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Leon Bridges: Tales from Texas

Five true stories behind some of the soulful singer’s biggest hits. 

by Ben Boddez

Photo illustration by Erik Grice

Leon Bridges broke into the industry and captivated music fans with a return to an era of music where direct and simple yet poignant storytelling was the norm. While Bridges’ musical journey has evolved since his classic soul-emulating Coming Home debut, many of his songs are still informed by deeply personal stories and experiences of his life growing up in Texas, a state that he has always been proud to represent.

While his rich and passionate tone has been informed at different times by gospel, hip-hop, and modern-day R&B, the heavy focus placed on Bridges’ vocals and lyricism has always been a captivating pinnacle of his music that hearkens back to his musical roots. Whether he’s using his voice to spin some classic tales of summer romance, lay out his family history or take a stand against police brutality, you can always expect to learn more by taking a deeper dive into the story behind the song.

Here are five real-life stories buried in the heart of the songwriter’s soulful serenades, spanning across his entire career. 

Coming Home

Bridges’ first ever single and breakout into the public eye, originally dropped unceremoniously onto the singer’s SoundCloud page while working as a dishwasher and street performer in Fort Worth, was first noticed by Austin Jenkins of Texas rock outfit White Denim. Speaking of denim, Bridges truly may not have had the career he does today if it hadn’t been for his pants. At a bar, Jenkins’ girlfriend noticed Bridges and Jenkins wearing the same pair of Wranglers, leading to conversation and Jenkins attending a gig Bridges played in front of a modest crowd of five a couple weeks later. After hearing “Coming Home,” Jenkins immediately asked him if he could produce the track for him in a professional studio. 

Texas Sun

Bridges’ quintessential ode to his home state, appearing on a collaborative EP with Houston psych-rock trio Khruangbin, was recorded in a rather unconventional location. Most of Khruangbin’s music is recorded in a warehouse-turned-recording studio in the middle of nowhere, where the band’s audio engineer Steve Christensen lives with his two cats. Unfortunately, the studio is also right beside a railroad track. Apparently, there are some incredible Bridges vocal takes we may never get to hear, as they were interrupted by trains going by, much to the chagrin of the band. The track, like many of Bridges’ songs, started from casual recording of his improvisations. “Leon is just one of those people who just sings. He just sings all the time,” said Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee. 

Lisa Sawyer

A highlight of Bridges’ debut studio album Coming Home, “Lisa Sawyer” is named after his mother and details her discovery of and conversion to Christianity at age 16 – a perfect opportunity to show off the gospel roots he obtained from attending a very musical church throughout his youth. Sawyer always showed support for Bridges’ musical journey, often singing duets with him and even buying him his first guitar after a couple rounds of pleading from the young superstar. Bridges felt that a special tribute to the woman who raised him was imperative, and tells the story of her childhood growing up in a poor neighbourhood, a testament to her values, strength and determination. 

Gone Away

While Bridges has frequently drawn comparison to quite a few soul greats – he’s heard “Sam Cooke” so many times that he physically recoils at the name if you bring it up today – Bridges’ early musical influences drew quite a bit from 90s R&B and hip-hop, a genre he remains a huge fan of today. Bridges’ rebellious teenage years saw him searching out music past his gospel-filled household – his mother had put a ban on any music containing profanity – and his love of hip-hop was finally realized on this special rap-soul collab with Bun B and Gary Clark Jr. Tracks like “You Don’t Know” and “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)” from his sophomore project Good Thing feel decidedly Pharrell-inspired as well, rooted in a hip-hop ethos. 

Steam

Like all of the tracks on Bridges’ latest album, Gold-Diggers Sound, his new single was conceived and recorded while Bridges was living at the famous hotel and recording studio on LA’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Bridges spent two years at the hotel trying to discover his new sound and return to his original recording process of getting a group of live musicians into the studio for improvisational jam sessions, tapping into some old-school recording methods. “Steam” was one of the first tracks completed for the album, a smooth R&B jam looking forward to that fateful day when we’re able to make frivolous romantic connections at parties again that signalled that Bridges’ unusual creation process would be a success. 

Read our interview with Leon Bridges here 

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