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Leon Bridges: A Fresh Voice For Old Soul(s) 

Wednesday, Aug 5 2015
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Before Leon Bridges was a rising soul singer, his voice was a hit among coworkers at Del Frisco's grill, where — far from the spotlight — the generally shy Texan worked as a dishwasher a little less than a year ago. As menial as the job was, Bridges liked the flexible hours that let him play open mic nights and other small performances.

After a chance run-in with White Denim guitarist Austin Jenkins, Bridges was on the road to bigger things. Jenkins was enamored with the singer's performance of "Lisa Sawyer," a song Bridges wrote about his mother. Eager to capture what he heard, Jenkins hooked Bridges up with recording time and backing musicians. Bridges, it seemed, had been "discovered."

When Bridges hits the Sutro stage at Outside Lands on Friday, it'll be part of his first big festival tour. His smooth, gentle, Sam Cooke-esque vocal phrasings and runs that lured coworkers out to open mic nights have now found a place in the heart of the general public. The kitchen fire of "Lisa Sawyer" and "Coming Home" went viral, burning its way through the blogosphere and radio and onto the big stage.

Bridges grew up on his mother's gospel records and '90s R&B, including Usher and Ginuwine, but after friends started comparing his voice to Sam Cooke, he more closely investigated the sounds of '50s and '60s soul.

"I just started to see that was the best time for R&B music," Bridges says. "I looked at black music today and saw that there was nobody really carrying on this sound within black music, so I felt as a young black man and as a singer that I needed to go back to the roots, to where it started."

Going from a dishwasher to a freshly signed Columbia Records artist is still a bit of a "whirlwind" for Bridges, who recently spent his 26th birthday at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where friends threw him a surprise party. The best gift? The young singer was able to speak with legendary musician and producer, Quincy Jones.

"I asked him his favorite soul singer and he was like, 'Man, you can't choose one they're all different," Bridges says. "He was like, 'Man, I remember working with Ray [Charles] when he was 14,' and my mind was totally blown just talking to him."

Bridges' musical path also started young. His first musical memory is of the sound of Terence Trent D'arby's "Sign Your Name" coming over the speakers of the family car while headed to New Orleans with his mother and brother.

"I don't know why, but even as a kid that song would give me chills. I just remember seeing the trees as we went by," Bridges says.

As Bridges speaks of the song, his voice seems to fade back into the passenger seat of the family Toyota, as if he's reliving that long trek from Texas to New Orleans, rows of trees zooming by outside the window. It's the same nostalgic displacement that his music causes. Powered by Stax-era horns, and wrapped in the warm sound of vintage tube amps, Bridges' debut EP, Coming Home, takes passengers on a carefully crafted trip through '50s and '60s soul music. Like a breath of freshly unearthed time capsule air, Bridges rises above the plethora of hyper-sexual, almost-psychopathically materialistic pop acts by delivering something the average music listener has been asking for for years: "real music."

One of Bridges' secret weapons — best displayed in the "Brown Skin Girl" lyric, "Ooh, baby, don't you know you're a cutie pie?" — is that sometimes less is more. His lyrics are often simple, sweet, and contrast sharply with others that play on the same radio stations, like Jhene Aiko's "gotta eat the booty like groceries" line on Omarion's hit single "Post To Be."

"I was really a little bit self-conscious when I did use 'cutie pie,' " Bridges admits. "I was like 'I hope people don't think this is corny,' but it's cool within the context of '50s and '60s soul music. That works. It's cool that you can kinda make yourself vulnerable as an artist when you're not writing about some explicit, very in-your-face sex theme. It's just the simple things in life."

When Bridges plays that song live, he often asks any brown-skinned girls to raise their hands so he can dedicate the song to them, but hasn't noticed too many hands popping up.

"Recently, the crowds have been majority white," Bridges says. "But I'm starting to see that change. At a recent show in London there was a pretty good mix of people. The question is, what does it take to really pierce into that world of black people — to have them come out and see a show?"

Bridge's style, with songs like "Lisa Sawyer," written about his mother, and "Twistin' and Groovin'," written about his grandparents, have a classic sound, that, in America, was crafted under the weight of segregation. According to Bridges, in a way, the music scenes are still segregated.

"Look at any 'grown and sexy' R&B — its majority black people. Hip-hop is majority black people. But you go to singer-songwriter, rock, indie, folk music and it's gonna be majority white people. I dunno what it takes for worlds to collide, but I think that can change."


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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Bio:
Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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