Leon Bridges has come a long way since his early days, working as a dishwasher and busking on the streets of Fort Worth, Texas. In 2015, a then 25-year-old Bridges was modestly winning fans one show at a time, belting out classic 60s-inspired soul tunes that would eventually take the world by storm.
Bridges first struck gold with the Sam Cooke inspired doo-wop emulating “Coming Home,” which he released on SoundCloud to rapturous response. Celebrated as a saviour bringing soul back to its roots, the young and fashionable songwriter quickly found himself with countless record labels breaking down his door. It wasn’t long before he was signed to Columbia Records, playing Saturday Night Live, and singing in front of former President Barack Obama.
Appealing to a tried-and-true nostalgia drive, lately Bridges has been shaking up perceptions with a new sound that’s just as colourful as the bright orange bandana he wears to our interview. Having already dominated one space, he branched out last year with a hyper smooth collab featuring fellow-Texan psych funk trio Khruangbin on the blazing road-trip friendly Texas Sun EP. Now Bridges only wants to expand his reach as he inches closer towards a more modern sound on new album, Gold-Diggers Sound. “This album is my version of speaking the language of the culture,” he says. “I understood that if I made 10 versions of my debut album, my career would stay stagnant. I wanted more than that. I wanted to be deemed as dope as my R&B counterparts, and I felt I could do that with this album.”
Wearing a flowing, low-cut white shirt adorned with nude female silhouettes and his trademark mutton chops on display, Bridges is laid-back and contemplative when he speaks. He takes long pauses to gather his thoughts and express himself in the most meaningful way, often masking a wide grin that comes out when joking about his somewhat unusual career path of refusing to settle into a niche.
From an early age, Bridges was already going against the grain of what was expected from him in a musical context. He grew up in a devoutly religious family attending church every weekend, but it wasn’t the soulful Southern gospel melodies that drew him to writing his first songs. “I didn’t really like gospel music at the time,” he says. “I more so gravitated towards secular R&B.”
More recently, Bridges picked up his first Grammy Award and was named 2021’s Texas State Musician, an honour he cherishes as someone who has striven to represent his home state – even getting a tattoo of its outline on his upper arm. Although he has collaborated across genre lines with everyone from electronic duo ODESZA to country music titan Luke Combs and started to drift from the vintage sound on his second release, 2018’s Good Thing, many still come to expect a classic soul sound from him.
A Spotify playlist created by Bridges detailing influences for his latest album includes both his beloved 90s and 2000s R&B stars like SWV, Ginuwine, and Usher alongside modern innovators like Frank Ocean, ChloexHalle and Jhene Aiko. “When I first started writing music, I was writing progressive R&B, and I ended up putting that on the backburner because I was inspired to create 60s-inspired stuff,” he says. “It’s so funny, because I understand how the persona that I led with painted this idea to people that I was this retro throwback in all aspects of my life, to the point where if anything deviates from that, if I’m putting up a video on Instagram where I’m dancing and being me, people think that’s disingenuous.”
Bridges has been open about getting a little too preoccupied with scrolling through criticisms of his work, whether it’s beliefs that his breakout soul tracks were too much of a copy of the greats or that newer ventures diverted from his strengths. For that reason, Bridges made an effort to make his latest work, Gold-Diggers Sound, feel like a blend of his first two albums. The smoky brass section and storytelling approach to his songwriting is reminiscent of classic 60s soul, but he makes a point of mixing in more modern influences. Hints of alt-R&B’s trendy psychedelia are added in, while the instrumentation becomes a little more subdued than usual to place a spotlight on Bridges’ resonant vocals.
To do even more soul-searching and discover a sound that was completely in touch with who he is today, Bridges spent the last two years living in Santa Monica Boulevard’s legendary Gold-Diggers Hotel, which conveniently comes equipped with a recording studio that hosted many late-night jam sessions. “There’s something beautiful about the momentum of living and creating in the same space,” he says. “If I hit a wall creatively, I was able to go to the bar, grab a drink, and the rest of the lyrics came to me.”
As many of the songs are built around looping guitar and drum riffs, it’s easy to imagine his band noodling around with different parts, Bridges improvising on top until something sticks. In fact, many of the melodies you hear on the finished product come directly from improvisation and simply feeling the groove in the room. “The producer would normally start off with a drum track. Then the guitar players are following suit, and there was actually one of the homies on the live drums,” he says. “I would hear that and improvise my part, so the writing process initially starts with me mumbling and singing incoherently, and then writing lyrics later.”
The tracklist on Gold-Diggers Sound features several instrumental masters of their craft including pianist Robert Glasper and saxophonist Terrace Martin, who made significant contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s jazz-rap masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly. While pandemic restrictions prevented Glasper from joining the jam band, Martin’s impromptu appearance in the studio resulted in the production of the project’s most meaningful song, “Sweeter.” Released only 12 days after the death of George Floyd, Bridges sings from the perspective of a victim of police brutality in his final moments of life, mourning his lost potential. While Bridges has always been an outspoken advocate for racial justice, it’s never found a way into his music. The shock of the moment and the resulting movement finally broke that barrier. “Those lyrics were something I’ve been dwelling on for years,” he says. “I felt it was appropriate to put out ‘Sweeter’ in light of everything that happened. I felt that the Black community needed this beacon of light and hope, and that was my contribution to the movement.”
If Bridges’ latest videos for singles “Motorbike” — directed by none other than Anderson .Paak — and “Why Don’t You Touch Me” seemed more cinematic than your typical offering, it’s just because Bridges is yet again trying to jump into another lane you might not have expected from him. Bridges previously portrayed hip-hop godfather and space-race critic Gil Scott-Heron in Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, and it might not be the last time you see him on the silver screen. “I’m a big fan of really dope cinematography, and it’s also my aspirations of heading into the acting world one day,” he says. “If I can get my little moment in my music videos, maybe some casting agent will notice. I felt like the songs are so beautiful that we had to find someone that can really paint the picture visually.”
While there’s a good chance that the origin of the name stems from somewhere entirely different, Bridges’ time living and working in the Gold-Diggers Hotel over the past two years allowed him to relax, take a step back and identify the aspects that have worked best for him throughout his career, mining for those elusive nuggets of perfection along the way while keeping things simultaneously classic and fresh.