I am moving onto an artist who I last reviewed a year ago. He has not exactly been quiet since then but last year’s Good Thing was a revelation. I was amazed by the smoothness of Leon Bridges’ voice and the class of the songs; the sheer power and agility of his voice and how he can transport the listener to somewhere very engrossing, comforting and evocative. Now that he has a new track out, I want to talk about Bridges’ style of Soul and how we need to hear more of it in the mainstream; what an artist can do in terms of emotional resonance and reveal; the importance of black artists and how, still, we are not seeing balance and parity regarding exposure; those that can inspire the next generation and have that star quality – I will also talk about Bridges and where he might head next. Let us discuss Bridges in the context of Soul and Neo-Soul. I am going to bring in an interview he gave with GQ last year (when promoting Good Thing) that sort of shows how he has evolved and how his music has shifted over the past few years. When he released his debut, Coming Home, in 2015, I was instantly hooked and it was so refreshing hearing a young artist who mixed modern Neo-Soul (in the sense of putting a twist on Neo-Soul) and retaining that old-school Soul sound. There are soulful artists around like Michael Kiwanuka, but I do not really think we have as many out there as we should. I am not sure why that is but maybe it is something to do with translating to certain audiences and maybe trends have moved on. Soul is no longer as prevalent as it once was but, as Leon Bridges proves, a voice that is steeped in history and beauty is a rare thing. I love the way he can remind one of Soul greats like Sam Cooke but has a very modern touch. Listening to him sing and one is relaxed but empowered.
This GQ interview found Bridges talking about his debut album and the audiences it was reaching:
“Coming Home, Bridges says, found predominantly white audiences. "It's uncomfortable live to look out into the crowd, and during my song 'Brown Skin Girl'—that's part of my patter, the whole thing is like, 'Where's my Brown Skin Girls at?'—and...there aren't any." People didn't seem to think Bridges' music was black, or black enough. "There are people who say ignorant stuff like that," he says. "Which is a crazy thing to hear." The new songs are sexier, more authentic and original and aware; Bridges explicitly changed his sound to find a more diverse audience. If you're a fan of Coming Home, you'll recognize that smoked-honey voice. The music, however, is something different—wholly modern, though visited by the ghosts of the past. You can hear a parade of Bridges' inspirations all over Good Thing: "Fuckin' Usher, Ginuwine, James Blake, Portishead, R. Kelly, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson," he says”.
Maybe his debut was a little commercial in a way but the songs definitely had Bridges’ D.N.A. all over it. There is always that problem, when you start out, that the music might not reach as wide an audience as possible. I have seen other Soul artists around and the sound is very dumbed down and designed to hit the commercial market. Maybe that means writing songs that are less personal and are more designed for the charts. On his follow-up album, Bridges moved through the gears and created more authentic tracks. Now, his voice seems richer and sharper whilst his songs explore new ground and territory. It is exciting to see Bridges grow and I know that his brand of Soul/Neo-Soul will attract those who have not heard the genres before. Whilst genres like Pop are still prevalent and they are not budging anytime soon, I would like to see other artists like Leon Bridges emerge. I think the Texas-based artist is shining a light and standing out as an idol of the future.
In terms of the power and prowess of Leon Bridges, I do think that he has also evolved since his debut album. Coming Home had its fine moments and standouts but I do think that Good Thing contained more texture and emotions. The effect of that album is still reverberating in my head. I want to (briefly) return to the interview I just sourced that documents how Bridges has grown since his debut and how he grew from his debut to the follow-up:
“By his own admission, Bridges was a "baby￼" when Coming Home dropped in 2015. He was in his early twenties when he recorded it, down in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. "I was very sheltered," he says. "I wasn't in a relationship, any relationships at the time. I didn't really, um…go out and drink and all that kind of shit." In the three years since, Bridges has toured the world, been nominated for two Grammys, attended President Barack Obama's last birthday celebration at the White House—"surreal," Bridges calls it, before launching into a surprisingly excellent impression of our former president—and returned with another album, Good Thing, which is due out early this May. The new￼ stuff shows just how much Bridges has grown up: He's debuting a new, contemporary sound, one that more accurately reflects who he's becoming. That person is more mature, more in control, and more aware of himself and the way the world sees him”.
If Leon Bridges was slightly shy and alone on his debut album – in the sense he did not have the same confidence he does now – there was this blossoming and realisation on Good Thing. The voice, the songs and the music: it was more of the true Bridges and did not have to be compared with contemporaries and who was trending in the charts. The greatest gift Bridges has is that voice. The purity and passion that pours from it is immense and captivating. If you find an artist who can uncover hidden emotions and make you feel better, they should be taken to heart. So much of today’s music is about emptiness and commercialism. Leon Bridges is one of those artists who digs deep into the soul and can make the heart swoon.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rambo Photography
I will keep the interview quotes low but, before moving on, I want to bring in an interview from CLASH that backs up my point regarding Bridges’ voice and how he grew in confidence and intent – thanks to personal decisions and relentless touring:
“I just kinda felt this weight of expectation from the fans - a lot of my fans, they want that specific sound, and they’d be content if I made that same sound for the rest of my life,” he says of the pressures he faced when considering change, and attributes a realisation he experienced at the 2016 Grammy Awards, where he was nominated for Best R&B Album, as the catalyst for the new musical direction he’d take. Considering his fellow nominees, he noted: “I just thought to myself that I have the talent to be in the same conversations with the Brunos and the Ushers and all those guys, but still stay unique. So that was the whole motivation behind this project: how can we take the elements from the first album but evolve the sound?”
Despite any trepidation during its creation, ‘Good Thing’ is dripping with self-assurance. The cultivated dynamics of Leon’s voice, honed after three years of constant performing, are confident and engaging, particularly on the suggestive ‘Shy’, which also introduces this intriguing sexuality that exudes throughout ‘Good Thing’ - a facet hitherto unexplored by the self-confessed shy loner”.
On his latest track, That Was Yesterday, that vocal brilliance and shine is augmented and has reached new levels. The song is slated to appear in the Season 2 finale of Big Little Lies and it will mean his music reaches new ears. It is clear Bridges is a star and he keeps getting stronger and more impressive. I talked about Soul and how we do not really have too many artists like Bridges. I listen to Bridges and I am calmed but, at the same time, his voice reveals so much and is filled with nuance.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rambo Photography
Maybe it is a risky subject to bring in but, in 2019, I wonder whether there is a discrepancy when it comes to promoting black and white artists. There is a horrible feeling that Leon Bridges, on his debut, was told to make his music more accessible and commercial. He did not abandon his roots and tastes but one feels that the comparative lack of authenticity and his pure self was a move to appeal to white audiences. I loved that album but did feel that Bridges was holding back and the true him was being kept back until the album hit and was taken to heart. I am glad Bridges was given a greater lease of freedom on Good Thing and he was allowed to create material with greater verve, personality and width. It is slightly worrying that, in order to be seen as commercial and popular, black artists are not allowed as much freedom and scope as they should; when they do achieve success, the rewards and exposure is not the same as for white artists. It is a bit dangerous bringing up these theories but I am concerned that we are not giving the same rights and opportunities to black artists. Some festivals are breaking ground and, of course, I am not saying black artists are underground and lack visibility at all. What I mean is that, when it comes to letting an artist be themselves, musicians like Leon Bridges are being held back. I know there are so many great black artists in various genres that are promising but, as they are not as accessible and commercial as some artists in the mainstream, their path is being held back. It seems a shame but I hope we are making strides and things will change very soon. I do think artists like Leon Bridges will inspire change and, as he has shown with his personal growth, providing artists the ability to be who they are is most important.
I shall move on to his latest track very soon but, even though his latest album was released last year, I do think we will hear more from him in time. Good Thing was one of the most affecting albums of 2018 and I am still listening to it now. The songs, whilst they did have an aspect of Soul greats, struck and stunned because this was Leon Bridges coming out of the shadows and revealing all his different sides and qualities. The songwriting is exceptional and the vocals are among the most alive and striking I have ever heard. This year has seen so many great female artists come through and, when it comes to artists that are going to inspire the next generation, we have plenty of options. I think that Leon Bridges has shown why we need more Soul/Neo-Soul artists right now. The effect of his music and how it makes you feel…it is much more potent and wondrous than so much of what is out there at the moment. It is not just Bridges’ voice and his music that gets to you and opens the eyes but it is clear he has determination and a plan for the future. That determination he had – after his debut – to move on and improve his music; that is something that will compel other artists and shows he was not willing to repeat himself. I keep mentioning his debut album in slightly negative terms but, in truth, it was a wonderful release and a fine achievement. You look at Bridges and the fact that he pretty much pops from the page. The man is seriously cool and is a bit of a style icon. Bridges talks so fondly about his musical idols and where he came from. He is a complete package and someone who is a mile away from the usual Pop artist. Bridges is a perfect example of someone who has come from quite humble beginnings and has become this popular and inspirational artist.
The trouble Bridges found earlier in his career that he was not seen as a relevant black artist. He was living in Texas but his music, to anyone who had sense and good ears, was stunning. He was receiving criticism because some felt he did not fit in with the black community and there were some who felt his music lacked any relevance and realness. He was not getting booked as much as he should have been and this was disheartening for Bridges. Maybe it was the material he was performing and the fact it lacked the breadth of his later work. Another reason why I feel Bridges is inspiration is because he moved from the more traditional basis of love on Coming Home and incorporated more politics on Good Thing. Bad Bad News was a clear shot against society and how there are limits imposed on people. Maybe there were some, when it comes to politics, who wanted him to write about President Trump and what is happening in America. That was not what he was about; he did not want to attack and write political songs like everyone else. Having experienced discrimination and disappointment, that notion that society (including music) has these notions and ideals was more important to him. Bridges writes songs he is passionate about so, if he was expected to write a certain way, that would not seem real and it would not get the same reaction. Bridges will encourage other artists who want to write about what they know and what resonates within them – rather than following the herd and being a commercial shill. One of the changes I have noticed in Bridges is how he has to work slightly less hard to impress. There is more space in his music and, even though he has developed in terms of compositional ambition and vocals, the music seems more economical. You see these artists who have an almost film-like quality to them. Bridges started life with ambitions and dreams of becoming a big artist. His early gigs and recordings were promising but Bridges has seen his stock rise. Now, with potential for another album, I wonder just how far Bridges can go.
That Was Yesterday begins with strutting strings; an acoustic start that is beautiful and graceful yet has a definite energy and punch. It is a brief introduction but one that perfectly opens the mind and gets images projecting. In a way, the song seems to be about Leon Bridges and where he has come from. He did not know whether he would amount to anything and whether he would succeed. Whether talking about personal achievements or making a success of his career, Bridges looks back and takes the listener to his childhood; maybe the years before he was signed and dreamed of bringing his music to a bigger stage. Bridges’ voice is less rapturous than it was on some of Good Thing’s best moments but this is what the song calls for. There is contemplation and wistfulness but also the sound of the man now looking at where he started and taking stock. Bridges had holes in his shoes and coat (only yesterday, as he says) and he was just a boy “living amongst children”. There is this vision of him in a struggling scene where he has very little and the only dream he has is surviving and making sure he can stay afloat. Ideal of success and musical dreams were miles away and seemed impossible. Whether Bridges is talking about his own experiences and childhood or is employing a fictional edge, I do not know. I do get that sense of personal experience because Bridges’ voice cracks with emotion and you can tell he means every word! Even though Bridges has come a long way and is no longer in the same place he was, he is still learning the game and learning his trade. Listening to the song – and reading the title – there is this feeling that Bridges has not left bad memories and his beginnings in the past.
They are still impacting him but the worst times are behind him. It is sobering to think that this man had a hard start and was a very different person to who he is now. Investigating the song closely, I get the feeling Bridges is talking about his career and how he used to be under the surface. Maybe he was not being heard and things were not going swimmingly. I get this feeling Bridges is also talking about his personal life and how he has come a long way. All of that was yesterday but there is this lingering pain and emotion that comes out. If Good Thing was synonymous with musical boldness, a sense of crackle and energy; here, there is greater emphasis on the bare and controlled. It is almost like That Was Yesterday is a prayer and recollection. Whether Bridges will employ this sound/direction on a new album is up for debate but the strength of his latest song is its sparseness; the fact that his voice is not held back and having to compete with instruments. The power is there but there is this huge emotional purity and tenderness that brings the words to life. He had no direction in his life once upon a time but now, able to look back, things are moving in the right direction. Many people will be able to relate to Leon Bridges’ messages and where he is coming from. We do not share the same experiences but we all can appreciate how things are different today compared to yesterday; how dreams can be realised and how we can go from humble beginnings and make our way. All of these bad times were yesterday and they are all in the past. Bridges brings in backing vocals – a gorgeous, rich harmony – that adds Gospel tones to the song. Bridges realises that he has done well and has changed but he will never forget where he has come from. The roots are strong and firm but Bridges does not want to look back too much and let it affect him. The future is now and he wants to keep moving. Although Bridges has felt lost and worked tirelessly to get where he is, the future is open and he is not taking anything for granted. Every line and expression will impact someone out there and all listeners, as I say, will be able to relate to what Bridges is saying. That familiarity is inspiring but you also hear this deeply personal song from a man who has a lot more to say. That central message – things being in the past and life now being different – is key but it also acts as a springboard for Bridges. That Was Yesterday is a marvellous song and I do hope that it forms part of a new album. Bridges’ debut was brilliant but Good Thing saw Bridges explore new areas and sounds. Now, there is another direction and it shows that Bridges is always exploring what is possible and where his music can take him. That is the mark of a truly remarkable artists and someone, as I said, who is an idol of the future. I am a big fan of Leon Bridges but am amazed at how far he has come and the quality of the music he is putting out there. If you need your soul uplifted but also want to ponder and look deep inside yourself then you need to listen to That Was Yesterday and have your heart and mind opened to something exceptional, moving and spellbinding.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Oldham
That Was Yesterday is a song that could be standalone or could be the start of his third album. I hope there is more material coming but Bridges has been working hard since Good Thing arrived last year. He has been gigging a lot and he does not want to rush into a new album. There is always that pressure, when you release a great album, to bring something out soon to capitalise on that wave. That can often damage momentum and can affect an artist. I do think Leon Bridges has moved on from his debut album and has grown in stature and confidence since his earliest days. Born in Atlanta, Georgia; he moved to Fort Worth, Texas and now…this young artist can take on the world. Bridges played countless open-mics whilst he was working at Del Frisco’s Grille in Fort Worth. Having been signed to Columbia Records in 2014, this young man has tackled disappointment and matured as an artist. These are still early days for Leon Bridges but I just know he will continue to conquer and release exceptional music. Many will want a third album pretty quick but I think it is better he takes his time and prepares something that is meaningful to him. So many artists feel the pinch and they will get pushed by their label. With each gig and tour, Bridges learns something new and grows in confidence. That leads to stronger material and new colours. I will end things very soon but I would urge people who have not heard Leon Bridges to check out his music and listen to this truly amazing artist. I know Soul is a hard genre to tackle because, on the one hand, people have these ideals of what Soul is (legends like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin) and will want artists to follow them. So many young Soul artists idolise the legends but, if they just replicate them, it might lead to limited appeal and longevity.
If they stray too far away from the Soul template then it might not sound as authentic and certain audiences might feel alienated. Leon Bridges came into music and found that there were some unwilling to embrace his sounds and influences. Breaking away from that and adding in new shades, Bridges has perfectly mixed classic Soul’s power with something individual to him. His audience base has widened and he has managed, I think, to unite black and white audiences. Those who doubted him at the start must be eating their words! I shall end it now because we all need to get on but, really, you need to get behind Leon Bridges because I predict he will go on to become this megastar. When another album arrives, it will show what he has learned over the past year and whether he will add new ideas into his music – maybe he will talk about new political themes given the way the U.S. has changed and divided. That Was Yesterday is an exceptional song it is great to have Leon Bridges back in the music world – not that he ever left! There are so few Soul/Neo-Soul artists operating at the moment and I do think they are difficult genres to bring to the mainstream. On this sunny day, bring Leon Bridges’ new song with you and let it do its work. It is a magnificent song and shows that Bridges is one of the strongest artists…
WE have right now.
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