Arts

John Legend talks about his new LP Bigger Love, racism and parenting in lockdown

American singer-songwriter John Legend releases his seventh album, Bigger Love, amid a pandemic and a growing, global anti-racist movement. He tells Alex Green about it

US singer-songwriter John Legend

LOCKDOWN has been both a revelation and a relief for John Legend. The multi award-winning singer-songwriter is spending more time at home – an enormous Beverley Hills mansion – with his wife and kids than ever before.

Legend and catwalk star Chrissy Teigen, who married in 2013, are tackling the challenges of co-parenting their two children. So far, they've remained on track.

"We have spent long stretches of time together before," he explains during a Zoom call-cum-concert. Legend is playing his new album, Bigger Love, to a collection of reporters and writers, and bops his head in time with each new track.

"We had long stretches where we didn't talk before, so I don't think we've learned a lot about each other in lockdown. But we have also learned a lot about parenting. It's a more intense parenting experience than we've ever had. It's made us stronger and brought us together."

After a pause, he adds: "It's definitely a challenge to co-parent during these times."

Legend (41) and Teigen (34) have charmed their fans with videos of Luna, aged four, and Miles, who's two, during lockdown. On one occasion, they even hosted a wedding live on Instagram for their daughter's cuddly toys in a bid to keep them entertained. And, of course, there has been home-schooling.

"They are in preschool so it ain't that hard other than just entertaining them," Legend laughs in his deep, smooth baritone. "She's learning her letters, she's writing them out," he gushes. "She's not exactly reading yet, but I feel like she's on the cusp of reading.

"She's very familiar with all her sounds and rhyming and these little work books that they have. She's doing pretty well with that stuff. She's just an emotionally intelligent girl and very empathetic and kind, funny and I love hanging out with her. She's just an awesome little girl."

Legend, born John Roger Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, is releasing his seventh album, Bigger Love, at a strange time. A pandemic has swept the globe, putting a stop to live performance, while an anti-racism movement that began in the United States makes waves in countries across the world.

The death of African-American George Floyd, who died when a white police officer arresting him knelt on his neck, shook Legend. But the musician, a vocal critic of President Trump, feels the time is also right to show another side of the black experience.

"During these challenging times, some of us wonder if it is OK to express joy, to laugh, to dance, to be romantic," he says. "Or do we need to be in a constant state of mourning?

"Lately, the images of black people in the media have been showing us with knees on our necks, with us in protests, us in mourning, us in anger. We feel all those things – I think that's important for us to show [them] – but it's also important for us to continue to show the world the fullness of what it is to be black and human.

"And through our art we are able to do that.

"This album is really a celebration of black music. All of my influences, all of the different strains of music that has come from the African diaspora."

Indeed, Bigger Love is a celebration of black music in all its varied forms.

Remember Us is reminiscent of the smooth, toe-tapping style of Al Green, while 20-year-old Jamaican singer Koffee features on the Afrobeats-flavoured Don't Walk Away.

In a pleasing twist, Legend flips the instantly identifiable introduction to Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg's The Next Episode into a love song... about love songs.

He describes one song as "doo-wop meets trap", pointing towards his childhood steeped in music.

Legend began playing the piano age four, and by seven was in with the church choir.

One of four siblings, his father was a part-time drummer while his mother sang and directed a church choir.

"I have been arranging vocals and harmonies since I was a kid," he recalls wistfully.

"My cousins and brothers and I had a group called the Stephens Five.

"My dad and his brothers used to sing doo-wop songs and I grew up around men's choruses and men's quartets at church. I sang a capella in college.

"I've been arranging harmonies and doo-wop style harmonies since I was a young kid and so it will always going to be a part of my musical heritage."

Legend jokes that his wife is his most important "focus group".

But he's not kidding. She is his muse and the topic of much of his work.

"Chrissy doesn't like to get involved too early on in the process," he explains.

"She likes to hear it when it's almost done, very close to the finish line, because she gets demo-itus if she hears a song too early and then I change it and she hates all the changes because she fell in love with the early part.

"So she's learned that she would rather hear it when it's almost done.

"She'll tell me her favourites – she doesn't try to veto any songs off the albums – but she'll definitely tell me what her favourites are at that point."

Teigan – who has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Italian Vogue, Esquire and Glamour – is known for her love of a good prank.

In a recent tweet to her 30.2 million followers on Instagram, she threatened to leak Bigger Love ahead of time.

Fittingly, the album ends with the soaring ballad Never Break, an ode to their shared life and love.

"It's a song about the power of love to get us through these tough times," he reveals.

"It's about how love makes us resilient, how having someone in the fight with you makes you resilient.

"It's a song, really, that is hopeful and optimistic.

"It's the way I close the album and I think it is perfect for this moment."

:: Bigger Love is out today.

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