Jazz Festival headliner John Legend speaks to What's On
What’s On has a John Legend interview ahead of the Dubai Jazz Festival. Read about his Oscar, All Of Me, working with Sam Smith and more.
John Legend headlined the Dubai Jazz Festival in February, bringing his stunning soulful sounds to the Middle East for the very first time.
The recently-crowned Oscar winner spoke to What’s On ahead of his appearance at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, discussing all manner of things, from the smash hit ‘All Of Me’ to his thoughts on his gig, as well as Kanye West’s recent Grammys controversy.
Do you still get excited about performing live? Oh absolutely. Every night is a new show with new fans who I want to make happy.
Do you like to improvise your sets? Every show has a different set list so we try to tailor the show for each audience. We don’t do a huge amount of improvisation, but there is some. When you have a huge band you have to have a plan.
Have you met your fellow performers Sting and James Blunt? Yeah, I’ve met both of those guys. I grew up listening to The Police, of course, and I’ve done events with him a few times. He’s still one of the best singers around.
What do you talk about – music? Sure. We usually don’t get to see each other because we’re all doing our own thing and we’re on the road a lot. So it’s cool to catch up with musicians and tall about music, travel, whatever is happening at the time.
Ever ask for autographs? Ha, no. Occasionally I ask for a photo. But I know what’s it like to get asked for photos all the time so I try not to bother other celebrities with that.
Super Bowl, Grammy’s, Golden Globes – you’ve been busy in recent weeks. Yeah, there have been a string of events lately. It’s kind of exciting. I got involved with Selma at the end of last year. It wasn’t something I was expecting six months ago so it’s been a really cool little change in my year to have written that song for Selma.
What do you think of the film? I think it’s incredible. I studied Martin Luther King’s life. Seeing his life portrayed on screen was very moving for me, and I was happy to be a part of that film.
Those big gigs like the Super Bowl – do you feel more anticipation? Yeah, it’s different to my usual show and I get a little more nervous performing at the Super Bowl or Grammys than I would in a normal show. Firstly, you only get to perform one song. You have one moment to make that impact, you know? If I’m doing my own show I have 90 minutes to give a whole experience. In a two-minute performance you have to focus and give your best two minutes.
You collaborate a lot with fellow musicians and singers – what do you enjoy about collaborations? Music is made better by collaboration. I like to collaborate because it’s interesting to see other people’s perspective and ideas. It pushes you in different directions.
How does it happen – do you go through managers or do you get in touch personally? It’s a bit of both. Even if you know an artist, if you want to schedule something you kind of have to go through their manager. I usually make an initial conversation with the artist, then we leave it to the managers to find out when we can do it. Logistically it can get pretty difficult but we make it work.
What’s the first step in a collaboration? When I’m writing for another artist, I like to talk to them about what they’re going through and what they want to say in their song. What stories do they want to tell?
And we hear it’s Sam Smith next? Yeah, we recorded a song last week. It’s a remake of a song from his album. My agent actually sent me his music before he came out in the States. He said, check out this guy, he’s going to be huge. And he ended up being huge! He has a unique, special voice. He’s put out some great songs and I’m happy for his success.
Let’s talk about ‘All Of Me’ – have you figured out why it was such a huge hit? I think, lyrically, people relate to the message of the song. It’s universal and personal at the same time. I think people really connected to the fact that I was writing it about my wife and our relationship, but they could apply it to their own relationships. Melody matters too of course. But the song is very simple: just piano and vocal, and that makes it genre-less. It can play on any radio station.
Did you tell your wife you were writing a song about her? No, I didn’t go into the studio thinking I’m going to write a song about us. I wrote a couple of songs that day, but ‘All Of Me’ stood out.
It’s going to be the song that millions of couples choose for their first dance at their weddings – does that feel nice? I’m always honoured if people use a song for something as special as their wedding. That’s pretty cool.
Do you now feel pressure to follow it up with a bigger song? Well, it’s pretty close to impossible for the next song to be bigger, but hopefully I can continue to make songs that have an impact. I’m never going to top ‘All Of Me’, it was one of the biggest songs in the world last year.
Are you ok that you might have reached your peak with that track? Well, I’m not ok about not having anymore successful songs [laughs]. But it’s going to be hard to surpass it. I’m not going to go into the studio thinking I’m going to top ‘All Of Me’. I just want to make the best album I possibly can.
Media City Amphitheatre, Dubai Media City, 8pm, Dhs395. Tel: (04) 3911196. Metro: Nakheel. dubaijazzfest.com