By A.D. AMOROSI | November 15, 2013 | People
Austin jacket ($1,495), vest ($498), crewneck sweater ($398), and Austin pants ($498), John Varvatos. Neiman Marcus, King of Prussia Mall, 610-962-6200. Silk pocket square, Ralph Lauren Black Label ($115). Ralph Lauren, King of Prussia Mall, 610-768-8863. Jazzmaster Cushion Auto Chrono watch, Hamilton ($1,745). Bernie Robbins Jewelers, 2123 S. Eagle Road, Newtown, 215-579-8224
Velvet suit ($2,185) and white dress shirt ($325), Dolce & Gabbana. Neiman Marcus, King of Prussia Mall, 610-962-6200. Pocket square, Ermenegildo Zegna ($95). King of Prussia Mall, 610-233-0051. Roadster tie, Theory ($98). Macyâ€™s, 1300 Market St., 215-241-9000. Cuff links, Duchamp London ($225). Bloomingdaleâ€™s, King of Prussia Mall, 610-337-6300
Suit ($1,795) and sweater ($895), Calvin Klein. Saks Fifth Avenue, 2 Bala Plaza, Bala Cynwyd, 610-667-1550
John Legend wears it well. The “it” could be anything: his smooth soulfulness, his gifted musicality, his sartorial splendor, or his thoughtful take on American affairs of state and conscience. In a sea of R&B singers, pianists, and political junkies, Legend stands out for his staunch dedication to everything he does. He even jokes that his brand-new wife, Chrissy Teigen, balances their relationship nicely. “She’s a lot funnier than I am, a lot sexier, too,” he says about the Twitter-trending supermodel he married in September, holding back a laugh. “I’m a pretty serious guy.”
Besides his serious approach to matters musical and beyond, what makes Legend crucial to us—apart from the unique run at romance that is his new album, Love in the Future—is that Philadelphia knew him when he lived here, studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and played shows as John Stephens. He still uses his birth name for songwriting credits and, if you look hard enough, for independently produced albums like Live at SOB’s New York City.
“Coming from Springfield, Philly was a huge metropolis to me,” says the Ohio native from his Manhattan apartment, where he’s just home from a European tour. “Philly seemed massive. It was intimidating. I was a small-town kid.” Living in Philadelphia from 1995 to 1999, Legend says, he didn’t know much about the city at first but learned quickly—fast enough to lead Penn’s coed a cappella group Counterparts, play on the multiplatinum album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and direct the choir at the Bethel AME Church in Scranton.
“There was so much going on in Philly, with The Roots, Black Lily, and their friends like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo coming through town. That time was the peak of neo-soul, and I just happened to be here at the right time. But that wasn’t a plan on my part.” He adds with a laugh, “In retrospect, I wish I had known. I would have planned things better.”
Planning aside, he’s done okay for himself, considering his platinum albums Get Lifted and Once Again, his epic hit ballad “Ordinary People,” collaborations with Tony Bennett and Kanye West, and a multitude of philanthropic and educational enterprises (Teach for America and the women’s awareness charity Chime for Change are but two). Legend even launched his own crusade to fight poverty, the Show Me Campaign. Initially inspired by Jeffrey D. Sachs’s book The End of Poverty, Show Me is dedicated to combating economic and spiritual impoverishment in Africa and the Americas. “We’re looking for reform, for education, for great teachers,” he says. “We’re not about handing out money, but making the system work better so that there’s more opportunity.”
Legend understands struggle. When the singer was growing up, his dad, Ron Stephens, now retired but then a factory worker and member of the United Automobile Workers union, faced layoffs from time to time, with the family’s income determined by how well the company was doing. Legend’s parents, now divorced, made ends meet the best way they knew how: tailoring. Mom made clothes. Dad did alterations. Each supplemented the family’s income with needles and thread.
“My mom still makes clothes for herself and her friends, and my dad just started a hat company,” says Legend. New haberdasher Ron Stephens’ Popz Topz line debuted last year. “I’ll do a little modeling, of course,” adds the singer.
It won’t be the first time he’s taken up his wife’s line of work. Legend’s European concerts were styled by Gucci, the designer he has worn most often since his rise to fame. (The local stop on his upcoming US tour is at Revel in Atlantic City on October 25.)
“Gucci dressed me for this entire tour, for a lot of Grammy events, and for my wedding. Their cuts just look really good on me,” he says of the brand’s lean, mean profile. Legend also takes pride in knowing what Teigen likes to wear, including Alexander Wang, Balmain, Victoria Beckham, and celebrity wedding favorite Vera Wang. In fact, the bride wore three of the designer’s dresses for their big day . “I always knew I’d get married, always wanted a family,” he says. “Now, I had to have some fun in my 20s before I settled down, but once I settled, I settled.”
Another famous pairing of Legend’s is at the heart of his bold new romancer, Love in the Future. It’s nearly as difficult to craft an original love song as to create a fresh romantic movie—“It’s true that there’s nothing new under the sun,” he says, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes—yet with his fourth solo studio LP, the powerfully emotive singer and pianist has done just that. The raw, silken album about amour, with deep beats and a wealth of weirdly haunting sounds, was coproduced by Legend with his old pal Kanye West.
Legend started working with West in New York in 2001. He toured with him and played on West’s debut album, The College Dropout, and the rapper/ producer signed Legend to his G.O.O.D. Music label, where he remains today. But rarely has West contributed much to Legend’s records. “This time, though, it’s interesting, as he was more involved in every way on this album than he has been on any of my albums,” the singer says. “He was totally hands-on in shaping its sound. He cowrote some of the songs, handpicked a lot of the beats and the producers I worked with. His creative influence was great.” Take Love in the Future’s second single, “Made to Love.” West heard a gorgeous song but knew it could be bolder, more audacious. “He redirected the beat and reformatted the mix,” says Legend. “He made it better. He is one of the most interesting, vibrant minds in music, and he’s offering to help make my classically romantic soul album better. Why wouldn’t I take advantage of those resources?”
Still, when it comes to edgy romanticism, Legend doesn’t need help. While his last two studio albums, Evolver and Wake Up!, had a harder sound and socially conscious lyrics, Love in the Future’s smooth, noodling soul songs and their escapist (still aching, though) lyrics are a must for those hungering for love John Legend–style.
“There was no specific interest in swinging the pendulum back to romance,” he says, “but my creative output for the last nine years has been mostly love songs, so I feel comfortable in that place.” He adds with a laugh, “Plus, I’m very good at it.” Love, sensuality, and romance are the heart of soul music, and on his new album Legend sounds better than he ever has. “The job of a great songwriter is to make something that’s familiar and fresh, universal and comfortably intimate at the same time. I’m optimistic, soulful, ready to start another part of my life, and Love in the Future reflects that perfectly.”
Legend still likes to hit the city he once called home, whether for a music-filled festival like the 4th of July Jam or a high-profile charity event hosted by Lisa Nutter and Cole and Heidi Hamels. “I’ve played some of my favorite gigs in Philly. I think there’s a mutual affection between the city of Philadelphia and me. Having spent four important years there and written many of the songs from Get Lifted there, Philly will always have a special place in my heart.”
Photography by Andrew Eccles; Grooming by Jessica Smalls for Kiehl’s/Epiphany; Styling by Kemal Harris at The Wall Group