In the second song on Leon Bridges' new album, the Fort Worth R&B superstar sings, "they tell me I was born to lose, but I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news."
That's putting it mildly. Since the release of his gold-certified debut record Coming Home, the 28-year old former steakhouse dishwasher has headlined the biggest festivals in the world and has performed in the most majestic of rooms, including at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on Saturday Night Live and even at the White House when Barack Obama was president.
His phenomenal new record, Good Thing, in which the title is taken from the aforementioned tune, is a forceful artistic step forward that's sure to claim impressive sales after it drops on May 4. But first things first; as it has always been for Bridges, the new record has to swing, with real life soul. And it does. When Bridges wrote "Bad Bad News," he wanted to highlight his rocket-ride of a musical journey while making it connect with his listeners.
"That song comes from a place of not having anything handed to me," Bridges says. "I had nothing, and I've been able to achieve greatness. I think a lot of people can relate to that kind of triumph, and we put a new jack swing backdrop on it and gave it a jazzy vibe."
Of course, there's still some "bad news" lurking for the newly famous. To some who know him from his days playing small Dallas-Fort Worth joints, he's a local guy, a friend. But to his many new fans outside of North Texas, he's a bulletproof entity in the TMZ celebrity fishbowl.
Following the January announcement that Bridges would perform at the Houston Rodeo for its annual Black Heritage Night, furor spread through social media, with many judging Bridges as not famous enough -- and that his brand of R&B appealed to people outside of the African-American community. The topic was even addressed by Houston hip-hop station 97.9 The Box, when one of the hosts, Keisha Nicole, admitted in an interview with Bridges that she hadn't heard of him before the concert announcement.
Nicole's confession could be viewed as cold, but Bridges calmly accepted what was presented as an apology. And he took it as a challenge.
"Yeah, there is that downside to fame," he says. "The controversy surrounding the rodeo was disheartening, but people can be trendy, and their problem was that I wasn't a big-enough name inside their own circle. But I look at it like if they don't know me now, then they'll get to know me after I perform."
The pressure that comes with fame also cast a shadow on the new record. The old saying might be true, that it takes a lifetime to make a first record and a year to make the second. Bridges admits he felt that crunch, but he was committed to creating a personal record, and not one that was necessarily more commercial.
"It did have a little effect on my writing," he says. "I'm no longer in that place where I can write a song while no one's paying attention to it. That was me three or four years ago, but now, I take it as a challenge to stay true to myself."
When Coming Home was released by Columbia Records in 2015, Bridges was immediately compared to soul legends such as Sam Cooke. Those comparisons were fair enough, but Good Thing, which was recorded in Los Angeles instead of Fort Worth, manages to stay in a definite R&B lane while stretching Bridges' sound out with some string arrangements and occasionally poppier production. This record will be a tough one to slap the "retro" label on, as was often the case with Coming Home.
Bridges says his goal was to "go in new directions melodically, and do new things with my delivery that I hadn't done before."
Similar to "Lisa Sawyer," the stunning song from his debut about his mother, Bridges busts through barricades between him and the listener with ripped-from-the-heart tales. In the smoldering jazz gem "Georgia to Texas," Bridges unflinchingly sings about his journey from birth to now, not skipping over a tryst with a sex worker when he sings "paid for love on a crescent moon, in that Oklahoma motel room."
His past three years, his fame craze, have been "impossible to really process," he says. But he considers it a "blessing."
"I do feel a responsibility to give people an experience they've never had before. I hope people walk away from my show feeling, at least, like its one of the best shows they've ever been to.