The soul singer talks about his new album

By Margeaux Watson
Updated November 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

A scary thing happened to John Legend while he was on tour in 2005 with Alicia Keys. After more than a year of living on a bus and promoting his triple-Grammy-winning platinum debut, Get Lifted, the critically acclaimed singer found himself gasping for air and struggling to get through performances. While he didn’t feel ill, Legend knew something was terribly wrong.

”My voice was hurting,” says Kanye West’s soft-spoken protégé. ”I had to [get a vocal coach] because I’d never sung so much in my life.” Singing nearly every night will do that. Still, even after he learned to breathe more effectively and pace himself on stage, it became clear to Legend that his raw, gospel-trained vocal style was changing. ”My tone got smoother and cleaner,” the 27-year-old explains over lunch at a rustic Italian café a few blocks from his downtown Manhattan apartment. ”That’s why I sound different on my new album. I didn’t plan to [change my style]. I had to switch it up.”

Legend’s second LP, Once Again, showcases his newfound ability to stretch from a churchy croon to a gentle lilt. The CD’s first single, the romantic, Sinatraesque groove, ”Save Room,” represents both a giant leap from Get Lifted‘s signature ballad, ”Ordinary People,” and the diversity of Legend’s expanding repertoire. In addition to his familiar mix of soulful ballads and hip-hop-flavored jams, Once Again spans genres from classic pop (”Show Me”) to bossa nova (”Maxine”). ”It’s kind of all over the place,” he says, ”but it feels like it belongs together.”

”We didn’t necessarily want to fit the radio format,” says Black Eyed Peas frontman, who produced ”Ordinary People” and four tracks on Once Again, including ”Save Room.” ”Rather than be like, ‘Who’s going to play this?’ we were like, ‘Let’s make songs that will make people wonder two or four years from now, ‘Damn, what were those motherf—ers on?”’ In fact, as of press time, ”Save Room” hasn’t cracked Billboard‘s Hot 100. ”I knew [this one] would be a challenge,” Legend says, ”but if it helps me be known for putting out distinct cool music rather than following the trends, that’s a better position for me to be in.”

Until his early 20s, when a friend dubbed him ”The Legend” for his classic singing style, the musician went by his given name, John Stephens. With his sister and two brothers, he grew up in working-class Ohio (his father was a factory worker), where he started taking piano lessons at age 4. He was homeschooled on and off by his mother, a tailor, until high school. By then, Legend had skipped two grades. ”I went to high school when I was 12 and I graduated when I was 16,” Legend says. ”They used to call me Doogie [Howser.] My saving grace was that I could sing. I killed [at] all the talent shows, but I was still a nerd.”

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 with a degree in English, he worked as a management consultant in Boston and New York City while honing his demo. Two years later, his roommate introduced him to West, and the two artists started collaborating on what would become Get Lifted.

Of all the songs on Once Again, Legend is especially fond of a five-song mini-suite — from track 8, “Again,” to track 12, “Another Again” — that narrates the stormy romance of a combative couple. “They have great sex and their relationship is very passionate and intense,” he explains, “but they don’t trust each other because they’re both prone to cheat. It’s a cool, quirky musical section of the album.”

Legend preempts the obvious question: “Some of the songs are inspired by real life.” Still, he won’t reveal which are fact and which are fiction. He is, however, more forthcoming about a certain rumor. “When I became famous, I started hearing that I was gay. But what kind of defense do you have for something like that? Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not, so it’s not even a conversation.”

For the record, the once-shy singer adds: “I started dating a girl a few months ago, and things are good with her.” When pressed for details he demurs, but he does reveal that he gave the mystery woman the silent treatment on their first date: “I was on vocal rest for two weeks. She talked and I typed. It was fun, like a novelty. We stayed at home because I didn’t want to do that out in public. People would have been like, ‘Why is John Legend typing?'”

A month later, his voice back in top form, he returned to the recording studio with to start working on Once Again. With the album finally in stores, Legend is eager to hit the road again. “We made these songs in the studio and we thought they might work,” the singer says, “but it’s really validating when you can bring them to life and see how the crowd reacts to them. To do that every night, even when my voice and body are tired, is very uplifting. I’m genuinely happier because I’m able to do this.”

John Legend’s Must List
He likes hip-hop, Eddie Murphy, and…economics.

“I’m very happy he’s coming out of ‘retirement.’ Hip-hop needs some help right now.”

‘The End of Poverty,’ Jeffrey D. Sachs 2005
“My favorite book this year. Sachs gives practical solutions for ending extreme poverty around the world. It makes me hopeful.”

‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’
“Often, it comes closer to truth than the real news. I’ve watched every edition the past couple years.”

‘Talking Book,’ Stevie Wonder 1972
“Some of the most beautiful music [from] an era when Stevie could do no wrong.”

‘Coming to America’ 1988
“I can watch it again and again. Eddie Murphy at his best. A true classic.”