John Legend and the musical superheroes behind his new album
NEW YORK (AP) — John Legend has formed a musical version of The Avengers to help his new album marvel.
“We’ve got some musical superheroes with superpowers in here,” Legend said with a laugh.
His all-star team of collaborators include Grammy-winning songwriters and producers, as well as lead artists in their own right, including Raphael Saadiq, Anderson .Paak, Charlie Puth, Ryan Tedder, Ester Dean, Julia Michaels, Ricky Reed, Tayla Parx, Teddy Geiger and more.
“I think of every album as a discovery process. I don’t know what I’m going to create before I start the album, but I leave myself open. I leave myself open to my muse. I leave myself open to whatever inspires me during that time. I also leave myself open on collaborators,” he said.
“Bigger Love” is Legend’s seventh album and will be released Friday. Four of the album’s superheroes — Puth, Saadiq, Parx and Geiger — discuss working on Legend’s album in interviews with The Associated Press.
After Charlie Puth signed to the same manager as John Legend, he thought his meeting with the EGOT winner was a welcome-to-the-family affair. But it turned into a recording session.
“Everybody says that (John’s) very quick in the studio but you can’t really understand it until you’re in the studio with John. You come out with a full vocal at the end of the session,” Puth said.
Puth produced and co-wrote the funk-soul jam “I Do” on “Bigger Love.” They recorded the song in a single day earlier this year.
“We were going for this unspoken 2021 Marvin Gaye kind of thing and that’s, I think, what we successfully pulled off,” said Puth. “I love it because all ages can dance to it.”
Legend recalls Puth “bouncing off the walls” during the session, adding: “His energy is so infectious.”
“I think I was on three cups of cold brew,” Puth admitted. “I think I was literally so excited to be making a song. I never do sessions with other people, especially artists of the caliber of John Legend.”
“I’ve been doing this for five years and I came onto the scene (with) people thinking of me as the kid that just sang songs that other people wrote for him... Believe it or not, I still have that stigma against me,” Puth said.
“I’m still in the proving-myself phase. I hope to be in a position one day where I can work with even more geniuses like John. I think I’m getting there, and this is a really great start to it.”
John Legend said he enjoyed Raphael Saadiq executive producing his recent Christmas album so much that he asked the revered musician to hold the same title on “Bigger Love.”
“It’s a role that I always wanted to participate in. You get to save some of your brain. You get to work with other talented writers,” said Saadiq, who called himself “a utility person who could kind of bring things together.”
“Almost like how Quincy (Jones) would do it back in the day,” he added. “Bring all the right players to it. You bring the horns to it. You bring the strings to it. Put together a little family of people that can jump on these records and make these records even more special.”
In addition to overseeing the album, Saadiq plays guitar and bass on several songs and co-produced two tracks. Legend said although there are several songwriters and producers on the project, Saadiq helped him make sure the album felt like one voice.
“We were like a brain trust for the album, making sure that there was enough consistency and cohesion,” Legend said.
Saadiq, whose rose to the top of the R&B charts in the trio Tony! Toni! Toné!, has also crafted songs for D’Angelo, Solange, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Total and others. He said he’s excited for fans to listen to “Bigger Love,” especially some of the more upbeat tracks, including “Don’t Walk Away” featuring reggae artist Koffee.
“(John) knows when to pull the trigger. He knows. I always tell people, ‘John’s gangster, now, don’t think Ohio boy ain’t hitting.’ He knows what he’s aiming at,” Saadiq said. “I can’t wait for it to come out and reach the people.”
Tayla Parx has been on a white-out songwriting streak, co-penning smash hits like Ariana Grande’s “Thank, U Next” and “7 Rings,” Normani and Khalid’s “Love Lies” and Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes,” the longest-running No. 1 single in the history of Billboard’s Hot Rock songs chart.
But when Parx, 26, was heading into a studio session with John Legend, she looked at it as an opportunity to work with a songmaster.
“I knew he was an incredible writer. I knew I was going to be able to go into this session, not only having success in my own right, but also as a student,” she said. “We were really able to go off of each other’s melodies and lyrical ideas because he’s just more than capable,” she said.
Parx, who earned album of the year Grammy nominations in 2019 and 2020 thanks to her songwriting work on Janelle Monae and Grande’s latest projects, co-wrote Legend’s falsetto-heavy soul groove “I’m Ready.”
“I do get a lot of calls to work with people,” Parx admitted. “I had done so much pop and so much other things, but there hadn’t been a R&B artist necessarily that I worked with that had that soulful aspect of (John). There are times when John Legend has been pop. There’s been times when he’s been other things. ...There’s not a lot of people that can be such a chameleon and go from genre to genre the way that he has.”
For singer-songwriter Teddy Geiger, writing with John Legend came with some pressure.
“There is definitely, like, an intimidation factor,” Geiger said. “I was nervous to go in. Any time it’s an artist at that level it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’”
But Geiger said in situations like those she tells herself: “Go in and pretend you’re a band and jam out.”
And they did just that, creating the song “Focused” alongside Wayne Hector, Nate Mercereau and Ricky Reed, who brought Geiger into the session.
“The song is kind of such a good, smooth (tune),” she said. “Makes me happy to listen to that one.”
She said earning her first-ever Grammy nomination last year — for song of the year with “In My Blood” — has given her more authority in writing sessions.
“People will trust me more, which is fun. I get a little more leeway to just try stuff and people will follow my train of thought a little more naturally,” she said.
“It’s the same thing with my first hit song — it’s like all of a sudden everyone’s like, ‘Well what would you do?’ in the session, whereas before they were like, ‘You don’t know anything.’”