Published Mar 16, 2018The mother doesn't recognize her own son's voice.
The first time Leon Bridges played his brand-new album for his proud mother and onetime muse, Lisa Sawyer, she was taken aback by the high-pitched tone Bridges effects on the leadoff track, "Bet Ain't Worth the Hand" — one half of the two-sided LP teaser the R&B sensation dropped Tuesday.
"Is that you singing on there?" Sawyer asked Bridges.
"She's all the way blown away by it," the artist tells Exclaim!, a devilish smile dancing on his lips. He is in New York, lounging on a leather sofa, fresh off playing a mini-acoustic set and sneak-peeking his new singles for the bigwigs at Columbia Records. "Even some of my friends were reacting like that. I never sang falsetto on a song before."
Credit executive-producer Ricky Reed — a pop architect who's contributed to the crossover success of acts like Maroon 5, Robin Thicke and Pitbull — for pushing Bridges into territory more risky, eclectic and unknown with his sophomore platter, Good Thing, due May 4.
"Honestly, I didn't think my falsetto was any good. [Reed] was like, 'Sing that falsetto.' Okay. It ended up sounding good. That was the whole thing. When I'm writing by myself, I'm comfortable. Working with these guys, they really pushed me outside my comfort zone."
If Bridges didn't wait a third year to release his hotly anticipated follow-up to his 2015 soul debut, Coming Home, he says his work likely would have tread the same musical path of the throwback kid who charted Top 10, sold gold, and reaped a Grammy nomination on the strength of Sam Cooke– and Otis Redding–styled pastiche. Warm and wonderful, but perhaps too familiar, too clean.
"I felt I was pigeonholed. I made that album because it was reflective of where I was at the time, but that sound doesn't all the way define me. It's one of those things where if you go too deep down that hole, you kinda become this novelty thing. I wanted to share my voice through other outfits, so it's not only a classic R&B thing," Bridges, 28, explains.
"This one is the grownup version of me. When I wrote Coming Home, I was still in this religious bubble. Even when I was writing those simple love songs, I felt it was a bit of a risk as far as the community I was in, and my family. This is just me, a more confident me."
Bridges has a better sense of self. He can envision one day elevating his already kickass stage show to Beyoncé levels, with splashy arena videos and pyrotechnics. The old soul within the young singer-songwriter is getting wiser. He's no longer hesitant to tap into the '90s R&B influences that pulse in his headphones, and he'd jump at the chance to collaborate with Drake or Migos. Bridges knows casual fans might be shocked to learn he's not pumping Motown 24/7, that he loves trap and spazzes out with his Fort Worth homies whenever Future's "March Madness" exits the speaker.
"People are surprised. They have this perception of me because of the music. I'm more than this retro figure," says Bridges, determined to write freer, to take chances. Album No. 3 is already in progress. "I felt like in the beginning I held back a lot in fear of overdoing it — onstage, everything.
"I held back on certain melodies. I felt a restraint within that genre — that's why I branched out."
Such self-assuredness has come gradually, through relentless touring (Bridges is jetting to Australia later this month and is jacked to be heading to South Africa later this year) and an understanding of how to operate as a self-confessed introvert under fame's microscope.
With Good Thing, a tight ten-track offering heavy on memorable love songs and radio-friendly production, Bridges is openly gunning for the Best R&B Album Grammy he missed when he was invited to the gala only to watch acts like D'Angelo, the Weeknd, Bruno Mars and Alabama Shakes walk away with trophies. Inside Columbia's walls, Good Thing has been referred to as the biggest sophomore LP since Adele's 21.
"I was just inspired to make an album that was undeniable," says Bridges, sounding more matter-of-fact than cocky. "I feel like I've been gifted to create an album that could win. That's just the confidence in me. It's not all about the Grammy at all, but it's like, why not?"