Nine months ago, nobody knew Leon Bridges. In some ways, he didn't really know himself. Born Todd Bridges, the 25-year-old retro-soul sensation and toast of this year's South by Southwest festival spent his early years living in a religious home with his single mother and two siblings just outside of Fort Worth. He wasn't allowed to listen to secular music, and his last job was working as a dishwasher at a local Tex-Mex restaurant. It was only later on, when he began to sing and play guitar, that his friends adopted the name "Leon," after Leon Robinson of Cool Runnings fame, with whom he bears a striking resemblance.
Bridges can also credit his friends for convincing him to abandon R&B (he's a self-professed huge Ginuwine fan) in favor of the sweetly nostalgic, vintage-tinged ditties that have attracted an eager fanbase and invited comparisons to the greats; Sam Cooke and Otis Redding are the two names that are most frequently thrown around—not exactly shabby company. To his credit, Bridges definitely looks the part: With a penchant for high-waisted slacks, collared shirts, and wingtips, it's like he jumped right out of a 1950s film still.
It's Bridges's slick style, in fact, that caught the attention of White Denim guitarist Austin Jenkins outside a bar in Texas, which quickly led to a collaboration and subsequent radio play. Within months, he was touring as the supporting act for Sharon Van Etten. "It's all about being in the right place at the right time," he tells InStyle. Now, with his debut album Coming Home holding the #5 spot on the iTunes chart, there are few who don't recognize his name. We caught up with the singer before his sold-out show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in N.Y.C. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:
What was it like growing up in Fort Worth?
Very simple. Life was pretty much school, home, and work. Then I taught myself how to play guitar, and it made things a little better.
What kind of music did you listen to?
A lot of modern R&B: 112, Usher, Ginuwine.
“Pony” is a modern classic.
It's the best song ever.
That’s a pretty different genre from what you're doing now. How’d you get into soul?
I heard it every now and then, and I always appreciated it, but it never really stuck with me. Then a friend of mine asked if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations, and I had never even listened to him. So I felt, as a musician, I should just go to where it all started—to the roots. That’s what motivated me to start writing. Two years ago, I didn’t know anything about soul.
Did you have an epic Pandora session?
I put on Pandora and Spotify and just listened to how those musicians would deliver the vocals. Coming from R&B, there are certain things you just don’t do when you’re trying to sing soul music.
Is it true that "Lisa Sawyer" was the song that defined your sound?
I wrote “Lisa Sawyer” before I made the decision to pursue this type of music, so when I finally had that realization and a-ha moment, I decided that I wanted to make every single song cater to it.
What did your other songs sound like?
It was folk R&B-type stuff.
What attracts you to soul music?
I love how a soul musician delivers his vocals on a song—that raw emotion. It’s so straightforward and innocent. You don’t see anybody write like that anymore. You can talk about love in a very simple and clean way.
Have any older musicians, or their offspring, reached out to you?
Jackie Wilson’s son called me up and said he loved what I’m doing, and how it reminds him of his dad. That was pretty cool.
There’s been so much buzz around you. How are you dealing with the newfound fame?
There’s no way to prepare for this life. There are no lessons or anything—you just do it. And hopefully you look good.
Well, you definitely look good. Your style is very distinctive. Where do you get your inspiration?
I look at a lot of 1950s and 1960s jazz musicians. Sometimes I go on the Internet and just search “Chicago 1950s” or “Fort Worth 1950s” and look at what people are wearing. They look so cool, and they weren’t even thinking about being fashionable.
Have you always dressed this way? What did you wear in high school?
Not always. In fashion, there’s always a progression. In high school, I was more of a jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers kind of guy. But I feel like aesthetic is important onstage, and this is the way I dress offstage too. I don’t believe in putting on a T-shirt and sweats and sneakers anymore. If I’m at the grocery store or walking around, I’m consistent. Always keep it clean, that’s my motto. I’d wear a suit every day if I could.