“We’re lying to ourselves [if] we say we don’t care what people think about us,” John Legend said in the intimate SVA Theater. “I do care but I also think there’s more important things than trying to please every far right … person in the country. I can’t make all of them happy. I don’t agree with them … and I can’t just go around not being honest about who I am and what I think…. Particularly now because I feel like there’s a sense of urgency. I’m really worried for our country. I’m worried for the world. I feel like this is no time to sit on the sidelines. As far as I’m concerned, sitting on the sidelines basically means you’re saying this is okay. Yeah, and I’m not. I’m not with that.”
The crowd cheered. I was seated front-row-center and felt like I was practically sitting in Legend’s lap. It was fun exchanging smiles and snapping some pics.
Two weeks earlier I’d watched with glee when John Legend and Sarah Bareillis rocked out in Jesus Christ Superstar Live! He played Jesus and she was Mary Magdelene. Estimates on the number of viewers hovered around a cool 10 million. This time they met during the Tribeca Film Festival. Legend was interviewed by Bareillis for the first of 2018’s Tribeca Talks.
Bareillis began the jam-packed entertainment hour. Using self-deprecating humor she said, “I guarantee some of this is going to be awkward. I have no idea what the hell I’m doing up here.” The two seemed so natural and unassuming.
Legend, at 39, has already earned an Oscar for his song “Glory” (Selma), ten Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Tony. Bareillis’ hit single, “Love Song,” which reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, sold three million copies. She’s sold over a million albums and nine million singles. She’s earned six Grammy Award nominations.
Bareillis began by asking Legend about his origin. He grew up in Springfield, Ohio. He said, “My dad was a truck driver. My mom stayed home with us and made clothes—they were both tailors.”
“That’s why you dress so well!” said Bareillis.
Legend grinned, then confided that, as a boy, he’d loved wearing cowboy outfits—big hat, gun holster. “I also loved cowboy boots and wore them all the time. I was a weird five-year-old.”
His start in music was inside a Pentecostal church, the El Bethel Temple, which was run by his family. Legend’s grandfather was the pastor, grandma was the organist, Mom was choir director, and Dad taught Sunday school, played the drums, and sang in the choir.
“I grew up singing and playing music,” said Legend. “We had a loud drum set in the basement [and] a piano up in the living room.” He was only four when he’d asked his father if he could take piano lessons. “I started back then and I’ve been playing ever since.”
That’s when Legend switched things up and questioned the interviewer, asking Bareillis when she began singing. His humility was so refreshing.
“We had a piano in the house,” said Bareillis. Her dad and her older sister both played it. “I think I was just trying to follow in her footsteps.” Bareillis said, about why she began taking piano lessons. “But I bailed when they got hard… I was like peace, out.”
How Legend Met Yeezy
For me, my favorite line was when Legend said, “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.”
Yeah, he was “lucky” to land the gig playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s wildly successful 1998 debut album. And “lucky” again when West helped get Legend signed in 2004.
Legend shared how that happened. “I went to school with this guy Devon Harris. He was a roommate of mine in college and we also were roommates in New York…He had this cousin that moved from Chicago. He wasn’t famous. He was just some cousin that made beats….”
Harris’ cousin was Kanye West. Legend met him in 2001—when nobody had heard that name.
“People didn’t even know he could really rap yet. He had to convince people he could….I would go to his place [in Newark] and we would work on songs. He would give me beats for my demo and I would write [lyrics] to them and I would sing hooks.”
Bareilles looked in awe, when she told the crowd that Legend is the most unflappable person she has ever worked with.
“Yeah, I don’t really get nervous,” he said, “but I do get excited.”
He has a lot to be excited about. His wife Chrissy Teigen is about to give birth to their second child any minute now. Their daughter Luna is already two-years-old.
“Luna’s gonna be an issue. I think she’ll probably have some growing pains because she’s currently running the house … She’s used to being the center of everything right now so we’ll see how she adjusts to sharing the spotlight.”
* * *
On May 1, Legend received a nomination for one more Tony Award. This time it’s for Best Original Score for the Broadway musical, SpongeBob SquarePants.
In addition to singing, songwriting, acting, and spending time with his family, Legend’s passions include his FreeAmerica campaign, and tweeting buddy Kanye to tell him to stop siding with Trump and commenting that slavery is a choice.
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