Leon Bridges finds his voice and returns to Aspen
Grammy winner to headline Belly Up on Tuesday
Special to the Aspen Times
Who: Leon Bridges
When: Tuesday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m.
Where: Belly Up Aspen
Tickets: Sold out
More info: bellyupaspen.com
The American soul singer and songwriter Leon Bridges first played the Belly Up Aspen in April 2015, opening for Lord Huron, not knowing at the time of the many triumphs soon to follow that year as his rapid ascent to stardom began.
“I vaguely remember it,” Bridges recalled of the Aspen show in a recent phone interview from his Washington, D.C., hotel room. “I wore this plaid blazer with a fedora or something like that, but I hardly remember. I’m definitely looking forward to getting back in that room.”
Bridges, now a Grammy winner, will be back to headline a sold-out Belly Up on Tuesday.
Just months before this performance at Belly Up, Bridges dropped out of college in Fort Worth, Texas, to take a second job as a dishwasher to help his single mother. On the side, he would perform at open mic nights throughout the city. These impromptu concerts led Bridges to meet a fellow musician named Austin Jenkins who Bridges says “changed my life.”
“He recorded some of these songs that had been accumulating over time, and we put them on SoundCloud and everything pretty much snowballed from there,” Bridges said. “It was definitely a surreal moment for me. I honestly didn’t know where my career would go beyond that. I was just soaking it all in, and I was grateful that people outside of Fort Worth wanted to support my art.”
Even before his debut album “Coming Home” was released in 2015, he was invited to perform at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Met Gala. “Coming Home” went on to earn him a gold record, a Grammy nomination and an invitation to the Obama White House, where he performed at a Ray Charles tribute.
“Just milestone after milestone that year,” Bridges recalled.
In December of 2015, he performed one of his first hit singles, “River,” on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I think the whole time I was just saying to myself, ‘Don’t f— this up because SNL is a live thing and you only get one shot,’” Bridges said. “It’s really hard to put into words what that feeling was. At the moment I was just grateful to be in that room.”
Growing up, Bridges gravitated toward R&B and the boy bands of the ’90s. It wasn’t until he started writing songs in college that he discovered rock, folk and blues music.
“I would say my music is an amalgamation of all those things,” Bridges says. “As artists, we accumulate so much inspiration throughout our lives.”
This explains why Bridges’ music is hard to categorize into just one genre. His creamy-gritty vocals and retro soul groove have caused many to compare the 32-year-old millennial to the great father of soul, Sam Cooke.
Bridges’ second album “Good Thing” came out in 2018, which includes charting hit songs like “Beyond,” “Bad Bad News” and “Forgive You.”
In February 2020, Bridges released “Texas Sun” in collaboration with Houston’s funk-soul trio Khruangbin. After touring together in 2018, the Texas-born artists felt like it was a natural collaboration.
“For me, I’ve always loved the marriage of country and soul music,” Bridges said. “I basically wanted to redefine people’s perception of what Texas music is. It was an awesome experience, working with one of my favorite bands to cultivate our version of Texas music. It’s just one of those quintessential driving, feel-good tunes.”
In July, Bridges released his third studio album called “Gold-Diggers Sound” which candidly collects stories from his life. Each song depicts a reflection of his past experiences and relationships.
“It’s definitely more of an R&B centric album, and I feel like I finally discovered my voice,” Bridges revealed. “I got to a point in my career where I wanted to make music that was less derivative. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but on this journey, I’ve learned that soul music is not just tethered to nostalgia and old instruments. I wanted to find ways to incorporate soul music into my sound within the modern R&B context.”
The record is named after Gold Diggers, the multifaceted complex in East Hollywood that includes a boutique hotel, a venue, a bar and a recording studio. Bridges lived there for two-plus years while recording the album.
“It’s almost a place of refuge, in the midst of this gritty city,” Bridges explained. “For me, what was beautiful about it was that I was able to work alongside Ricky Reed. My producer curated some of our favorite musicians and collaborators to make this project special. My day-to-day was waking up, picking up a guitar in my room, prepping some ideas and going into the studio. We started everything off with a jam session. Normally, that’s how a lot of the songs transpired, just playing whatever came to mind in the moment.”
Before going on stage, Bridges and the band do pre-show rituals to get them fired up: “Normally, me and my band turn on some Marvin Gaye and some funk. We just have a couple of shots and start dancing.”
He is fulfilled by touring, he said, and bringing people together around his music: “I love the camaraderie of spending time with my band because we’re a family. Although touring can be a little taxing, I’d rather be tired, doing what I love. I think it’s beautiful to witness this collective effervescence in the crowd. It’s beautiful that music brings together a community of people who wouldn’t normally exist in one place. They’re all together for one thing, and I love that.”
The live classical music I’ve been hearing recently seems to be speeding by faster than usual, and it isn’t just my imagination. Several musician friends agree they have also noticed a trend for tempos to fly by quicker than they are accustomed to hearing.
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