On my list of preferred ‘interview scenarios’, face-to-face ranks first. Then, conference-style. Then, through video chats, followed by e-mail correspondence.
Interviews conducted through the phone ranks bottom as I can’t see my sources. I cannot meet their eyes, I cannot ascertain their expressions; all I have is their voice and what they have to say. Quite literally, I have to take them at their word. This can prove even more frustrating, especially when the connection is bad.
But when my subject happens to be John Legend well, I grit my teeth and carpe that diem.
Before he was Legend, he was John Stephens, son of a seamstress and a factory worker. His childhood was spent in Springfield, Ohio; his musical calling fostered in a church, where he sang in the church choir at four and played the piano at seven.
He served as the musical director of UPenn’s a cappella group, Counterparts, and graduated magna cum laude. He worked as a management consultant and toiled at producing his own music. He pitched himself to record labels and eventually signed on with Kanye West’s label, GOOD Music. He also adopted the Legend stage name.
John Legend debuted Get Lifted, which won him three Grammys, in 2006. The streak continued with his collaborations with other musicians and with a follow-up album, Once Again. Legend eventually ended up as a coach for the singing competition, The Voice.
The concept of The Voice is as such: for the blind audition, there are four coaches who sit in chairs—that look like the chair a Bond villain would scheme in—and face the audience. Hopeful contestants sing to the backs of these ominous-looking chairs and, based on how their performances sound, interested coaches can hit a button, which will swivel their chair to face the singer, finally putting voice to visage. At the end of the act, the contestant can go with the only coach who turned around or, if there are more than one, pick from the lot.
During a blind audition, Maelyn Jarmon belts out Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’; the first two bars raises Legend’s brows. By then, three of the coaches have turned to face Jarmon. Legend remains still. His eyes are closed as he takes in the swell of the melody, the precision of the crooning. Only then, does Legend turn to see her. He would say that the reason why he chose her was that “he felt the magic” from her singing.
Under Legend’s tutelage, Jarmon would win that season’s The Voice.
There is a public image of John Legend that people are familiar with. The face from the magazines, the soulful refrain from his music. He is a family man—he and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, are considered to be the First Family of Entertainment.
They are active on Twitter. They are critical of the Trump administration. They are forthright with their trials (IVFs) and triumphs (two children—Luna and Miles—products of said IVFs). They are celebrities who are comfortable in their fame and imperfection.
These are the readily available information and the rest, you fill in with your imagination. So, when John Legend’s management connects a call to me, I imagined him sequestered in his studio, perhaps in the basement of his house. Or maybe he’s seated at a Yamaha piano, watching his family frolic by the backyard pool. Sunlight filters in, another pretty day in the throes of a global pandemic.
This is when people are hiding out in their homes, avoiding each other to flatten the epi curve of a ballooning outbreak. We communicate through text, catch up on Zoom meetings. We get our monies worth binging on online content. We are stars spread out in a constellated sky. And every so often, an e-mail is answered. Or a meme is sent as a reply to ‘u up?’ Or there’s a phone call between a celebrity and a journalist—two points are linked and it raises us out from the deep sea of seclusion.
And in that brief moment, humanity is less alone than before.
ESQ: Thanks for taking the time to do this. And thanks also for conducting your fashion shoot.
JOHN LEGEND: Ah, yeah, looking forward to that. Hopefully, we’ll get it right.
ESQ: Have you shot yourself for a photoshoot before?
JOHN LEGEND: No. But we’ve been doing all sorts of new things. Lately, we’ve been filming ourselves for national broadcasts we’ve been doing and it’s never really what you expect when you try to do new things. But you make do with what you have.
ESQ: How is the family coping with being stuck at home?
JOHN LEGEND: It’s been an interesting experience. Because one good thing about it is that we get to spend more time with our families and our kids love spending time with us. Our kids are four and almost two, and they can’t get enough of daddy and mommy; they are enjoying that we’re home all the time and not working. It’s fun and it’s kind of difficult trying to figure out how to entertain them for a whole day, every day.
ESQ: Do the kids know what’s happening outside?
JOHN LEGEND: I don’t think they know very much. Maybe my daughter knows a little. She knows that she’s not allowed to go to school; not allowed to get close to strangers and all that, but I don’t think she understands why. I feel like I could explain it to her now and she would understand it, but I don’t know if it’ll be helpful or be scary for her.
ESQ: Do you feel that parents need to tell their kids about difficult truths or just try to shield them from that?
JOHN LEGEND: It’s just a matter of timing. Eventually, you’ll have to tell them the truth when they’re ready for it, then you’ll have to deliver it in stages… but I’m figuring it out as I go. There’s no one way to go about it.
ESQ: These have been strange days, where we’re stuck at home, isolated.
JOHN LEGEND: This isolation is a tough mental health period for many. I feel very fortunate that we have the sunshine here in LA and for a lot of people around the world, particularly in dense urban areas, where you can’t go out to the park or be in public, it can get rather lonely. It’s harder for them. I don’t want to make light of that at all. My best advice is to try meditation. Try to find some ways to keep your mind engaged in the world around you and be at peace. People are doing as much as they can to stay in touch with their loved ones or visiting their therapists over FaceTime and video chat. I do believe we’ll find a vaccine. I do believe we’ll find a treatment for this disease and, hopefully, we’ll be better prepared the next time a pandemic of this sort comes around.
ESQ: As a musician, how are you coping with staying indoors for this long?
JOHN LEGEND: Some of us can handle the blow. But there are a lot of musicians who live paycheque to paycheque, just like everybody else. Musicians, theatre actors… all kinds of different people in the entertainment business. It’s tough taking away someone’s livelihood and how they express themselves creatively.
ESQ: How does it affect you as a creative?
JOHN LEGEND: I haven’t written any new songs yet but I have all these songs [from Bigger Love] and we’re trying to find ways to perform them. We’ve been doing a remote collaboration video or some kind of performances for television. It’s challenging but the trick is to find ways to make the performances interesting.
ESQ: You’ve had a long career since the release of your first album, Get Lifted, in 2004. Do you ever get retrospective with your work?
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