Leon Bridges: Musing on Songs, Success and the City He Calls Home

Musing on the past and embracing the future, Grammy-winner Leon Bridges is charting new territory.

words by Shilo Urban | photos by Rambo Elliott

Leon Bridges thinks before he speaks, sipping a cold beer on a warm winter afternoon at Shipping & Receiving Bar. It’s one of his favorite hangouts in Fort Worth; he recorded his first album, Coming Home, right around the corner. He is composed and comfortable in the familiar shadows of the venue, a musician’s natural habitat. But it’s quite clear that Bridges is not your average musician. His laid-back presence and slick appearance exude the self-assurance of a man who has achieved success — and the humbleness of one who remembers how he did it.

Bridges’ swift rise to fame is the stuff that rock star dreams are made of. The 29-year-old Fort Worth native went from washing dishes at Del Frisco’s to signing a deal with a major record label in a matter of months. Since then, he has racked up the accolades in a history-making career propelled by hard work, immense talent and a smooth, mesquite-smoked voice.

Bridges just won his first Grammy Award, taking home the honors at this year’s show for Best Traditional R&B Performance (for his song “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand”). Both of his albums have been nominated for Best R&B Album at the Grammy Awards, and both have been top-10 hits on the Billboard charts. His single “River” appeared on the soundtrack for HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” going viral and earning another Grammy nod for Best Music Video.

Bridges has appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and “Sesame Street.” He has popped up in an iPhone commercial and made his Hollywood debut with a cameo in the Neil Armstrong movie “First Man.” President Barack Obama included Bridges on his 2016 Summer Playlist, inviting the young musician to his birthday party at the White House that year.

“That was a very special night,” Bridges recalls. “It was magical. Stevie Wonder played. There were some of the most influential people in the world in the building, from George Lucas to Samuel L. Jackson, Tyler Perry, Paul McCartney … the whole night ended in a dance battle with Chance the Rapper and Paul McCartney and Ellen and Stephen Colbert. It was wild. I hopped in, and Barack was like, ‘Oh, hey, what’s up, Leon.’ It didn’t even seem real.”

Bridges has circled the globe on multiple world tours, but he always comes back to Fort Worth. Unlike most musicians of his stature, he hasn’t decamped his hometown in favor of the bright lights of Los Angeles or New York. He still lives here in the city where it all began. “It’s such a pride that I have to be from Fort Worth,” he says. “I can come here and be normal. I can go to a dive bar on a Monday night, and there are two people in there. Keeps me grounded.”

Bridges’ story is serendipitous, indeed — but it’s been no cakewalk for the self-effacing musician. “Being in the public eye is hard for me,” he admits. “I’m a very introverted guy. And throwing an introvert with a bunch of insecurities on a big platform — there are times when it really gets to me. I feel like I fall short. There are moments where I feel like I’m not intelligent enough or handsome enough or a great enough singer. I have all these things that I deal with. I’m still trying to figure this shit out.”

Born in Atlanta in 1989, Bridges was a Texan by age 2. After his parents separated when he was 7, he was raised by his mother. “My father was still very much in my life, but I spent most of my time with my mother,” he says. “Together, we’ve experienced what it was like to not have enough money to pay the bills or for groceries or whatever. We’ve just grown stronger having to go through that together.” Bridges expressed his respect for his mother in his hit song “Lisa Sawyer,” the song that first defined his style as an artist:

She was born in New Orleans…
Never had much money…but was filthy rich…rich in love,
She had…the complexion of a sweet praline,
Hair long as the sea, heart warm like Louisiana sun,
Voice like a symphony of the most beautiful instruments…

“It was important for me to honor her through my music,” Bridges says. One of his first acts upon “making it” was to pay off his mother’s mortgage.  

Bridges grew up listening to gospel music and attending various churches, including the Potter’s House in east Fort Worth. Many have assumed his vocal talent is the product of a childhood in a church choir, but he sets the record straight: “I never sang in church.” Bridges “found God” for himself around the age of 18 and became involved with the communities at Southwestern Baptist Seminary and the Redeemer Church. “After that was when I started getting into music and strayed away from going to church,” he says. Perhaps music became his new religion? “You could say that, for sure,” he smiles. “I still hold to truth and Christian values, but I have in a sense strayed away from religion. I feel like I still have a personal relationship with God, but I don’t necessarily attend church anymore.”

Bridges studied dance (modern, African and ballet) at Tarrant County College before finding his voice at lunchtime sing-ins. He picked up a guitar and learned to play, soon busking in an alleyway downtown on Third Street and playing open mics at Magnolia Motor Lounge. His sound caught the attention of Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, two members of the indie rock band White Denim that Bridges now calls his “brothers.” They invited him to record a few songs together at their studio, Niles City Sound. One of those tracks was “Coming Home.” The song quickly jumped from SoundCloud to local radio stations to the ears of major label executives. Just a few months after the release of his first track, Bridges received offers from 40 different labels. He signed with the major label Columbia, and his debut album, Coming Home, dropped in summer 2015 to tremendous effect.

Coming Home recaptures the simple purity of 1950s and 1960s soul, an homage to the era’s unembellished sound and feel-good vibes. Bridges’ sepia-toned ballads are filled with doo-wops and pretty girls, poetry and pure emotion. He sings of love and loss; his honeyed voice nestled in nostalgic reverb. Backup singers coo, and cozy horns melt away into warmth.

Unadorned sonic beauty gave Coming Home its power, from the vintage arrangements and lyrics to Bridges’ pristine tenor. But some critics faulted him for looking backward instead of forward, for creating a satin-wrapped time warp that ignored the era’s social turbulence. Bridges’ comfort in the past created discomfort for some, who decried his interpretation of soul music as too conservative and too retro. Where was its political message? But Bridges is taking the advice that Obama whispered in his ear that night at the White House: Don’t let them change you.

“As a black man, I’m held to a different standard than a white guy making the same kind of music,” he explains, “and I don’t like pressure. If I’m going to make political music, I should do it because I feel deeply about whatever situation is going on. I shouldn’t do it because Kendrick Lamar is doing it. Or because it’s trendy. I’m just going to make music that I dig.”

For Bridges, it’s not about rolling back the calendar but rather embracing the future as well as the past. It’s about drawing strength and motivation from the people who came before you: their struggles, their triumphs, but most of all — their perseverance. “The kind of music that I’m inspired by, the era that I’m inspired by … the social climate was pretty messed up. Racism was very prominent, and so I can see why people have a problem with looking back to the past. My grandmother was affected by it. My ancestors were affected by it. And it’s still present today, for sure. But what I take from it is the sound. What is inspiring is that my people from that time persevered despite what was going on … I wanted to carry on that legacy and tell my own narrative through that kind of sound.”

Perhaps his comfort with the past is also inspired by a lifetime in Fort Worth, a city that straddles its history as a Western frontier town and its future as a cultural mecca with ease — for the most part. Bridges speaks with equal affinity for his hometown’s up-and-coming arts scene as he does for its deep roots in the past. “There are some beautiful historical neighborhoods in Fort Worth, like the Southside, where I was raised. There’s just so much character,” he says. “I love the Stockyards. It still has the same essence of what Fort Worth was like in the 1800s. It’s such a beautiful, kind of untouched area, and I feel like all of Fort Worth is like that. I travel all the time, and I see beautiful places around the world, but Fort Worth really has a uniqueness to it.”

The city’s distinct character has also left its mark on Bridges’ creative approach. “Fort Worth has played a big part into the way I make music. When I think of the sound of Fort Worth and the sound of Texas in general, it’s blues music, it’s country and it’s also chopped and screwed music. Growing up, R&B music was prominent in my life. But as I got older, I started to get into the chopped and screwed stuff out of Houston. Then when I got into the music scene, I was put onto guys like Townes Van Zandt, like Neil Young and in that kind of vibe. So being around the country scene in Fort Worth has played its way into the way I write.”

Coming Home’s earnest, old-school sound was a stunning success, but Bridges felt eager to express the full diversity of his musical style and influences — to go beyond genre. He accomplished this with verve in his sophomore album, Good Thing, which was released in May 2018. “I feel like I’ve broken away from the whole label of retro-soul guy,” he says. “With this new album, it was almost me proving myself to industry and to the fans that I was capable of making all kinds of music. I’m returning to the sound that I was doing initially before Coming Home. People know me from the whole ’60s R&B thing, but before that, I was making music that was eclectic — a little bit of folk in there, some R&B in there, some neo-soul elements.”

Ambitious and adventurous, Good Thing feels more contemporary and more personal. The multifaceted album includes tender ballads, muscular dance beats, technicolor funk, post-modern pop and a touch of free jazz. The throwback vibe remains, but it’s more elastic and expansive. Bridges’ velveteen voice cuts through it all with a ribbon of raw, honest emotion. His sound has advanced forward through the decades, and his fans have come along for the ride. Good Thing peaked at No. 3 on Billboard and has spawned Bridges’ most fawning reviews yet. But moving from the singular sound of his megahit debut album to his highly anticipated follow-up challenged the singer to conquer new horizons. 

“It was a hard transition. I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know what that looked like.” Bridges’ first album was entirely recorded in Fort Worth and produced by Niles City Sound (Austin Jenkins, Josh Block and Chris Vivion). The second album started out the same way. “We went into Good Thing without a concrete idea. We were recording here initially, and we felt like we hit a wall creatively. So, I took my guys, and we went out to LA. I was reluctant to do it at first. I wanted to make my whole album here. But it was helpful to go out to LA and get somebody else’s perspective and ideas.”

The change of scenery was the creative spark that Bridges needed. The majority of Good Thing was recorded at the Los Angeles studio of Ricky Reed, an industry heavyweight who has produced hits for artists like Pitbull, Maroon 5 and Meghan Trainor. “He has this really beautiful studio,” Bridges says. “There’s a whole bunch of dope trees, and it’s got this cool deck. It’s just the perfect place for inspiration … We tried a bunch of different vibes, and that just ended up being the album.”

Bridges collaborated with different musicians and songwriters (including Jenkins and Block) to create a boundary-breaking release that is unconstrained by any single genre. Good Thing’s eclectic authenticity showcases Bridges’ renewed embrace of modern R&B. “It definitely reflects who I am more than Coming Home. Coming Home was genuine and heartfelt for sure, but Good Thing is a window into who I am now. I want to continue to reveal that.”

Revelation is at hand. Bridges is already flush with ideas for his third album. “I want to create a different experience. I want to move forward but also kind of go back a little bit,” he explains. “What does a Jodeci, Funkadelic and Dr. John vibe sound like? I don’t know. I just want to experiment. I want to make an album that’s never been done before … maybe go out to a different country and create.” With a world-traveling concert schedule, Bridges has been able to explore numerous potential recording sites for his third album — perhaps Spain, Germany or Mexico.

But before he jets off to another globe-trotting tour or blowout party with the Obamas, Bridges will perform in a city where he’s never before appeared at a major concert: Fort Worth. He is set to headline the third annual Fortress Festival, which takes place April 27–28 in the Cultural District. The event has been hailed as a bastion of forward-thinking music and a beacon of the city’s flourishing artistic growth.

“This is huge,” he says, as a noticeable uptick of energy ripples through his calm-and-cool demeanor. “I’m really looking forward to playing. I look back in retrospect to the days when I would perform to five people in some dive bar … so it’s really rad that I’m getting the opportunity to headline.” Bridges cheered in the crowd last year at the festival and speaks of the endeavor with enthusiasm. “They really embrace the local scene, and that’s what I love about it. I really see that festival growing.”

Fortress Festival co-founder Alec Jhangiani explains why Bridges was a coveted choice for the marquee act in 2019: “Leon is an inspiration to many people but especially to any creative trying to make it in Fort Worth. He’s demonstrated that hard work, humility and staying true to vision allow one to transcend the conventions of doing something world-class in arts and culture. In other words, you don’t have to be in New York or LA or even Austin. You can stay where you are. You can make the world come to you. We see ourselves working in that tradition, and we’re following his lead to a certain extent. We’ve wanted him on the lineup since year one, and the timing hasn’t worked out before. Now is the perfect time for us and for him, we think.” Bridges will perform on Saturday evening as the festival’s top billing. “We can expect some magic that night,” adds Jhangiani.
Magic. Leon Bridges’ unique magic shines a light on Fort Worth, a city whose creative stature is rising in kind with the musical career of its “hometown hero.”

“It’s really dope that Fort Worth is behind me. It’s cool to be called the ‘hometown hero,’” he shrugs. “But I don’t really look at it like that. I just make music.”