Building Bridges

Leon Bridges. Photo: PA Photo/Handout
Leon Bridges. Photo: PA Photo/Handout

There are a few phrases that summon up fear and dread in the workplace.

“We’re downsizing” is obviously up there, followed by “pay freeze”, and “the boss will see you now”.

Also on the list would be a colleague saying, “You should come see my band”. Yes, they could be good, but chances are they’re dire, and the mere thought of having to hide your true thoughts on their performance the next day is pretty horrifying.

Leon Bridges’ co-workers didn’t know how lucky they were...

Just a couple of years ago, by day, Bridges was washing dishes in Del Frisco’s Grille in Fort Worth, Texas, while by night, he was singing at open mic events and small gigs around town, a 21st century Sam Cooke.

“My co-workers knew what I was doing at night, I never kept it secret, and they were very supportive,” says the 26-year-old. “They were like my first fans, and they’d come to my show and ask me why I was washing dishes.”

Despite their encouragement, he never took music, or indeed his talents, too seriously, believing he’d be stuck in the kitchens of Fort Worth forever.

“I didn’t have anyone around me that could show me the way, or tell me that I sounded good. I started singing when I was a kid, and never had anyone say that. My friends in school were way better at singing than me.”

He promises he’s not being falsely modest, and that he really doesn’t rate his voice, although he does believe he writes “good” melodies for himself to sing that sound “OK I suppose”, later adding that he thinks confidence, especially on stage, always seemed like it was for other people.

“There’s always room for improvement,” he adds. “I like to think I can get a whole lot better.”

Given how his fortunes have changed, it’s fair to say he’s on a very promising track.

Bridges says he was only really interested in ‘90s R&B initially - “Usher and Ginuwine, mainly” - and wanted to dance. After a friend pointed out the similarity between his voice and Sam Cooke’s, however, and after he’d heard Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come on the Malcolm X soundtrack, he began investigating.

He first performed on stage around four years ago, but it was only really in the past couple of years that he made the connection between the slick R&B he was listening to and classic soul.

“That made me go to the roots. The black music I had been listening to was really just carrying on that golden sound, but as a black man and a musician, I needed to go back to the beginning.”

Hours spent on YouTube and streaming service Pandora opened up a new world, until he became almost obsessed with Cooke, admitting to wanting to recreate his sound perfectly. “And I had to really work hard to leave behind the ways of R&B singing. It’s a very different style and I had to leave a lot behind.”

Things first started moving for Bridges when he started writing in a new style and performing his now classic-tinged songs, instead of the contemporary covers he had been.

One night, Austin Jenkins saw him perform, the soul-loving guitarist from garage rock band White Denim. He approached Bridges about working together, and soon, rather than 40 or so people turning up to his gigs, there were 40 or so record labels expressing an interest in signing him.

Columbia won out, tipping Bridges for great things. When Coming Home was released earlier this year, it charted at number eight both in the UK and in Australia, and number six in the US, proving Columbia’s faith was well-placed.

“It’s all moved so fast,” says Bridges. “I just think it’s amazing to have this platform so I can share my music with people.”

He says it’s not really sunk in how much he has achieved, or how far he’s come, although occasionally he’ll allow himself a little time to take stock.

“I get numb to it, if I’m honest, there’s so much happening around me. I appreciate it sometimes, mostly when I speak to people and they ask, ‘That must have been amazing?’, and I think, ‘I guess’, and then I think about it a bit more. I think it’s awesome, but not everything goes in.”

Early YouTube videos he posted have now notched up close to a million plays each, with his live version of Lisa Sawyer, his ode to his mum, seemingly getting most traction.

“Before that, and before we released the song Coming Home for the first time, I would record songs and then I’d have to go back to washing dishes. I thought I’d maybe release an album myself and still wash dishes on the side, but after Coming Home was released, things really changed, and I realised that maybe I could make my money from music after all.”

Messages from fans all over the world still blow his mind, as does the revelation that his music might be digested and accepted by anybody, wherever they’re from.

“I want to grow as a songwriter, and I really think I can get better at that, and I want to take my music to people all over the world,” says Bridges. “As for me, I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing.

“And no more washing dishes. Not any more.”