AUSTIN, TEXAS – As he sat down for a quick lunch between a New York Times fashion shoot and another in a series of high-profile South by Southwest gigs, Leon Bridges talked to the wait staff at Perla’s Oyster Bar in a polite manner that suggested he was still one of them.
In fact, he was in the restaurant business just a year earlier.
“I was washing dishes at Del Frisco’s Grille and busing tables at a Tex-Mex place and writing songs the whole time,” he recalled after ordering. “I did a lot of my writing at those jobs, thinking up melodies in my head.”
Now look at Bridges. The vintage-attired, retro-sounding Fort Worth soul-rocker — whose Sam Cooke-smooth voice is balanced out with a meaty blues backbone on record — cleaned up at the South by Southwest Music Conference last month, where he was declared the breakout artist of 2015 (the Grulke Prize for Developing U.S. Act).
His debut album will land June 23 on Columbia Records, titled “Coming Home” after the slow-swaying love song that garnered strong radio play over the winter. He’s gearing up for a summer of festival gigs by opening a spring tour with Los Angeles folk-rockers Lord Huron, including his Twin Cities debut Sunday at First Avenue.
“It’s been crazy, way faster than I expected,” Bridges, 26, marveled. For all the politeness and humble attitude he showed during our lunch interview, though, he wasn’t lacking in confidence.
“I knew I had a gift,” he said. “I wanted the world to hear my music, and I wanted it to be my career, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”
That answer came when Austin Jenkins — guitarist in Austin, Texas, psychedelic indie-rock band White Denim — happened upon Bridges’ weekly gig at Fort Worth’s Magnolia Motor Lounge a year ago. (“I didn’t even know who White Denim were,” he admitted.) Jenkins and bandmate Josh White hastily arranged the recording sessions that became Bridges’ calling card.
“They got on it, got the players, got the space,” Bridges recalled. “The first song we recorded was ‘Coming Home,’ and the rest is history.”
“Coming Home” was also the first song Bridges wrote after he started playing guitar and pursuing his throwback R&B sound. Before that, he used hip-hop production gear and sang more in a manner that he described “sort of a cross between Ginuwine and Usher.”
“I come from more of a slow-jammy, smooth background, which isn’t all that far off from Sam Cooke,” he said, recalling some of his earliest gigs singing at a coffee shop’s open-mic night: “I’d take my iPod and plug it into the P.A. and sing over my beats. I was very influenced by hip-hop. That influence was beneficial to my songwriting and phrasing.”
In addition to “Coming Home” — a song he described as “me being an artist trying to paint a picture of faithfulness” — Bridges has several more romantic and/or just plain libidinous songs in his current canon. His favorite is “Brown Skinned Girl,” which he plays sped up in concert, but the version on the upcoming album “is more down-tempo and the vocals sound more marinated,” he said.
He also has several songs inspired by family members. One is the second track issued from his album, “Lisa Sawyer,” written for his New Orleans-reared mother with lines including, “She had the complexion of a sweet praline / Hair long as the sea.” He paired that sweet tune at SXSW gigs with a saucier new song about his mother’s parents, both of whom died before he knew them.
“My mother and my great-aunt told me stories, like how when my grandfather first met my grandmother at a party, he noticed her long legs and was like, ‘Woo woo!’
“I like to incorporate those stories into my music. They just seem to fit. I’m writing one now about my father’s father, who started out in Mississippi. He had to leave because he fought a white man, so that’s how he wound up in New Orleans, where most of my family is deep-rooted.”
Bridges said his own upbringing in Fort Worth “was pretty sheltered, in a good way.”
“My mother and father were separated. At Mom’s house, I was either at home or at school, nothing else. On the weekends I had more freedom being at my dad’s house. He worked at a community center, so I was around the urban/inner-city culture then. I got a taste of both worlds growing up.”
Told that a whole new world will likely open up to him once his record lands, Bridges again showed rock-solid confidence.
“I’m ready,” he replied. “I think if I work hard, it’ll go well. I’ve always had a great work ethic even when I was washing dishes.”
With a smile as broad as the wide collar on his vintage shirt, he added, “And obviously, this beats washing dishes.”