In 2015, the future of music sounds a whole lot like the past. Four months ago, old-school soul singer Leon Bridges was still bussing tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas – birthplace of tragic country songwriter Townes Van Zandt and proclaimed “City of Cowboys”. Now the 25-year-old is poised to set the world on fire with his honeyed, Sam Cooke-worthy croon, coupling one fuck of a voice with the slickest personal style in the Southern States. Leon’s killer fashion sense is important, because if it wasn’t for his love of classic threads, his exceptional talent might still be stuck on the wrong side of a half-eaten plate of cheesy nachos. In August last year, Leon was out drinking when he was approached by someone who appreciated his sharp look. “I had my high-waist denim on and the girlfriend of one of the guitarists from White Denim followed me and was like, ‘You should meet my boyfriend, he wears Wranglers!’” Jumping at the chance to chat selvedge, Leon was introduced to Austin Jenkins and the pair hit it off immediately.
A week later, Austin happened to catch one of Leon’s solo shows. “Right after that he was like, ‘Man, we have to do a record!’” Such was his belief in Leon’s talent, Austin paid for the players and the space. The chosen studio was as much a blast from the past as Leon’s look – “It was like stepping back in time,” he remembers of being surrounded by equipment dating as far back as 1948. The three-day session resulted in eight songs, and at no point did Austin mention that he was in a band – not that it would have made a difference. “I’d never heard of them!” says Leon, who admits he had to look up White Denim online after he found out about his vintage-clad compadre’s day job.
In October 2014, two of those eight tracks – the silky-smooth ‘Coming Home’ and uptempo doo-wop of ‘Better Man’ – were shared on the cult blog Gorilla Vs Bear. Days later the relative unknown was getting airplay from an awestruck Radio 1 and Twitter love from Jessie Ware. “It seems like the songs have been on steroids since their release!” gasps Leon. Despite the colossal response, it’s still early days – this is his very first interview – but things have picked up fast. He’ll be supporting Sharon Van Etten in New York in February, and plans to come to the UK in March.
Leon started making music three years ago, teaching himself to play guitar while writing his very first songs. “It was very frustrating at first. I wanted to give it up,” he laughs. Thank goodness he didn’t. He was so eager to play in front of people that he persevered and played his first gig at an open-mic night at a local coffee shop. Singing over hip-hop beats from his iPhone, Leon’s formative neo-soul sound had more in common with Ginuwine and Usher than Jackie Wilson or Ben E King. “That was my foundation,” he states, but something about it didn’t quite click. “I just wasn’t satisfied with what I was writing. Then I wrote a song about my mother called ‘Lisa Sawyer’ and somebody asked me, ‘What are your inspirations? Sam Cooke?’ I was like, ‘Not really.’ I’d heard about him but I wasn’t listening to him hard like that. So after that I started digging into soul music and that 1950s and ’60s vibe.” The connection was instant. “I love the realness and the simplicity of it. The soul music they were making back then was from the heart.”
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Currently working out which of the 20 songs he’s recorded will make it onto his debut album, Leon says he’d like to see his first LP out by the summer. “There’s a couple of ballads in there and some rock’n’roll tunes. Everything is very subtle – it’s just like how they did it back in the day,” he explains. And the lyrical inspiration? “For the most part it’s love songs,” he says, blushing.
Leon has still only played about 30 gigs since his coffee shop debut, but his shows are already suitably glossy, subtly incorporating his dance training – he once planned to be a professional choreographer – into his retro razzle-dazzle. “I like to groove a little bit!” he says of his onstage persona. “As I get more comfortable with the audience I think it will grow and grow.” Bridges-mania reached a peak at the end of last year at The Stone Fox in Nashville. A proper music-industry clusterfuck, the tiny neighbourhood show saw frothing record label execs flying out from the UK, begging to sign him. He was backed by a band that included Austin and Josh Block of White Denim, and Leon admits he plans to play with them until they have to return to their own music. “We’re going to do a nice little run together,” explains Leon. With or without White Denim, there’s going to be nothing little about Leon Bridges’ year.
Leon Bridges is one of NME’s artists to watch in 2015. Read this week’s magazine and NME.com throughout the week for more interviews with the most exciting new acts this year.