Leon Bridges is a 33-year-old Texan R&B singer who launched his career as a retro R&B singer so successfully that his 2015 debut, “Coming Home,” scored two Grammy nominations, earned him an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and even a performance for the Obamas at the White House. But he felt typecast and basically rebelled, veering off into a more esoteric, contemporary direction with his follow-up “Good Thing” — which scored him a Grammy win, for the song “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand.” Over the past few years he’s worked with everyone from Kacey Musgraves and John Mayer to Macklemore and Bun B and even left-field Houston alt-rock trio Khruangbin. “I love staying unpredictable,” he says, with no small understatement.
His new album, “Gold-Diggers Sound,” flips the script even more: Where “Good Thing” was meticulously plotted, this one is intuitive and organic, still R&B but with a commercial twist. That’s due in part to producers Ricky Reed (Lizzo) and Nate Merceneau (Shawn Mendes), yet it also features young jazz musicians like Terrace Martin as well as rapper-singer Anderson .Paak. The album is named after the East Hollywood “studio, hotel and bar/speakeasy” where Bridges lived during its creation and the songs range from “Sweeter” (inspired by the ongoing police killings of Black men) to love songs. It all adds up to the strongest and most fully realized album to date from an artist determined to keep evolving.
You liked working at Gold-Diggers Sound so much that you named the entire album after it?
Man, the experience there was so liberating and almost a homecoming, in terms of getting back to making music the way that I want to make it. I spent so much time there, and pretty much every song on the album was inspired by improvisations we made in that studio; some songs were written prior, but we outfitted those songs with the Gold-Diggers aesthetic. I’d never done anything like that before, and it was refreshing compared to my second album, “Good Thing” — I think some great stuff transpired out of that, but it felt very dull, in the sense that it was basically me picking out beats and writing to them, which is how a lot of people do it. But what I loved about this one is we were able to really start from the ground up with these songs in a room with talented musicians. And it was just beautiful living in this space and creating an album over a long period of time in a place that was so inspiring.
I met you a few months after “Coming Home” and you seemed almost grouchy about the retro-R&B thing — did you want to get away from it?
Y’know, I love my first baby, and that was the music I was inspired by from that era. But I also understood that if I were to continue down that path of traditional R&B, I would have gotten stagnant, and I wanted more than that. When you consider the modern R&B realm, you don’t really see a lot of the jazz and soulful elements in it, and I think this new one is a progressive R&B album with psychedelic elements and jazz interwoven through it all.
There’s a lyric on one of your songs saying “I won’t be the man you want me to be” — is defying expectations part of that as well?
Absolutely. I think a lot of artists who come into the game with that kind of retro thing get put into a box, and one thing I notice is that some people want to put boundaries on Black self-expression, to the point where if I deviate from the soul thing, that’s deemed as being disingenuous or selling out. But if I do something that’s reminiscent of Otis Redding or Young Thug or Usher, it’s all Black culture, and it all came from a Black man.
You’ve worked with such a wide variety of artists in just a few years, from Bun B to Kacey Musgraves to Khruangbin.
I love those collaborations because doing things that are a little left-field has been really helpful as far as broadening my audience and my career. I love all types of music and if there’s an artist I love, I want to work with them. Those collaborations you mentioned make sense because we’re all from Texas, and Khruangbin’s music really resonated with me the first time I heard it and we both have similar nuances in our music. We’re releasing another EP next year.
Who would you really like to work with that you haven’t?
My bucket list is Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, and — for nostalgia’s sake — Usher. These are guys that I’m genuinely a fan of, and I’d love to do something with them.
What are you listening to now?
A lot of Gunna and Young Thug stuff — I really love that whole Atlanta [hip-hop] movement and the lineage, going back to Outkast. I’ve been really digging into that [West African rock] group Tinarwen, that desert blues, and a little bit of Bobby Womack and Van Morrison.
Do you come from a musical family?
It’s somewhat innate in me, because my family lineage is all from New Orleans. My grandmother sang in church and my mother was a singer — not professional — so I would attribute a lot of that to them. I always loved to sing for fun, and I gravitated toward bands growing up, but it wasn’t until I got a little older and was going to college — this community college in Ft. Worth called Tarrant County College — that I found this community of musicians and jammed with them, and that’s when I kind of got the affirmation that I was okay at singing.
But you only lived in New Orleans for a short time, right?
That’s the thing, I was born in Atlanta and my family moved to New Orleans and I was there for a split second before we moved to Texas. But when I look back at some of my early songs, I’m like, “Oh shit, that almost sounds like [New Orleans legends] Lee Dorsey or Allen Toussaint or Fats Domino,” even though I really had no clue who those guys were at the time. I think that’s a testament to how New Orleans’ spirit and culture is ingrained in me.
Around the time of “Coming Home,” you played some really high-profile gigs when you were pretty young — especially performing for the Obamas at the White House. Were you nervous?
I actually think I would be more nervous if I were to get those opportunities now — at that time, everything was so fresh and new and I was just so ecstatic about this new life of doing what I love for a living. But I do remember before performing in front of Obama, I was terrified (laughing). But luckily I was able to sing decently and give a good performance, and it’s something I can take with me for the rest of my life.