A few months after leaving his job busing tables in Fort Worth, Texas, Leon Bridges was playing to a sold-out crowd at New York’s Mercury Lounge, a stage that’s known for hosting many of the best up-and-coming acts in America. At the time, he had only released two throwback anthems, “Coming Home” and “Better Man,” that racked up over a million views on YouTube and solidified his position as the most exciting new artist in soul music.
It was only three years ago that Bridges started making music, after a friend from community college fatefully brought his keyboard to school one day. “I was studying dance to be a choreographer at the time, and I met this guy who played named Octavian Johnson. I saw it as an open door to sing and try to figure out who I was, so we started sitting around after class and playing music,” Bridges recalls. Just a few months later, Bridges decided to teach himself to play the guitar. “I got tired of depending on other people, and I had this strong desire to make music of my own. I decided to start writing my own tunes and just see what could happen.”
His first proper gig was a modest open mic night at a local Texas coffee shop, where he sang vocals over hip-hop beats playing from his iPhone. “It took me a while to figure out my voice,” Bridges says. “When I started writing, I just wanted to do something different and creative. I first thought neo-soul was a good pathway for me, so I tried that out but realized I didn’t want to be placed in that box.” He began looking to legendary voices from other generations and genres like Van Morrison, Neil Young, and Townes Van Zandt for inspiration. “That’s when I started listening to tons of classic soul music, and I started to really see that was the lane I needed to be going down.”
Bridges set out on a mission to learn the language of soul-pop. The honeyed ballads and soft crooning that he’s now known for are proof that he’s achieved that goal with natural ease. And with only four singles released so far, he’s already selling out shows across the country. But he’s really just getting started.
It all began one summer night in Austin, Texas. “I was hanging out at a bar, and I was wearing my high-waisted Wranglers that night. This girl came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got to meet my boyfriend! He likes to wear vintage Wranglers, too!’ I thought to myself that it really was kind of weird, but I went over and met him anyway. Thankfully, he turned out to be a really nice guy,” Bridges says.
Luckily for him, that really nice guy was Austin Jenkins of the psychedelic rock band White Denim. When their chance run-in happened a second time that same week, Jenkins got to see Bridges doing what he does best: singing soul music. “A couple days later he saw me playing some of my songs at a bar—that’s really what changed everything,” Bridges says. “He told me we had to do a record.”
Eight songs came out of their three-day recording session, complete with a retro-style studio and original recording equipment from the ’50s. For Bridges, it felt like revisiting the time period in which his songs could have been written. Fast-forward a few months to October 2014, and two tracks from that same recording session started getting airtime on some of the biggest stations in radio like London’s BBC Radio 1. The relatively unknown singer from small-town Texas was became an overnight global success. “It all just kind of blew up after that,” he says.
Today, he’s finding himself playing in famous venues like Nashville’s historical Ryman Auditorium. “Most places are all right, but the Ryman is just amazing. You look out into the crowd, and you feel like you’ve stepped into a different place and time.” It’s a fitting atmosphere for a soul singer who easily transports his audience back to the days of Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson.
From his retro fashion sense to his storytelling lyrical ballads, Bridges fully personifies a generation gone by. Backstage, he still wears those same vintage Wrangler jeans and two-toned loafers, but he changes into a black fitted suit and bowtie before taking the stage. During his live performances, Bridges successfully paints a picture of those ’50s and ’60s days of soul music. “I like to groove a little bit!” he says. Lyrically, he’s a true storyteller who finds inspiration in his own family history. “I like to tell stories with my songs, and I’m lucky that my family makes for some really great songwriting,” he says. “I wrote a song about how my grandparents met, and I wrote the song ‘Lisa Sawyer’ for my mother. It’s about her life and how she grew up in New Orleans. But she still tells me her favorite song is ‘Coming Home!’”
Writing melodies about being “rich in love” and “twisting and grooving,” Bridges has found his home as a modern-day soul-pop revivalist. “They’re mostly songs about love,” he says. But outside of his own genre of music, Bridges has sought inspiration from a wide range of artists and types of music. “Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Tobias Jesso Jr. and Townes Van Zandt. I also really enjoy Drake and Young Thug. It sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? It’s not my musical style, but it’s nice to step outside of your own genre and get a breather for a minute,” he says.
A recent collaboration with American rapper Macklemore allowed Bridges to further explore music styles far outside of his comfort zone. “It was really cool to work with him, and he was so receptive of my own sound. I’m totally open to exploring different types of music,” he says. “I just have to always remember to be true to who I am.”
Last month, his single “River” was chosen as the background music for a Beats Music campaign about professional football player Marcus Mariota. With his debut album Coming Home out June 23, this soulful Texas native is certainly having a moment, with many believing Bridges is resurrecting a genre that the music world had left for dead. But the 25-year-old says he’s not trying to do anything profound. “For me, making music just starts with a simple melody, and lyrics will come sometime after that,” he says with a smile. “I’m just writing.”