John Legend Talks Songwriting, Kanye West and Musical Theater at Tribeca Film Fest By Matthew Allen

John Legend Talks Songwriting, Kanye West and Musical Theater at Tribeca Film Fest
By Matthew Allen

The Tribeca Film Festival hardly seems like the kind of place where you’d find John Legend. Thanks to hit records like “Ordinary People,” “Heaven,” “Tonight” and “All Of Me,” the singer/songwriter carved a place for himself as America’s go-to crooner. But that’s hardly the whole story. He’s been an advocate for liberal politics, involved in film projects, like La La Land and recently pooled all his strengths together, acting in the title role of NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live earlier this month. Legend is a lowkey renaissance man and he spoke with hitmaking songwriter Sara Baralleis to share his story before an audience.

Legend, born John Stephens, went into detail about his early life in Ohio, being raised by parents who both devout in their faith in God and their nibble hands for fashion. John’s father was a factory worker by day, but was also a tailor, explaining Legend’s astute fashion sense.

Barelleis’ interview style was charmingly unsophisticated; it played up to her genuine intrigue and curiosity about Legend’s background. Particularly when it came to the familiar subject of music theater. She got John expound on his high school exploits in musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. She, along with the crowd, was utterly shocked to know that prior to Jesus Christ Superstar Live, the aforementioned high school plays were the latest examples of his dabbling in musical theater. Barelleis was jealous, in jest, mind you, about what she called Legend’s “unflappable” demeanor when it came to rehearsing the live telecast.

Legend was able to unpack his patient struggle to ascend in the music business. Outside of the occasional high school musical, Legend expressed that his journey took roughly six years before his debut album, 2004’s Get Lifted, was released. Although he did receive some recognition as a session pianist on Lauryn Hill’s smash “Everything is Everything,” – while still in senior year at University of Penn – he spent years in a management consulting firm, while writing songs and creating his demos. Fatefully, someone told him about a cousin they had who makes beats that John should meet. That cousin was a young producer living in Newark, NJ, named Kanye West. Barelleis playfully scoffed, saying that usually when colleagues tell her about cousins that can help her, they wind out not being nearly as helpful as West turned out to be for Legend. From working together on demos and Kanye’s 2004 album College Dropout, West was very instrumental in convincing Columbia Records to sign Legend to a contract. When they did, his own debut dropped six month later.

soulhead was fortunate enough to inquire some insight on John’s songwriting process. While he obtains many of his collaborators by noticing them on radio, we asked why he infrequently composed songs solo; especially past such songs, like 2006’s “Again” and 2009’s “Shine.” “I like the idea of another artist pushing in a different direction because it helps make a more dynamic repertoie of music,” Legend explained. “If I wrote all the songs myself, I’m afraid they’ll be a little too consistent, a little too much like each other. But now, I’m reconsidering writing more by myself; so, thank you.”
John Legend has the clout, the poise and the talent to continue ascending in the industry, although with an Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony and 10 Grammys – not to mention a successful marriage, a lovely daughter and son on the way – what’s left to accomplish?


Matthew AllenMatthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.

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