Since he exploded onto the music scene in 2004, John Legend has broken ground by going back to basics. The 30-year-old former session player writes sharply crafted songs that are packed with emotion, and sings them with old-school soul and gospel power. His debut album, “Get Lifted,” featuring the passionate hit “Ordinary People,” moved millions of copies and won him three Grammys, and he followed it in 2006 with the platinum-selling “Once Again.” His latest recording, “Evolver,” features guests Kanye West, Outkast’s Andre 3000 (on the exuberant party anthem “Green Light”) and Brandy.
More recently, the Ohio-raised musician has used his fame for social causes, launching the Show Me Campaign, which promotes sustainable development to fight poverty, and campaigning for President Barack Obama.
Q. You’ve said you think of yourself as a storyteller. Are the stories you’re interested in now different from when you started?
A. Not dramatically. A lot of the stories are similar. They’re about the small intricacies of relationships and how people interact with each other. I like to tell it in a way that’s intimate and also universal. And that’s the idea on a lot of my songs. What changes more than anything are the accompaniment and choices on production. A lot of times you can totally change the feeling of a song with the accompaniment.
Q. How is” Evolver” different from your previous albums?
A. It has a more up-tempo sound, a heavier sound than the last album. I wanted it to be a little more fun than the last album, which was more romantic and classic and intimate. I guess I wanted this one to be looser. Every album is in some way a reaction to the last one. I think because the last one was so serious I wanted this one to be the opposite.
Q. When you started out, you sometimes said you felt like a “nerd.” Why?
A. I was just saying it’s kind of relative to how people perceive most musicians to be. I’m into politics, I’m a little bit more of a bookish kind of guy than most musicians are.
Q. What inspired “If You’re Out There,” which you performed at the Democratic National Convention last summer? It’s a beautiful song, and it’s very earnest about calling for people to get involved.
A. It started out as being inspired by the Show Me Campaign, the anti-poverty campaign we started in 2007. I was speaking at different schools and I was always wanting to have a closer song after I spoke that would sum up what I wanted to say. Some people would think writing an earnest song is kind of corny. I’ve probably said that in the past. But I wanted to say exactly what I wanted to say. I didn’t want to be coy, I didn’t want to go around it, so at the risk of sounding corny I’m gonna say exactly what I want to say.
Q. You sang in Spanish with Colombian rock star Juanes at the Latin Grammys last November. How’d that happen?
A. There’s an agent at my agency CAA who specializes in the Latin market, and she always thought it would be cool for me to collaborate with Juanes. She thinks he’s great and she thought we’d be kindred spirits ... Also, we were on the same project with Tony Bennett recently, so I already had a certain level of respect for him. When we met I thought it would be cool to sing in Spanish, which I had studied in school but I had never tried to sing before. It was a lot of fun. I had a teleprompter up there, and I spoke enough Spanish that I could read it, so I felt pretty good about it.
Q. You got quite involved in President Obama’s campaign; you were in the will.i.am “Yes We Can” video and performed on the campaign trail, and you were all over the inauguration festivities. How did you get involved with him?
A. I met with Barack back in late 2006 when I was touring for “Once Again” ... I had already been reading about him - his book had come out and I was aware he was considering running for president, and I was intrigued by him and by all the buzz around him ...
He announced not long after that that he would run ... They asked me to go with him to Iowa, so I did a big event there right before the caucuses. And when we did the event, I saw how people got so excited, then when we got the results back and he won, I thought, wow, he might actually pull this off. The more I watched, the more excited I got because I saw more excitement around the country, I saw ordinary people getting involved ... So I got more involved and did more campaign events around the country. I just thought, I want to help him win.
Q. How do you feel now that he has won?
A. It feels incredible. I feel inspired by the whole process, how he’s performed under pressure and how the American people have come to realize that something has to happen. All that has helped me to feel that something is happening for the good.