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Published: Sunday, 8/2/2009

A conversation with John Legend

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Grammy-winning singer John Legend appears Wednesday at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre. Grammy-winning singer John Legend appears Wednesday at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre.
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At only 30, John Legend, nee John Stephens, has accomplished more in his brief professional musical career than most musicians twice his age.

The neo-soul/R&B/pop singer-songwriter-pianist has six Grammys, including Best New Artist in 2006 becoming the first male singer to receive the award in 14 years.

And he s also scored hit singles like "Ordinary People," "Used to Love U," "Green Light," "Everybody Knows," and "If You re Out There," an anthem to political and personal change, which Legend performed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver shortly after the Obama campaign adopted the song.

All this in less than six years.

That kind of sudden success can be difficult to handle, but the Springfield, Ohio, native credits his upbringing with helping him maintain his sanity.

"I m sure the small-town Midwest roots have helped me stay grounded in this kind of interesting life that I live," he told The Blade in a phone interview. "I ve learned a lot growing up in Ohio. A lot of it was through my parents, my church, my school, and I feel like I carry a lot of that with me."

Legend is returning to his home state via a summer tour, including a Wednesday stop at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre, to continue promotion of his latest album, 2008 s "Evolver."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Blade, the performer discussed his surging career. the Midwestern influence on his music, and his call for change.

Q: How has your Springfield background affected your music?

A: I certainly think I have a Midwestern sensibility to some of the things that I do. The Midwest is kind of known for soul and funk, and I m certainly a student of that music and certainly have been influenced by it. Also, gospel was a big element of my growing up. I grew up playing in church and singing in church, and I certainly have been influenced by that as well.

Q: You were already an established session musician in 2004 when your album, "Get Lifted," launched you as a performer in your own right. Were you surprised at how quickly the success came to you?

A: I always believed that this was possible, I always dreamed of doing this. It wasn t a real surprise that it happened. It was a culmination of a lot of work and a lot of times when it didn t work out.

I don t know that I would say it was a surprise. I would say you never know that everything is going to work out the way you want it to, but this is what I wanted.

Q: Adopting the moniker Legend, you displayed a good deal of confidence in your musical abilities.

A: Well, I think I had to take a bet on myself to some extent. (Laughs)

Q: And you re not afraid to gamble with that success by muzzling your political views. For example, you certainly didn t hold back your opinions of Obama, McCain, and then-president George Bush on Real Time with Bill Maher in October in the thick of the presidential election.

A: I m pretty opinionated and I haven t been afraid to voice my opinions about a lot of things. I think it s possible that it s hurt me with some fans, but I think it s probably made up for [by] the fact that it s helped with some other fans. I feel good about it.

Q: "If You re Out There" puts the onus of change squarely on people. There s been a lot of talk about change and sacrifice, from our spending habits to the kinds of cars we drive. Do you ever feel such drastic alterations in our lifestyles are now beyond us?

A: I think people need to be led. People need to be engaged. Great leaders have a way of engaging people and helping them think beyond themselves. Yeah, it s difficult. When things are urgent you can get people to act, but when it requires some foresight and some sacrifice, it s often difficult to get people to act.

I ve heard people say ["If You re Out There"] made them want to get up and do something. But the only question is whether that initial thought translated into action. You never know if that is the case or not. I do know that the song was used by the Obama campaign and they certainly were able, through all the work that was being done on his campaign, there was certainly some extra inspiration for that campaign and there was certainly not a shortage of volunteers for that campaign, so when properly motivated people can get involved and will get involved.

Q: As an artist, what can you do to help?

A: Well, part of what I did was try and help Obama get elected. I knew if McCain was elected there was no way we would have serious health care reform. Elections have consequences, and when you put certain people in charge then you re more likely to get certain priorities addressed. That s a clear difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Q: Switching topics from your politics to your music, "Evolver" has been out for nearly a year. At this point, how do you feel about the album?

A: I m very pleased with the album and very pleased with the music. I love performing it live. It s a different era now when it comes to album sales, so you have to readjust your expectations when it comes to how many albums you re going to sell. Clearly, we ve had a lot of success with it. This is my biggest tour yet and we ve had my biggest single yet with "Green Light." But it s a little bit disappointing to not see that reflected in album sales.

Q: Many artists have said they make considerably more money touring than through album sales.

A: Yeah. I make more money on touring as well. But you just have to readjust your expectations. I came into the business right at the cusp of when things were changing, to when albums were not being bought as much.

At the end of the day, you want to put out great music, and you want to build your fan base based on putting out great music and then performing that live. Putting the music out, the technology will change, but one way or the other you have to be able to build your audience and to be able to maintain it.

Q: You ve become known as much for your live shows as your hit singles. Even as your summer tour creeps into the midway point, are you still enjoying performing?

A: I love it. I love being on stage. I love the interaction with the crowd, I love the interaction with the band. I have a great time on stage.

I think we are putting on a better tour than we ve ever put on visually, audio, everything. It s my biggest tour yet as well when it comes to the tickets we re selling. And the reaction of the crowd has been the best yet.

John Legend with guest India.Arie performs at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre, 2700 Broadway. Tickets are $40.50, $59.50, and $70.50 from the zoo s visitors services lobby (with no handling fee) and ticketmaster.com.

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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