Texas R&B stylist Leon Bridges brings sultrier sound to Palace Theatre
When listeners were introduced to Leon Bridges in 2015, the story line presented him as a classy, reserved R&B/soul singer with a throwback sound and a wholesome Christian upbringing. His debut record even had a song about how awesome his mom is.
So what’s with the tunes on his new album, like “Mrs.” and “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be)”? We hear Bridges grooving to sexy, modern beats and singing lines like this: “Sometimes I wonder why I went knocking on your door / Then you climb on top of me and I remember.”
And this: “Oh, rock with me, girl / Hey mysterious / We don’t have to act so serious / Be like nobody’s watchin’.”
Reached by phone last month at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, the unfailingly polite and soft-spoken singer seemed a tad embarrassed to be addressing questions about the sensual sexuality found on the new record, “Good Thing.”
“I was just trying to follow whatever I felt like singing, and I tried not to think too much about what other people might think about it,” he said.
Later, though, he laughed when asked about his mom’s reaction to the sultrier tone in his new songs. Mom is well known to his fans thanks to the previous album’s namesake song about her resiliency, “Lisa Sawyer.”
“She came to our first show [behind this record] in Dallas,” he recalled, “and afterward she was like, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know about that [‘Mrs.’] song.’ ”
Bridges, 29, said he also tried not to think about how people might react to the sonic changeups on the new album, which should earn crossover attention from R&B and maybe even Top 40 radio stations. Anyone who was paying attention, though, might have seen the change a-coming.
In a 2015 Star Tribune interview at the South by Southwest Music Conference — where he first made a big national splash — Bridges mentioned Usher and Ginuwine as much as the oft-cited Sam Cooke influences heard on his first album, “Coming Home.”
“I come from more of a slow-jammy, smooth background, which isn’t all that far off from Sam Cooke,” he said then, recounting how he wrote many of his earliest songs listening to beats he made himself and downloaded to an iPod. “I was very influenced by hip-hop. That influence was beneficial to my songwriting and phrasing.”
Bridges reiterated those comments last month, recounting how he and his collaborators on the first album — including members of the Austin indie-rock band White Denim — initially bonded over classic soul.
“When I made ‘Coming Home,’ I was exploring some of that older soul music and had that as common ground with the guys,” he recalled. After the record’s release, he said, “I got a little tired of being labeled a vintage soul singer. I understood why, but I knew I had a lot more modern influences yet to come out.”
When it came time to make “Good Thing,” he headed to Los Angeles to record with producer Ricky Reed, who’s worked with Maroon 5 and Halsey. He also wrote the album’s best track, the buoyantly soulful, Van Morrison-flavored “Beyond,” with Selena Gomez collaborator Justin Tranter.
The results are certainly slicker than his debut, but not overly slick. The warm voice that won fans over on “Coming Home” flows smoothly over the Pharrell-like grooves of “If It Feels Good” or the ’70s-disco-funk vibe of the single “Bad Bad News.”
“After all the touring we did for ‘Coming Home,’ I think I gained a certain amount of confidence as a performer that influenced my approach to this album,” Bridges said. “I wasn’t as afraid to cross boundaries.”
And the sultrier songs have added a certain amount of swagger and energy to his live performances.
“It feels very liberating singing these songs on stage,” he said with a slight laugh. “There’s definitely a sexier vibe. It’s been dope.”
He stopped short of saying those libido-centric songs come from the heart, though. “I haven’t really had time to settle into a serious relationship since 2015. I was just trying to create a vibe more than I was singing about personal circumstances.”
Bridges did end with another personal song in the vein of “Lisa Sawyer.” The slow and bluesy “Georgia to Texas” chronicles his family’s relocations in the South, leading up to his high school experiences in Fort Worth. “It’s basically the story of how I came into this world,” he said. “It started with the line, ‘504 black girl carried me,’ which refers to the area code of New Orleans where [my mom] is from, and I just kept going from there, following her to Atlanta and then Texas.”
Bridges himself had the opportunity to move to Los Angeles following his 2015-16 success, but as the title of his debut suggests, he still finds much-needed comfort in coming home.
“I’m actually not that cool of a guy,” said the guy who’s been the subject of fashion spreads in the New York Times and GQ. “When I’m on tour, I meet so many people and sort of have to act cool, but when I’m back in Texas I can just kick back and be my normal, uncool self.”
Just being himself seems to be the going story line this time around.