Smooth soul in Wrangler jeans

Leon Bridges is on fire. His first full-length record isn’t yet out, but the buzz surrounding the Fort Worth, Tex. soul singer feels a lot like the buzz that surrounded Alabama’s own Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones before him.

Before heading to Birmingham’s Bottletree Café for a March 10 show, Bridges spoke to Weld about his quick rise and his influences.

Have you spent your entire life in Forth Worth?

Most of my life. I was born in Atlanta, and my family is from New Orleans. My dad was in Atlanta working, which is why I was born there, but they moved back to New Orleans and then Texas around ’92 or ’93. So I’ve been here ever since.

What were you doing before you were discovered there by White Denim?

Before White Denim discovered me, I was playing around town. Different shows. I mean, a hundred dollars. Small little shows. I was playing with a backing band called The Texas Gentlemen and they were my backing band for a long time. It was a blessing to be surrounded by them because they helped me grow.

When did you first pick up a guitar and who led the way for you?

I had a friend in college that would always bring her guitar to school. That was how I introduced myself to it. I was a lover of singing, and when somebody else brought a guitar, it blew me away.

She was going to class one day and asked me to watch her guitar and I said, “Cool. Can you tell me some chords?” She wrote down A minor and E minor on a chart and that was the start of me playing guitar. That was around 2011. I bought my own in 2012 and started writing and playing guitar.

Had you been a fan of music? Or did you really get into it when you grew up and started playing it on your own

I had always been a fan of music, since I was eight or nine years old. I was at a community center lock-in and one of the kids was playing “When a Woman’s Fed Up” by R. Kelly on the piano. I was really drawn to it. That’s when I first fell in love with music. I never picked up an instrument then, but I loved R&B music. It wasn’t until about two years ago when I started diving into older, classic soul music.

How did you meet White Denim and how did that propel your career to the point you are at now?

I first met Austin [Jenkins, White Denim’s guitarist] because of our Wrangler denim jeans. His girlfriend saw me at a bar and she told me, “Hey you should meet my boyfriend. He wears Wranglers as well.” So that’s how we first met.

He saw me a week later at this place called Magnolia Motor Lounge. I used to play there every Tuesday night. My buddy Sam Anderson had a residency there. We met about a year before that. He asked me to come play between sets. He’d play about an hour then I’d get up there and play. I did that every Tuesday for about two years. One night, Austin Jenkins – I guess it was about a week after meeting him – he saw me playing and he came up to me and said, “Man, we’ve got to cut a record.”

At the time, there had been a lot of people offering to cut a record for me, but when Austin told me about it, I felt like this was going to be something special, that this was the right way to do it.

We got into the studio. They were looking around for different places to set up the equipment. There’s a place in Fort Worth called Shipping and Receiving – it’s a loft and bar – and everything worked out. They set up all of the equipment. [Jenkins] rounded up all the players. The first day, we recorded “Coming Home.” We shot the video for “Coming Home” with a buddy of mine before that, so I suggested that it would be great if we recorded that one first.

Before we got into the sessions, I didn’t know how everything would sound. I knew they were great players, but I didn’t know how it would come out. When we first recorded together, it felt like something special. His management, who are my management now, heard about it and flew down to Forth Worth and told me they wanted to manage me. So we set up a game plan to release “Coming Home” on the Gorilla Vs. Bear blog and that’s what skyrocketed everything. There were 40 different label interests. We boiled everything down to Columbia, Interscope, and Atlantic. [Eventually] I felt that Columbia was the best route to go.

Will the material that you were playing with your old band be on this record? Was that original material? What were those shows like before you had completed this record?

Everything that I did with that band, a lot of it will be on this record. But that band had a very 1970s vibe, very big playing. It wasn’t as fine-tuned as it is now that Austin has come along. Some of the stuff I played with them was the older songs I wrote before I started diving into classic soul music. A lot of the songs will be on the record, but with a totally different vibe. Same lyrics, but the arrangement is a little more fine-tuned and polished.

How long after you picked up a guitar did you feel comfortable writing your own music?

Well, I was writing [songs with] kind of a folky, neo-soul vibe before I started writing classic soul music. One song that I wrote – “Lisa Sawyer,” a song that I wrote about my mother – I wrote that before I started really diving into classic soul music. A friend of mine asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations. I had heard of Sam Cooke as a kid, but never really dug into his music.

Are those Sam Cooke comparisons intimidating?

I can’t hold a candle to him or any other classic soul musician. People will gravitate toward that comparison; he’s one of the most popular soul singers of all time. I think people do [compare us] before [the music] is smooth. It’s not the big, shouty soul vibe. But I’m just a kid that’s inspired by him and trying his own thing. It’s very flattering, but I’m nowhere near it.

We have our own soul revival happening here with Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Do you know those guys? Would you like to hook up with them?

Yeah, that’d be great! I’ve only recently found out about those guys, and they’re amazing artists. It’d be lovely to do some collaborations or some shows with them.

Leon Bridges comes to Bottletree Café on Tuesday, March 10. Firekid (from Muscle Shoals, Ala.) opens. Doors open at 8 p.m., while the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8. For more information, visit thebottletree.com.

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