just be trying to use that voice more. Many times it’s more about the song than it is the truth-telling, if that makes sense. That’s a funny answer, but it’s cool if you get that.

SM: I would think getting too personal would make things difficult to play night after night.

JH: The psychological format of these songs was actually supposed to be that they would be more fun to play. Because I have been guilty of writing things that were way too dark to ever perform. Actually, a lot of the songs on [2006’s] Springtime Can Kill You I never played live because they were filled with far too much teenage, brokenhearted bulls—. On the new record, it’s still personal, but there’s more storytelling. On the last record, I wrote “Corrido por Buddy” about a friend of ours that was a gay Mormon and killed himself. He was an amazing character, and I wanted to give a tribute to him, but it’s so sad and painful to play that song. So I think, in a lot of ways, this new record is a bit more comfortable than that. I’m not bleeding all over the place on it.

SM: You’ve worked with Marc [Ribot] a lot now. How’d you guys hook up?

JH: He just worked with a lot of people I’ve worked with. And I’ve actually been good friends with his manager for a really long time — long before she was his manager. But that’s not how we hooked up on this record. Shahzad has worked with him for a long time and played him the demo. And he liked it.

SM: Marc is just one of a lot of amazing musicians you’ve been able to work with.

JH: I’ve been so lucky, but it used to be so hard for me. I’m a self-taught musician, and I used to think that I wasn’t sophisticated enough to be playing with all of these great people. But I’ve really come to accept the fact that I’m a songwriter. And in order to shine as a great instrumentalist, you have to work with songwriters that you vibe with. And I feel really comfortable now in that role as circus leader and am much more at ease playing with all of these great musicians.

SM: Are you a person who is constantly writing?

JH: I used to try and write songs when I was a teenager. But I was 14 the last time I tried to write a song. Now, the songs come to me and get me to write them, and it’s been that way for many, many years. I’ve actually been pushing them away lately. I got my heart broken a year ago, and I refused to write any songs about it. And that’s kicking and screaming. It’s what everyone writes songs about. But I completely resisted. But now, finally, that’s changing.

SM: Changing?

JH: I mean, I literally cried every day for a year. It was horrible heartbreak. Only now am I writing again. It was very recently that two songs came to me in the middle of the night, woke me up and made me work on them. It was like being shaken out of a deep sleep and harassed. And I couldn’t get back to sleep until I got them down. It’s funny, but that’s how it happens. I write all of these things in my head.

SM: That’s the only place you keep the ideas?

JH: Well, in this case, I was really lazy and didn’t want to get out of bed. So I text-messaged myself all of these thoughts in the middle of the night. But I’m pretty good about being able to write out a notation well enough to understand what I meant and play it later. But I didn’t do that this time. I wrote out the words to the song, and then I texted phrases to myself of different melodies from songs that were similar. So, regardless to say, I end up having quite a few funny little notes in my drafts.

SM: Don’t want to get ahead of myself, but now you’re making me look forward to the next record — a friend to be sad with.

JH: Oh, these are not sad songs. I refuse to write heartbreak songs about it all. No way. I just refuse that entirely.

First published by NBC San Diego on October 3, 2011