John Legend: 'Darkness and Light' LP Might 'Help People Heal' After Election
John Legend is getting real. With songs that tackle marriage, fatherhood, and America’s uncertain future, the singer’s just-released fifth studio album, Darkness and Light, is his most revealing yet. Below, EW catches up with the singer, 37, as he goes behind-the-scenes of his out-of-the-box collaborations and shares how he copes with dark times.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve said your new album, Darkness and Light, is your most honest to date. What are you opening up about that you haven’t before?
John Legend: [Producer] Blake [Mills] and I talked about a gap between what I do outside of music, when it comes to politics and philanthropy, and then my actual music, where most of it is about relationships. A lot of the album still is [about relationships], but I wanted to show an entire person—not just the person in love but also someone who’s thinking about the world.
This is your first album since you married supermodel Chrissy Teigen in 2013. How do you deal with fans who assume all your lyrics are about your personal life?
That is a challenge, because I don’t want people to think this is a page-by-page autobiography of what’s happening between me and Chrissy. While there’s definitely a significant amount of that on the album, you also have to reserve the right to be creative and make things up and make composite characters, just like a screenwriter would.
When musicians write about their newborn kids, the results can be adorably cheesy. But the song you wrote about your baby daughter, “Right by You (for Luna),” is surprisingly anxious. You seem to have a lot of concerns as a parent.
All the songs have that tension in them—that’s why I called it Darkness and Light. I wanted them to be coexisting in the same record. You’re seeking out love, but there’s also pain and uncertainty around. The cool thing about the song for Luna is that it has a lot of questions, not a lot of answers. It’s wondering who she’ll be and hoping she becomes the kind of person that we can be proud of, but you never know.
You were a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter. What music or pop culture did you turn to after the election?
Not watching the news for a few days! Comedy was therapeutic. When we were thinking about when my album was going to come out, we had no expectation that we’d be reacting to a Donald Trump presidency. Now that it’s the case, I feel like this album could help people heal a little bit after some tough times.
“Penthouse Floor,” your song with Chance the Rapper, struck me as a particular escapist song.
I think it really is. We had no idea what the state of the world would be when the album came out, we were just writing in that place. We talked about different approaches he could take to the lyrics. Part of it is just the idea of upward mobility—we’re both artists who came from humble beginnings, and now we’re in the upper echelons of culture. But part of the song is about escaping from your problems [without] ignoring the problems. It’s saying, “Hey, these communities are being ignored and should be paid attention to.” It shouldn’t only be when something blows up and the TV cameras are all there. A lot of times there’s suffering in silence.
You duet with Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard on the title track. Do you have a blues-rock album in you somewhere?
The funny thing is, I don’t even see the kind of music that she does and what I do as so distant from each other. I grew up with gospel and soul, and I feel like the roots of rock music are blues and gospel. The idea of us working together doesn’t feel like an unexpected thing to me; it feels like a natural thing.
One song that is unexpected is “What You Do to Me,” which you co-wrote with pop songwriters Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, who’ve written for artists such as Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber. It sounds almost like a dubstep song.
It has a hint of that. We wrote it on the piano, but I always imagined the groove being similar to what it is now. It was just a matter of getting the band together to figure it out. It’s live instruments that sound like they’re more machine-produced. We wanted to have a range of emotions with the album. I’m not one of those people who feel like I have to stick to one lane.
This your last record on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label. What does that mean for you going forward?
I’ve always worked with Kanye and been influenced by him, and I think that will continue. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t work together. It’s just a different business arrangement now. I signed with G.O.O.D. Music in hopes that I would get a record deal and get exposure, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m in a place now where i don’t need that cosign to continue my career. But it’s not like we’re having some crazy breakup.
You’ve won 10 Grammys, an Oscar for your Selma song, “Glory,” and you produced the Off Broadway comedy 3 Mics. Now that you’re getting into theater, do you have your eye on EGOT status?
One of my producing partners says that’s his goal for me. [Laughs] But I don’t think of it like that. I just think, “Well, what awesome things can we do?” I want to be associated with great, creative people that are telling stories that represent a diverse range of characters and experiences. My belief is that if you focus on quality, then the awards will take care of themselves.