John Legend releases a new Christmas Album
Prestige issue 293-294, Dec. 2018-Jan. 2019
The artist talks about his new album, his favorite Christmas songs, celebrating with his wife and kids and the worst Christmas present ever received.
«Christmas is about family, love, and music»
There are quite a few references on the album, aren’t there? Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Marvin Gaye… Yes! So visually, Bing Crosby certainly was a reference. If you look back at one of his covers, he has a bowtie, like a festival bowtie on and a Christmas Santa hat. We wanted to pay homage to that cover for this album cover. The whole album concept was to be really embracing the classics… Stevie Wonder, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Charles Brown, Motown Christmas albums… We wanted to really embrace those classics and my exact phrasing to Raphael Saadiq, my producer on the album, was: «I want the album to be Stevie Wonder meets Nat King Cole and, you know, everything in between». I think we were able to pull it off.
How come seasonal albums are such a lost art form in a way? In the old days, if you were a well-known entertainer, they were part of your repertoire, weren’t they? I think what happened is people feel like all the Christmas songs have already been done and they feel they can just listen to the old stuff if they want to hear it. And there’s not a lot of new energy around making new Christmas music. But I decided that I would record some of the classics, but also try to create some new classics. I love Christmas music. I love singing with my family for the holidays, I love the memories all this evokes for me, and I feel like my voice and my style of music and the style of music that I love, are really well suited for a Christmas album. So I felt like if anybody should do one, I should! (laughs)
How is Christmas with two little kids? Do they sort of make you rediscover what it’s all about? It’s really brand new because my daughter was one and a half last year, so she wasn’t really aware of what was happening at that time. Now that she’s two and a half, I think she’ll really be more aware of what’s happening. So we really discover it through her eyes this year. Our son won’t know anything about what’s happening. But I think finally having Luna at an age where she’ll really be aware of what’s going on will be a lot of fun and it’s perfectly coinciding with my first Christmas album being released, so hopefully the soundtrack to our celebration will be my music along with some of my favorite Christmas songs of the past and we’ll really enjoy Christmas with Luna.
Does the album get you out of the dog house as well? Like if you just put on your CD you don’t have to play the piano anymore… (laughs) Chrissy likes hearing it, Luna likes hearing it, we all like to dance to it and we all love Christmas music. I think we’re all kind of unabashedly embracing tradition and the festive spirit. I think it’s why I featured the family in the album photo shoot. It’s really all about family and it’s all about love and about music.
It looks very 1950s. [laughs]
The only thing missing is a glass of liquor at hand… Well, we actually took a picture with the glass and the cookie and we decided the cookie looked better, (laughs) but it did remind me of Nat King Cole. He was the first black man to have his own television show. He was really pushed out by racism and only got the show to last for, I think, a year or two. But even the fact that he had it was such a groundbreaking and trailblazing thing. I was really evoking his spirit in a lot of ways on this album and that’s why we wanted the photo shoot to kind of reference some of those giants of Christmas past.
As you say, family traditions, love, peace, harmony. Is that something that the world needs these days, badly? Absolutely. We need it.
So a Christmas album is a political statement in a way? I think it’s a kind of an antidote to what’s been happening in politics and how the world feels toxic. We wanted to spread some joy, spread some love… I’m not going to say it’s explicitly political, but it certainly will encourage people to love each other and connect with each other.
Hence you’re sewing little seeds, musically? Yes. I think we need it right now. It put me in a good mood all summer, honestly. I was recording it throughout the summer and in the studio with Raphael Saadiq, and no matter what was happening, it was fun to be able to hum some Christmas songs.
It must have been bizarre to record those during the summer, how hot was it? It was like a hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit (43˚C), and we were in North Hollywood, which is even hotter than most of Los Angeles. It was the opposite of Christmas in my mind, but once we got in the studio, we just focused on the music, we listened to a lot of the references that we loved, and we had Christmas lights hanging. There were no windows, there’s air conditioning, so you can suspend disbelief and feel like you’re celebrating Christmas.
How do you write a Christmas song? Is there a certain scheme to follow or a list of words that just have to be in there? I think there are words you tend to reference like love and giving, the fireplace, the snow, and the mistletoe, family and all these things. I think we definitely referenced quite a few of those..No Place Like Home is a song that is very much autobiographical. You know, after all the celebrations, all the things you do outside like parties and all these things, it’s actually more exciting to just be home with your family for Christmas. And I wanted to write about that because that’s how I really feel.
Are you starting a new tradition? At least for yourself? You mean doing more Christmas music? Yes, I think what will happen is this will always be part of my life, this particular album, and then maybe we’ll add additional bonus tracks over the years. Kind of like what Mariah Carey has done, I think, in some ways. I see myself as a kind of artist who enjoys Christmas music and embraces it and embraces the idea of doing these kinds of songs and the style of music. And so, I could see myself, maybe recording additional tracks over the years. I probably won’t make another proper Christmas album. But in the streaming era, I think what we do is just use this as the basis and then add another track in a couple years and so on. And occasionally we’ll tour for it and it’ll always be part of my life.
Speaking of Mariah, you did a Christmas track with her in 2011. Have you been carrying around that idea with you ever since? Well, even at the time, Mariah was like: «You need to do a Christmas album. You’d be perfect to do a Christmas album.» And I agreed, but I just didn’t feel then that I had the time to do it, but I made time this year and I’m glad I did.
Next thing should be Christmas movies, because those are rare, too. We already are making one. We announced it recently. We’re executive producing a film with Netflix called Jingle Jangle. It’s an original live-action Christmas musical. I’m writing songs for it and executive producing it.
The album shows that there are different ways to approach Christmas songs, stylistically, from R&B to funk, soul… Yes! Some New Orleans funk, jazz. Second line music.
So that subject or topic could be approached any way you want it? Of course, there are country Christmases, there are gospel Christmases, there are blues Christmases. We did some blues or blues adjacent music like Charles Brown and James Brown. We just wanted to take a tour through some of my favorite types of Christmas music and particularly black music from the fifties, sixties, seventies. We wanted to kind of survey some of that body of work and cover that for the album.
«Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas» has been covered quite a bit over the years. By the likes of Sam Smith, Christina Aguilera, and Frank Sinatra, who recorded it in 1947.One of his first recordings ever. It’s a beautiful song. It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time and I got to do it with the fantastic Esperanza Spalding. Her voice is magical, she just gives the song a whole new level of grace and beauty.
You’ve got the perfect Christmas gift now for family and friends. Absolutely. We’ve got the vinyl version coming. I’ll probably send that to a lot of friends and family. I’ve got my wine brand. It’s like the perfect combination: Chrissy’s cookbook, my wine, and a Christmas album.
I didn’t know you were into winemaking. I make wine in Napa Valley. It’s been three years now. We’ve got a cabernet sauvignon, we’ve got a chardonnay, we’ve got a rose from France, and we’ve got a red blend from Napa Valley.
What’s it called? It’s called LVE, Legend Vineyard Exclusive, and it’s short for love, LVE, without the ‘o’. We’ve been marketing it for the last few years and, like I said, between the album, Chrissy’s cookbook and my wine, I feel like we’ve got a great Christmas basket for people. (laughs)
What got you into winemaking? I love wine. I enjoy it throughout all my travels. I’ve always felt like it went really well with my music, particularly Christmas music, and we felt it’d be cool to partner with a great winemaker. We found one in Napa that was excited to do it with us. And we’ve been making wine together for the past three years.
What will your Christmas look like this year? We want to be home more, we want to decorate the house more. You know, we have the tree, we have tinsel… We like to really go for it.
Like the full monty? The full monty!
Will you have the house decorated in bright Christmas lights? Well, it’s not as much outdoors as indoors. We like most of it to be indoors. We don’t live in a neighborhood where a lot of people drive by, so it’s not as if a lot of people would see it if it were outdoors. But indoors, we like to have the tree, we have the lights, we have a guy named «Dr. Christmas» (chuckles)… that’s his nom de plume. He goes around and decorates houses all around LA. And he knows how to make it festive.
«We wanted to spread some joy, spread some love… It certainly will encourage people to love each other and connect with each other.»
Like an interior designer for Christmas? Yes, exactly.
I didn’t even know that exists. Only in Beverly Hills, I guess! (laughs)
How insane does it get in your case? Are you going to spoil your kids or are you trying to cut back on gifts? I feel like they’re already spoiled. I don’t think we need to go extra with Christmas. They get so many gifts anyway because brands will send us free stuff all the time. Like every day we get new stuff. A lot of it we just give away. I don’t think we’ll spoil them anymore for Christmas. We’ll just try to keep it at a normal level.
That should be difficult enough. Yes, it’s hard. (laughs) I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a kid like my kids, because I grew up in a house where it’s very different. My dad worked at a factory, and we couldn’t afford a lot. We couldn’t afford to have these huge Christmas celebrations with these big gifts. It was all about family, it was about music, it was about food… It wasn’t about material things at all. So it’s weird raising kids that are having very much the opposite experience, where they’re surrounded by privilege and wealth, and don’t want for anything. It’s hard to know how to deal with Christmas with them. We’ll figure it out, hopefully.
Did I hear you actually celebrated Christmas with your grandparents back in the day? We would go to granny’s house. We would sing around her piano, we would exchange small gifts around the family. It was beautiful, and we still go home sometimes for Christmas, to Ohio. But now that everybody’s grown up and has their own kids, it’s hard to get everyone together all at once. But as much as we can, the family likes to do that.
In your case, I assume there must be some good home cooking going on as well… Absolutely. Chrissy’s really great at home cooking. I’ll assist her in the kitchen, I’m the sous chef. And we have a lot of fun.
So you’re still the sous chef and the guinea pig? All of that, yes. Absolutely.
How do you stay so thin then? Travel to Switzerland and try to keep to a diet when I’m not home cooking big fabulous meals.
Is it difficult to keep a diet with a good cook in the house? Yes! It is! (laughs) But it’s great! I wouldn’t trade it. (chuckles)
Are you going to dress up as Santa this year? I might. I mean, I’ve got the hat. (chuckles)
I have to ask you for the best and worst Christmas gift ever. Can you recall? The worst was probably a pair of socks. (chuckles). It was like a family gift. Like: «Oh, you need socks, I’m going to give you a pair of socks.» (chuckles) The best: my wife got me a beautiful watch, that’s a good Christmas present. But maybe my favorite Christmas was when I proposed to Christy. We got engaged on Christmas of 2011…
Well, you seem to be lucky when it comes to family. I’m happy. Life is good. No complaints. Conducted by Peter Reynolds / The Interview People