At the front of the pack of young soul singers mining the vibes of the past is Leon Bridges. It’s music his mother approves of, finds Fiona Shepherd
You may have noticed, especially if you watch Later… With Jools Holland on a regular basis, that old school soul music is back. Not that its appeal has ever diminished – it’s just that those who go to sleep hugging their Aretha and Otis vinyl now have the option of witnessing any number of young and youngish bucks singing and playing R&B it never went out of style.
New York’s Daptone Records are the 21st century leaders of the pack, unearthing local soul veterans such as Sharon Jones, Lee Fields and Charles Bradley and introducing them to a global audience. The likes of Vintage Trouble and a revived Barrence Whitfield and the Savages are tearing up the live circuit, teaming wild rhythm’n’blues with its equally incorrigible cousin, rock’n’roll, while Janelle Monae shrewdly references James Brown in her thrilling sonic mash-up of past and present.
And the white guys are at it too – St Paul and the Broken Bones and Mayer Hawthorne have confused R&B radio programmers, just like Rick Astley did all those years ago (sort of) and indie folk troubadour Nathaniel Rateliff has just released an album of sweet soul music with his new band the Night Sweats on the legendary R&B label Stax Records, no less.
So it’s no big surprise that the more conservative mainstream has worked out that it’s just as easy to sell a relatively middle of the road soul crooner with a live band and a vintage sound as it is stick an acrobatic modern soul voice in a studio with a committee of hip-hop producers and a barrage of digital effects.
Leon Bridges is one of those old souls playing old soul. Along with his contemporaries Curtis Harding and our own Paolo Nutini, coming into his own with the Caustic Soul album, it is quite clear where his template comes from. The 26-year-old Texan is a smoother, sweeter proposition than some of his blues shouter cohorts, more sultry Sam Cooke than testifying Otis Redding.
His palatable voice and tastefully wrought sound is accompanied by a carefully manicured image. The clean lines of his retro threads, the stylised 60s-referencing sleeve designs and the arty black and white photographs in front of old signs are calculated to intimate authenticity because, of course, stuff from the past is cool and modern life is rubbish.
Bridges would go along with that – to an extent. “It was the best time for R&B,” he says. “Everything was purer. It was a combination of everything being live, real instruments, it was just a golden time. We’ve come to the point where you can’t do anything new without being super abstract, but there had not been anything like that before, and people who weren’t necessarily able to experience that when that happened – not even my mom – the fact they can see a young person bringing it back they’re going to automatically be drawn to it I think.”
For one so seemingly saturated in that throwback sonic culture, Bridges is only a recent convert it transpires. He grew up on the 90s and 00s iteration of R&B, singing along to Usher in his bedroom. Being a fan of hip-hop since childhood, he gravitated to street dance and went on to study a repertoire of ballet, modern dance, African and jazz styles at college, choreographing some of his own pieces and gearing up for a career as a dancer.
“I’ve always had a great work ethic whatever I did,” he says. “The technical side of dance was new to me but I didn’t care, ’cos I wanted to make sense of it as best I could and the same way with songwriting and singing. I was a very shy person and the thought of being onstage totally scared me but being in dance for those years taught me how to perform and helped me be comfortable onstage. It’s still nerve-wracking but it’s great when you have a great band behind you and people are excited to see you.”
Bridges talks like a rookie – in some respects he still is, having only taken up music casually while still at college. Like many songwriters, the epiphany came simply from learning a couple of chords, and then he was off, performing at open mic nights in his native Forth Worth, where he was quickly informed that he possessed an old soul tone. Bridges duly went exploring. His mum liked Anita Baker and Babyface but he delved further back to “the blueprint of the greats that came before”.
Then came a fortuitous meeting with Austin Jenkins of Austin-based psychedelic rockers White Denim, who suggested that Bridges demo some tracks on the band’s vintage analogue equipment. Those recordings turned out to be his hot ticket out of open micsville, making an online splash last autumn.
Within months, he was recording his debut album Coming Home with Jenkins and his bandmate Josh Block as his producers and musical directors. Bridges’ songs were already there but the rocker twosome helped him put together a band of local musicians and flesh out his troubadour material into a full soulful production. Harding, for his part, has also been embraced by the indie world, endorsed by Jack White and collaborating with Cole Alexander of The Black Lips.
“I knew I had a gift but you don’t really see any light at the end of the tunnel when you’ve been playing guitar for four years and you don’t really know much about making songs, so it was great to have somebody who knew the ropes to take me under their wing and be able to guide me,” says Bridges of his indie patrons.
Success has followed swiftly – Coming Home hit the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic on its release this summer – and he speaks with the slightly dazed tone of a man who has gone from washing dishes and waiting tables to a tightly packed touring and promo schedule in little over a year.
But it’s not hard to hear why he appealed to so many labels – apparently, there were more than 40 companies lodging notes of interest before he went with Columbia for, of course, its classic credentials. Bridges’ throwback sound is very easy on the ears yet still packs what he might term “vibes”. “It’s a fine line to make music that people can understand and easily digest without being cheesy and poppy,” he reckons.
The tasty overture of the title track was his calling card along with the sultry doo-wop swing of Lisa Sawyer. The latter song is a tribute to his hard-working mum, a devout woman who disapproved of most secular music when Bridges was growing up. Sure, he sneaked a bit of hip-hop in there when she wasn’t listening but, for the most part, she appears to have brought her boy up to be a gentleman crooner.
“Yeah, my standard with making music is to make songs that your momma will agree to and then you’ll be fine,” says Bridges.
• Leon Bridges plays ABC, Glasgow, 24 September; Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats play Stereo, Glasgow, 1 October; Barrence Whitfield & the Savages play Electric Circus, Edinburgh, 3 October