On Friday night, singer and activist John Legend took the stage in front of a sold-out crowd at Bailey Hall. After the performance, The Sun sat down with Legend to talk about Slope Day, life on the road and how to pursue one’s dream.
The Sun: Growing up, did you ever imagine that you would be such a, excuse the pun, legend?
John Legend: [Laughs] Uh, I imagined it, but you never know what real work it takes to get here, you know. When you’re a kid it’s just kind of a distant dream. You hope someone discovers you; you hope someone hears you and makes you a big star. But in real life, it’s much more entrepreneurial than that … When I was a kid, it was more just like a distant dream of a kid, you know, who sang at a lot of talents shows and sang at church and all these things and thought, “I could be on TV and do what those guys are doing.” So when you have that kind of a dream … it doesn’t connect to real life yet cause you’re just some kid singing in Springfield, Ohio at [his] grandfather’s church. When I moved to New York, well, actually, when I want to Philadelphia to go to UPenn, I started to … see what it would take. [I] started meeting people in the business, started making demos and, you know, just trying, … not only to get discovered, but actually to make an active effort to get in front of the right people, write the right songs that would propel me to where I am now — and it took a long time. It took me from ’98 to ’04 … trying to get a record deal and then actually getting it so, ya know, it happened eventually. And it’s kind of how I dreamed it would be, but I didn’t dream of all of the work that would have to go into it [laughs].
Sun: Did you ever think of pursuing another career?
JL: Oh yeah. I mean, I thought about being … I used to love Matlock; I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I wanted to be a chef. I wanted to be the President of the United States.
Sun: Not ambitious at all, then.
JL: Yeah, I just wanted to do, you know. I wanted to be the next Dr. Martin Luther King. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I always felt like I should be doing something that was grand and big, you know?
Sun: Was your family always supportive?
JL: Absolutely. Always supportive.
Sun: So who were some of your biggest musical influences?
JL: My grandmother. She taught me how to play gospel piano and organ, and I still play like her to some degree. And then I love Stevie Wonder. I love Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone and, uh, Nat King Cole. Those are some of my bigger musical influences, just to name a few.
Sun: Who would your dream collaboration be with?
JL: I don’t really have a dream collaboration at this point. It’s more like just the right song, the right music. You never know when some magic can happen because now it’s like … I just love making songs and, you know, you never know when the right thing is going to come along. I’ve written with unknown artists and felt like [those] were some of my favorite songs. Then I’ve worked with more established artists and had some really good success with that too. … I just don’t worry so much about, oh I need this name or that name; it’s more like the right song, the right time and you know, and then you can make something beautiful.
Sun: If you could give advice to a musician who is just starting out, what would you say to them?
JL: Well, work hard, practice a lot, get great at what you do … like one of the best in the world at it. So if you’re a singer, try to be one of the best singer in the world ‘cause that’s literally what … the standards are. If you’re a dancer, try to be one of the best in the word. As soon as you enter this arena, you’re competing with me, you’re competing with Justin Timberlake, you’re competing with Beyoncé, you’re competing with Alicia Keys, and they’re not gonna go away. So, you’re gonna have to figure out how to be worthy of being on the same radio station as those people and the same iPod as those people.
Sun: Speaking of iPods, if I were to look at yours right now, what would be the most played and what would be the most recently played?
JL: Well, unfortunately, this’ll sound very vain, but the most played is me because I’m listening to my own album a lot trying to finish the mixes and the mastering process. By far the most listened to will be John Legend [laughs]. I don’t listen to a lot of other music while I’m finishing my album so I’ve been in a bit of a vacuum. Last album I listened to was American Gangster by Jay Z, which was done a few years ago. I still love it; it’s one of my favorite albums of his.
Sun: What’s your favorite part and least favorite part about being on tour?
JL: My favorite part is I really love performing, I really love being on stage, I really love being in front of new audiences every night and having that challenge of winning them over every night. I love that. I love the rush that I get from it; the excitement of the crowd. I love performing songs that I spend a lot of time working on with the band and, you know, writing and all these things, so I love that and that feeling. That’s why I do this [laughs].
My least favorite part, when you have a lot of shows, you know, it’s a lot of wear and tear on my voice. … It starts to get a bit taxing after a while, when you’re doing four or five shows a week for weeks at a time. It can be pretty taxing, so that’s the toughest part, but I still love being on tour.
Sun: If you could give advice to your childhood self, what would it be?
JL: Like Blake Griffin? [laughs] Um, you know, I’d say don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I would give that advice to everybody here at Cornell, too [laughs].
Sun: So you also went to an Ivy League school.
JL: A rival [laughs].
Sun: A rival, yes. Well I wasn’t going to say that, but…
Sun: Have you ever been to Cornell’s campus before?
JL: Yeah, I came here with Kanye [West] many years ago. I was trying to decide whether or not I had before, and then I remembered that I had been here with Kanye. He was performing here around 2004. … I think it was the Fall of ’04 and it was just before my first album was coming out. I was on the road with Kanye, kind of getting exposure. He knew I was about to come out and he was putting me on his tour just so people would start buzzing about me so I could sing and play with him, and one of the gigs we had was playing at Cornell. It was right on the, it was right on the river — outdoor concert.
Sun: So what do you think of the campus? Have you gotten to see it at all?
JL: It was beautiful then. I think it was probably around — I don’t know if you have spring fling or something like that.
Sun: It was Slope Day.
JL: Yeah. So it was nice weather; it was a beautiful day.
Sun: Yeah, today it was not so great
JL: [laughs] I’m used to it; I’m from Ohio.
Sun: So you were roommates with Kanye’s cousin?
JL: Yeah, at Penn.
Sun: And that’s how you got i
n contact with him. Was he the one who jump-started your music career?
JL: It was a few different things but I think he was the most impactful of all the different kind of people that I met who helped me along the way.
Sun: Thank you so much.
JL: Thank you. It was my pleasure.