"A FRIEND OF MINE asked if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations," says Leon Bridges. "I was like, 'Nah, but I've heard about him.'"
That was about two years ago.
At that time, Bridges' tastes were of the moment. "I was listening to a lot of underground hiphop," he says. "I was listening to a lot of Frank Ocean and Miguel, all that type of stuff." In those musical veins, Bridges wrote; at open-mic nights in Forth Worth, Texas, he would sing over beats from his iPhone.
But Bridges' devout mother could never abide such sexual, secular music, and Bridges never truly felt at home in R&B's modern trappings. Without really trying, his sensibilities shifted to older fare.
Then his friend mentioned Sam Cooke. "After that was when I really started digging in to the older sound," Bridges says. "And that's when I really found my voice."
Indeed, echoes of '60s R&B abound in the 25-year-old Texan's music. Bridges possesses an effortlessly sweet, smooth, enveloping vocal instrument and a resplendent, retro style. He can also turn a clever phrase.
At a gig in Fort Worth, White Denim guitarist Austin Jenkins happened to catch Bridges' act. Bridges performed an original song, "Coming Home."
"I remember just thinking to myself, 'Man, I know every song Sam Cooke has ever done, [and] this isn't one of his songs,'" Jenkins told the Fort Worth Weekly. "And I was wondering whose [song] it was. I was shocked that was happening at Magnolia Motor Lounge on a Tuesday night."
Jenkins offered to help Bridges make a record. Along with White Denim drummer and engineer Josh Block, Jenkins went about assembling both a band and a studio. They found a cavernous old warehouse and filled it with analog equipment. Bridges' debut album would be the pilot project.
"The first time, walking in there, it was definitely a special moment, seeing all this old equipment," Bridges says. "I used to just record at home. I didn't know how it was going to turn out."
The results are stunning. There is a lively magic, a pairing of Bridges' gifts amplified by a spontaneous process. Bridges and the band recorded eight songs in four days. With the help of White Denim's management, Bridges put two of those tracks online—"Coming Home" and "Better Man"—which quickly caught fire. Labels came calling and Bridges, who had never considered even being on an indie, signed with Columbia, which will release Coming Home on June 23.
Bridges is soft-spoken and sweet, but prickles at the notion that he's Columbia's put-up job. He credits both his fashion sense and burgeoning stage proficiency to his days with the Texas Gentlemen, a group of accomplished players that supports multiple singers in Fort Worth.
"They had been my backing band for almost a year," Bridges says of the Gentlemen. "And I really owe a lot to them, because I grew a lot because of them. I started off as very shy—I'm still shy—but I started off as a very shy guitar player and singer. They really brought a lot out of me."
Then came Jenkins, who poured gasoline on the fire, while keeping things grounded.
"That's the beautiful thing about it," Bridges says. "All the guys on the record are cats from around Fort Worth, Texas. There wasn't no manufactured thing where Columbia was like, 'We're gonna get you some producer and all this other stuff.' It was Austin [Jenkins] being like, 'I want to make a record, and here are these guys that I know.'"
It's been a whirlwind since, and it's only just beginning, but Bridges remains humble. "My mindset now is like, even though I'm a very shy person and this is all new to me, I have to give this 100 percent," he says. "I do feel I'm ready now. I have a great band that supports me, and I'm fueled by all the positive response from people."