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Writing the Score to His Own Future

Writing the Score to His Own Future

Leon Bridges reflects on his time at TCC and its impact on his musical career


It’s no secret that Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Leon Bridges loves to rep Fort Worth. Whether during a media interview or for a backdrop in a music video, Leon Bridges is not ashamed to share Fort Worth’s beauty with the rest of the world.

In 2015, Leon hit the ground running with his first album, “Coming Home,” which debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop chart and secured the soulful singer a Grammy nomination in the Best R&B Album category. Yet, he didn’t go to New York City or Los Angeles to launch his career. An ode to the tradition of Texas soul, “Coming Home” was birthed at a studio right here in Fort Worth. After a second Grammy nomination in 2016, the Tarrant County College alumnus ultimately took home the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance for his track “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” during the 2019 Grammy Awards.

Leon playing guitarOften compared to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, the young star has moved from a vintage sound reminiscent of the 60s to one that forces the listener to dig for deeper emotions. The move seems, in fact, to be paying off in big ways.

When REACH Magazine caught up with Leon Bridges, he was in New York to perform on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Reggie Lewis asked him about his time at Tarrant County College, his evolution as an artist and why his music is a vessel for change.

First off. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I recently had an opportunity to listen to your new LP, Gold Diggers Sound, and it is filled with really some rich sounds. Also, the lyrics really touched me. It’s a great piece of work.

Thank you, man. I appreciate that.

Absolutely. What brought you to TCC?

It was just the thing to do. There’s the nickname of TCC being the 13th grade, right after high school. You’re pretty much going to see the same people from high school. And I was kind of doing my thing, and my mother just kind of encouraged me to start taking some classes. I guess, initially, the plan was to get my associate degree, and it just wasn’t for me. One thing that I did gravitate to during that time was dance. At some point I got involved in the dance company, Velocity, and pretty much did that for my whole time there.

And which campus was Velocity on? Is that the South campus?

Yeah, that’s the South campus.

Leon holding a female dancer

Okay. And so, I’m glad you brought that up. That’s a nice segue to my next question. You had an interest in dance, so talk about some of those memorable experiences that you had as a member of Velocity.

Man, I mean, it was a lit time. Because the thing was, I was always interested in dance. I was always kind of fundamentally a hip hop dancer. And when I got to campus, there was this group of dudes. They were from the hood, but they were taking ballet and all that kind of stuff. And it totally, like, inspired me to kind of go down that path. And the beautiful thing about it is I really met some, through that time, some long-term and really solid friendships kind of transpired from that.

And so yeah, we would just learn certain choreography pieces. I would choreograph stuff, and in my downtime, we would get together in the cafeteria, and there was this guy who would bring a keyboard to school every day. And a lot of people would just kind of congregate around him, and just like have these freestyle jam sessions. And all of that prepared me and shaped me for what I’m doing now.

That’s interesting. So how did the opportunity to take dance and grow within that particular major influence your stage performance?

Ah man, it’s been so crucial, as far as just having that kind of extra thing as a performer. And it totally taught me how to move and dance while I’m performing. Like when I’m doing photo shoots, as a dancer I can get into some poses that just really make the photo. And it also just instilled this confidence of being on the stage. And I’ve always, my whole life, been this bashful, quiet kid. And I was able to just break through my fear of being in front of people through being at TCC.

That’s awesome. Were there any specific dance instructors or professors that really had an impact on your life?

Absolutely. Gypsy Ingram, she was my teacher during that time. She really helped me break out of my shell and essentially find my voice. When I was studying ballet and modern dance, I had a hard time just grasping some of the vocabulary. And she took us to see Dallas Black Dance Theatre.

Went to see them, and it totally just unlocked something for me. Just seeing Black men do this kind of contemporary style dance, and it could be hella dope, hella masculine. And that totally just ignited a fire in me, seeing that. There’s Gypsy, and I had a couple of dance mates as well. My homeboy Kenny Busby and Mina Calvin. And fast forward, we always had these aspirations to be cast in a music video. And I think the beautiful thing is now that I have my platform, I can include them in my videos, which is like crazy.

Leon in stage clothes looking off screen

That’s beautiful. Overall, how did your time at TCC impact your evolution as an artist and as a person?

Man. Yeah, I would say just the circle that I was in, the music circle that I was in. From that, it inspired me to pick up a guitar. It inspired me to be a songwriter. And I think at the same time, it was really helpful having this community of people who gave me this constant affirmation of “Yeah, you’re actually dope.” And if it wasn’t for that, then I don’t think I would have had the confidence to keep going. So, I would say in that way, it shaped me.

That’s deep. So, if you could travel back in time, Leon, and give your younger self some advice about college, what would you say?

Man. I would say, treat your studies like a job. And I think me, number one, if I didn’t leave TCC that I wouldn’t have had success as a musician. But there’s parts of me, I wish I stayed, because I have weak points of the music world. I work hard, but there’s moments where I don’t know if I had the structure of school and having to study and do all this [stuff], I think it would’ve just better prepared me to be more focused on certain little projects and things that I do now. But yeah, I would probably just tell myself to treat it like a job. Yeah, that’s all I got.

No, that was good. So, let’s pivot toward your musical career. That’s a good segue. How did your journey with music start now? You mentioned the keyboardist on South campus. Was that the beginning? And if so, just kind of walk me through your progression.

For sure. So, I’ve always loved to sing. Music is a universal language, and everybody at some point loves to sing along to their favorite music. And so that was kind of me. And when I got to TCC, you know, I met the keyboardist Octavian, but also met other people on campus. And at that time, I was pretty immersed within the church and Christianity. So, I was like walking that path, and I remember initially in my head I was thinking there isn’t a lot of good modern gospel music. So, let me set out to write tasteful gospel music. And my song “River” transpired from that, and other songs that made it on my first album.

And so ultimately, I had to leave TCC to pick up another job to help support my mother. And so, I still had the need to express myself, because my platform, from dancing onstage, I kind of had to transition from that to finding open mics. So, in my downtime I would work on my guitar playing, write songs and pull up on open mics around DFW. And there was this one particular place called Magnolia Motor Lounge that I would show up to and play a couple of songs like every Tuesday. And one of those nights this guy happens to come through by the name of Austin Jenkins. He noticed, apparently that night, my playing and the songs resonated with him. And he approached me after my set and was complimenting the songs, and he mentioned that he wanted to set up this makeshift studio and record a song. And so, after that, we put the music on SoundCloud and it totally just snowballed from there.

Leon standing outside a performance location

Certainly, the way music is done now, and the way artists are able to create their own buzz, you have more control now. It’s different than in years past. Let me ask you, who were some of your biggest influences?

Man, it’s funny because so much happened during that time at TCC. My good friend Deon Thompson. I remember when I kind of first embarked on this path, I reached out to him. I was like, “Yo, can you put me on to like some progressive R&B artists?” And he wrote this list of some musicians. And on that list, it was Frank Ocean, it was Miguel. And I discovered those people through him. And so, I think what was really empowering was specifically Miguel and seeing him play guitar and seeing that he was a songwriter as well. And so, I really looked up to Miguel.

And then fast forward, through the open mics, I’m meeting people who have a different taste in music, and it’s not in the R&B realm. People who were putting me on to The Beatles and Rolling Stones and Van Morrison. And so, one thing I’ve always loved is the marriage of soul music and country and folk and R&B. And so, I really try to incorporate all those nuances in music. Because I think that there’s nothing new under the sun, but I think when you incorporate those elements within the R&B context, it really makes for interesting and refreshing sounds.

What is it about music that makes you feel passionate?

I feel like I have somewhat of a job of carrying the torch. Because I think traditional Black music is dying within the Black community. And I think that there’s a bit of a disconnect there. And nothing negative about it. It’s just our culture, in the stuff that we gravitate towards, it continues to evolve. And so, for me, I wanted in some way to just kind of be that gateway of sticking to more traditional R&B but also pushing it forward. It’s important to push soul music forward. My first album was a derivative of the ‘60s style of R&B, and I wanted to evolve and put that forward. And I think it’s resonating with people.

That it is. Yes, it is. Now Leon, let’s talk about your new LP, “Gold-Diggers Sound.” The song “Sweeter” really touched my soul as a dark skin brother, especially during today’s iteration of social unrest. What was the inspiration for the song?

For sure. Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to write a song that really spoke to that. And for me, I had a hard time because number one, I’m a perfectionist and I just couldn’t find the right words. And in that moment doing “Gold-Diggers Sound,” it was the day that first day that Terrace Martin (musician) pulled up. Terrace Martin started playing these chords, and then like the rest of the band just started kind of playing a vibe. And I immediately knew what the song should be about. And the words came to me in that moment.

And this was prior to the George Floyd moment that kind of woke up the world, which is a reflection of Black men. You know, the perpetual narrative of Black men dying in the hands of police. And artists that I look up to historically have always spoken to the time, and that’s just what it was for me. And I wrote that song in the hopes of it being a beacon of light and uplifting for the Black community during that time.

Leon sitting on couch in profile

It’s timeless. Certainly, you’ll be able to listen to that for many years to come on. As far as the visual piece, the video, what was it like making the video for “Sweeter”? When I first started watching the video, I said, ‘Whoa, this is very powerful.’ Just the imagery, the timing of everything. It was beautiful. It almost felt like I was suspended in space. Talk about that, what was it like making that video?

Thank you, man. Honestly, it’s one of the dopest videos I’ve ever made. And I had the opportunity to kind of spearhead the situation. Number one, it was at the height of the pandemic, and I had to move fast on a visual. And I had the idea of, wait, okay, what if I bring it all back to the community? The neighborhood that I grew up in, south side of Fort Worth. I had one of my homeboys facilitate getting some of the Gs from the hood to come be a part of it. And literally, we were able to shoot on the street where I grew up as a kid.

And so, there are people who asked, “Why didn’t you have women in this?” And there were a few women, but number one, height of the pandemic. But also, considering Black men being the epicenter of all this, it just made sense to really convey this unity. So, it was beautiful. There were Crip vets who normally have animosity towards each other, but they came together for this and were able to be a part of the video. And I’m blessed that they were down for that, because I think it was really a powerful message and visual.

I agree, brother. I agree. What advice would you give current TCC students about achieving success in music or any other field?

I think the thing is to just be cognizant of what’s happening within the music realm, and just carving out your own lane. I think also it’s important to just soak up all the great art, and I think doing that can really help shape the music and make it... I don’t know, I’m probably butchering that, but yeah, I think the most important thing is stay persistent with it and surround yourself with other talented people.

Let me ask you one more question, Leon. If you had to give some advice to your son about achieving success, what would that be?

Oh man. I think it’s important to perfect your craft, whatever that is, and humility is key. Damn, I think that’s all I got. Thank you, man. It was good talking to you.

Same here. Pleasure’s all mine.

Leon looking at camera