Tribeca: John Legend Details How Kanye West Helped Him Get Discovered, Talks Broadway Future
The musician reunited with his 'Jesus Christ Superstar' cohort (and fellow singer-songwriter) Sara Bareilles for a wide-ranging talk at this year's festival.
Two weeks after John Legend and Sara Bareilles took the stage as Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar Live!, the singers reunited at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night. Though neither was playing a biblical figure this time around, Bareilles may have been more nervous than she was on national television.
Bareilles was holding a Q&A with her former co-star for the first Tribeca Talk of the 2018 season, and while she's no stranger to the stage, she couldn't help admitting her anxiety. "I guarantee this is going to be awkward because i have no idea what the hell I'm doing," she joked. "That's why we have wine!"
Between sips of her white and his red, Bareilles and Legend talked about the "All of Me" singer's journey to superstardom, which so far includes 10 Grammys, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, his own production company, and even a philanthropic campaign. Most recently adding Jesus to his résumé, Legend had plenty to discuss – and here are the seven most interesting things he shared.
Both Legend and Bareilles were destined to be musical.
Starting out talking about his early days, Legend recalled growing up in the El Bethel Temple in his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, where essentially his entire family ran the show and played just about every instrument in the church band. He began to have solos in the church choir at 7, starting piano lessons at a young age (with a teacher who had terrible BO, he hilariously recalled) and eventually joining an a cappella group called the Counterparts while attending the University of Pennsylvania. Bareilles chimed in with her own piano and a cappella stories – including a fun little fact that she actually quit piano lessons early on because it was too difficult to play with two hands – which not only helped them bond onstage, but proved that they've been on a path to stardom since the beginning.
Legend owes Kanye West big time.
John Legend fans are familiar with his early involvement with West, but the singer went into interesting detail about how the rapper helped Legend get discovered – while he was trying to break as well. Legend happened to be college roommates with Kanye's cousin Devon Harris, who introduced the two as Kanye was getting started at Roc-A-Fella Records.
"We were up-and-coming artists, people didn't even know he could rap, really, yet. He had to, like, convince people he could rap," Legend recalled. "He would give me beats to my demos, and I would write hooks on his. He got a deal as a rapper with Roc-A-Fella as well, and then he still hadn't convinced people he could rap. I think [the label] gave him the deal more so that he could make beats for them and keep him in-house. But eventually he convinced everybody, 'I'm an artist. I'm not just a producer, I'm an artist -- by the way, I signed this really cool kid named John Legend from Ohio, you should sign him, too.' So eventually he helped me get signed to Columbia in May 2004 and put out Get Lifted in December 2004."
Jesus Christ Superstar Live! was his first musical theater performance since high school.
Although he's had various acting roles since being signed to Columbia – including a part in 2016's musical smash La La Land, which he also executive produced – Legend's return to the stage to act was to play none other than Jesus Christ himself. If you find that shocking, wait until you see the next point. ...
Legend wasn't nervous to play Jesus.
Bareilles told the crowd that Legend is the most unflappable person she has ever worked with, then asked him if he was feeling more nervous than he appeared. "Because, truly, from the outside, it was like, 'This asshole is about to go play Jesus on national television, and he's like, I gotta go do a quick Asian tour and then I'm gonna come back and then we're gonna have five days of rehearsal and we're gonna be cool.'"
Responding to Bareilles' recollection in his unflappable way, Legend admitted, "I don't really get nervous, but I do get excited. It's all inside, but I was really excited. We had a great dress rehearsal on the Saturday before the show, and I just felt like we were gonna have a really good show and I just felt good about it. I was excited, I wasn't nervous. We just had such a great team. ... I felt really supported and I felt like it was going to go well, and it did."
He's interested in doing Broadway, but only the way Bareilles did.
Naturally, playing the lead role in a live-action musical has resulted in Legend being constantly asked whether he'd do a Broadway show, to which he'd reply, "If I do it, I'd probably do it like Sara did it – I would want to write the music and do it that way."
That resulted in him asking Bareilles' advice for what to expect if he does pursue a Broadway musical, as she did with Waitress. "Well, it's long... as fuck," she said, bluntly. "If I had known what I was signing up for, I don't think I would've said yes, but I am so glad that I did. What I experienced was a return to the beginning stages of being a young artist, where you don't know what you're doing yet, so there's this constant sense of discovery."
Legend's daughter might not be very excited about becoming a big sister.
With Legend's wife, Chrissy Teigen, just about one month away from giving birth to their second child (a boy), Bareilles was curious about how the couple's daughter, Luna, is feeling about the baby on the way. "I have no idea. I don't think she has any idea. I've been getting advice about how to introduce him to her, but we'll try to do it right. ... I've heard that I should bring Luna in to him so it doesn't feel like we're all just sitting there with this new guy like, 'Who dis?'"
After sharing in the audience's laughter, he admitted, "I think she'll probably have some growing pains when it comes to that, because she's running the house right now. She's used to being the center of everything right now, so we'll see how she adjusts to sharing the spotlight."
He speaks out because he sees no other option.
Legend has been vocal about many controversial issues over the years, which is something he's passionate about maintaining, especially in the U.S.' current political climate. "I feel like there's a sense of urgency now, because I'm not only worried for our country, I'm worried for the world," he told Bareilles. "I feel like this is no time to sit on the sidelines, as far as I'm concerned, because I think sitting on the sidelines means you're saying this is OK. And I'm not with that."
He added that he's aware of the potential consequences, but nothing is going to stop him from fighting for what he believes in – and more importantly, staying true to himself.
"There is a risk to being involved in politics, there is a risk to advocating causes that aren't popular – I think a lot of times we forget how unpopular Dr. Martin Luther King was," he said. "A lot of things that are worth fighting for, there will be challenges, there will be risks to speaking out, and you may lose some fans and some popularity. But I'm at the point in my life now where I just don't care about losing those people if I can make a change that's actually meaningful. It's just the best way for me to be true to who I am and feel like my life is meaningful and that I'm not wasting this awesome blessing that I have to be where I'm at in life."
This story first appeared on billboard.com