Interview: John Legend

A different kind of R&B star
By BEN WESTHOFF  |  August 5, 2009

 John_legend_main-backtalk
 "It's cool that Auto-Tune makes music sound interesting and futuristic, but I'm still a sucker for somebody with a great voice."

Despite being one of the most successful R&B singers of the decade — with six Grammys and three top-selling albums — John Legend is something of an oddball. From his previous career as a management consultant to his hobnobbing with Obama and Al Gore to his eschewing of raunchy lyrics and voice-manipulation software, the University of Pennsylvania graduate has established an individual template for mega-stardom in his genre. He spoke with me about his year in Boston, the song he sang at the Democratic National Convention, and wishing ill upon one's ex.

YOU WERE IN BOSTON FOR A YEAR AFTER YOU GRADUATED FROM PENN, RIGHT? IN WHAT PART OF TOWN DID YOU LIVE? I lived right by Fenway Park, on Commonwealth Avenue, a couple of blocks from the Citgo sign and close to the Charles River. I was working at the Boston Consulting Group, and then after a year I transferred to the New York office of the Boston Consulting Group, because I wanted to pursue my career there. I had a good year in Boston.

IS IT FAIR TO SAY NONE OF YOUR FELLOW CONSULTANTS WENT ON TO BE MULTI-PLATINUM ROCK STARS? That is fair to say. I know of some Ivy League rock stars and R&B singers — Ryan Leslie went to Harvard — but there's not a lot of artists that were management consultants!

YOUR THIRD ALBUM,EVOLVER, IS MORE UP-TEMPO THAN YOUR PREVIOUS WORK AND FEATURES COLLABORATIONS WITH RAPPERS LIKE ANDRÉ 3000. ARE YOU PERCEIVED DIFFERENTLY NOW THAT YOU'RE PLAYED IN THE CLUBS? I think it probably added some fans that I didn't have before and kind of rounded out my repertoire, and I think I'm more well-known now than I've ever been. But that's not just from Evolver, it's from all of the things I've done over the years. I've done a lot of TV, I've done a lot of politics, and now I'm doing the biggest tour of my career this summer.

"EVERYBODY KNOWS" HAS THE LYRIC "I STILL CAN'T BELIEVE YOU FOUND SOMEBODY NEW, BUT I WISH YOU THE BEST, I GUESS." WAS THAT INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE RELATIONSHIP? It's not explicitly autobiographical, but it has autobiographical elements to it. Whenever you break up with somebody, you want them to be happy, but you want them to have had their happiest moments with you!

AS SOMEONE WHO IS NOT A BIG FAN OF AUTO-TUNE AND HAS COLLABORATED WITH JAY-Z, WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HIS "D.O.A. (DEATH OF AUTO-TUNE)"? I think it's a cool record. I actually used Auto-Tune before it was popular, because I was working with Kanye on songs like "Jesus Walks" — which people don't really realize was Auto-Tune because we used it differently. I don't think it's a terrible thing, I just think it's probably too pervasive at this point. It's cool that it makes music sound cool and interesting and futuristic, but I'm still a sucker for somebody with a great voice.

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