Meeting Leon Bridges in the flesh is disconcerting. Amid the usual detritus of the modern band dressing room – bags, instruments and chargers strewn around, too few chairs and too many grapes – he’s a black-and-white photograph come to life. Sitting up straight on a red sofa in a tight black suit, skinny tie and shoes buffed to a full shine, hair sculpted just so, it’s almost a surprise when he moves to shake my hand and speak in polite Texan tones. The 26-year-old is a museum exhibit, an impeccable Fifties man who has time travelled straight from the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in Back to the Future, to remind us what real soul music can sound like. His songs could be pastiche if they weren’t so damned good, and they’ve made him one of the breakthrough artists of the year.
We meet in Bristol on the first night of his latest UK tour. “I’ve done more shows in the UK now than I can remember,” says the man who had barely left the state of Texas and his Fort Worth home, never mind his home country, before his singing career took off at the start of this year. “I keep thinking there’ll only be 10 people in the room, but a lot of people are coming.”
Over the next few days he’ll play three times in London, first supporting Pharrell Williams at the Apple Music Festival, where his sweet voice and slick moves should show the ubiquitous R&B smoothie a thing or two. Then he has two nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a landmark venue for musicians on the way up. Audiences who have only seen Sam Cooke and Otis Redding on YouTube are getting a taste of what the real thing must have been like. He’s not bringing classic soul up to date, as Amy Winehouse did by adding heavier beats and swearing, but travelling back to meet the sound at the point when it was at its best. Not for nothing is his debut album, a top 10 hit when it was released in June, called Coming Home. That’s exactly what it feels like.
He makes slight attempts to persuade me that he’s not stuck in a complete timewarp. “Some of the structures of the songs are different from how they would have done it in the Sixties,” he tells me. “A song like Smooth Sailin’ wouldn’t have been written then. The subject of Lisa Sawyer, people wouldn’t write something like that.” His song Lisa Sawyer is a gorgeous doo-wop number, titled after his mother and lovingly detailing her early life in New Orleans. But even so, anyone who calls another song Twistin’ and Groovin’ in 2015 clearly isn’t operating at the bleeding edge of popular culture. He even suggests that he changed the way he would naturally pronounce certain words to make the style more authentic.
Until very recently, Bridges was a bus boy at Del Frisco’s grill in Fort Worth, washing dishes while singing and playing his acoustic guitar on the side. He was spotted by Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, the guitarist and drummer of fairly successful Texas indie band White Denim. The pair had been collecting vintage instruments and setting up a recording studio in a Fort Worth building formerly used for testing golf clubs. Bridges’ sharp look and bare bones songs were exactly the foundations they needed to make something special. The pair bustle into the room halfway through our conversation, both tall and energetic, and beam with pleasure when I tell them exactly how often Coming Home goes on the stereo in my house.
They’ve now said goodbye to White Denim and are working with Bridges full time. “I knew the music they were making before was very different, and wasn’t sure what they would do with me,” says the singer. “They were able to bring the sound that was in my head to life. They’re quite a lot older than me, but working together really worked out.”
He’s at pains to stress that the music was all written and recorded before any record companies came sniffing around. He’s vulnerable to the suggestion that he’s some major label marketing project, looking so perfect that surely a crack team of stylists is involved. Not so. He’s been dressing this way for at least three years – high-waisted trousers and smart shoes and shirts all day, every day, not just on stage. “Yes, I might be more comfortable in sneakers, but I feel good in this,” he insists. “There are certain stores I enjoy going to. It’s fun for me. But I need a lot more suits.”
He seems to enjoy setting rules for himself, enabling him to be more creative within tight boundaries. Back at high school he was much less sure about who he wanted to be, though he gravitated towards the world of dance and studied ballet and jazz dancing at college. At that time he was more into modern R&B singers like Usher. “With my own music, I had thought about trying to make neo-soul, or alternative R&B, like Frank Ocean, before I started doing this.” At home, his mother was listening to what he calls “Mom soul, like Babyface”. His father, who left when he was seven but is still nearby, introduced him to Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield but also Queen. “We used to play a game where we’d try and push each other in the pool. If he got me, he’d sing We are the Champions.”
In concert in Bristol, in front of five vintage spotlights and a pleated red curtain, he introduces a few new songs to the set. They’re as traditional as ever, warm horns and swinging guitar, memorable straight away and showing no signs of interest in the 21st Century. Watch this space, though. “Bobby Womack brought in synthesizers and he was still Bobby Womack,” he points out. Avicii has been on the phone, he says, no doubt wanting to surround another great soul voice with cacophonous electronic dance music, as he did with Aloe Blacc. He also reveals that he’s just sung the chorus of a new song by the rapper Macklemore. So he might yet join the rest of us in modern times, but until then, his journey into the past is a trip worth taking.
Sept 26, Apple Music Festival, Roundhouse, NW1 (applemusicfestival.com)
Sept 28-29, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk)