John Legend interview: The pain of losing a child will never go away

·9 min read
John Legend
The 12-time Grammy Award-winner sings with devastating simplicity about grief and loss on his new album

What do you think of, when you think of John Legend?

To some, he's the Kanye West protégé who made good. To others, he's a Hollywood player, with credits on films like La La Land and Selma.

Some will know he is the youngest ever (and first black American male) EGOT winner, earning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award.

But Legend is probably best-known for his ballads... and one ballad in particular.

All Of Me, a swoonsome tribute to his wife, the model and chef Chrissy Teigen, has sold 3.6 million copies in the UK. On Spotify, and is approaching its 2 billionth play.

Legend knows the success has pigeon-holed him.

"For a casual listener, they probably think I'm just a balladeer," he says. "My albums have always had a hip-hop influence - but the ballads are the ones that have grabbed people by their hearts.

"When I was a management consultant, we used to call it a 'competitive advantage'. There's certain things a company does that they're better at than anybody else. And I think ballads are my competitive advantage."

Legend had always been an over-achiever.

Born John Roger Stephens in Ohio, he began playing piano at the age of four, and was a spelling bee champion by 10. At school, he was so academically gifted that he skipped two grades, and left home at 16 to study English at the University of Pennsylvania.

There, he became president of the university a-capella group, and was tapped by Lauryn Hill to play on her hit single Everything Is Everything.

He assumed he was on the path to stardom, but he was wrong... at least for a couple of years.

"There was a lot of rejection." he says, "but if I'd got a record deal at 18, I would have screwed it up".

"I didn't know what went into being a successful solo artist. I just thought, 'Oh, I can sing and I'm writing some decent songs,' but there's more to it than that.

"I'm a coach on The Voice now and that's something I'm always thinking about when I'm advising the artists. They're all really good singers - some of them are much better singers than I am - but the only way for them to make it is to have a point of view that's interesting and distinct and personal.

"Music is not just a virtuosity competition."

John Legend and Kanye West at the 2015 MTV Awards
Legend and Kanye West encouraged each other at the start of their careers, although they have grown distant over West's politics in recent years

Those early rejections explain how Legend spent three years as a management consultant, first in Boston, then in New York.

"It's a demanding job, they expect you to work a decent number of hours," he recalls, "but I was living a double life, writing at night, gigging at night.

"People always ask me if I get tired now and I'm like, 'I get way more rest than I used to!'"

It was in New York that an old roommate first introduced him to Kanye West, then an up-and-coming artist himself.

They immediately hit it off: West employed Legend to sing hooks on his demos, In return, he gave the musician beats for his songs.

One of their collaborators, the poet J Ivy, noted that John's smooth, elastic vocals sounded "like one of the legends" - and West immediately rechristened his partner John Legend.

At first, he was hesitant to adopt the name. "I was like, 'Damn, what if I flop?'

"And then my response to myself was, 'No, you're not going to flop. Bet on yourself. Go for it.'

"I call it audacity. Kanye certainly had it, and has it. I think every successful artist has to have some audacity - to believe that what you have to offer to the world is unique and special, and deserves to be heard."

West's first album, The College Dropout, arrived in 2004, with Legend featuring on seven tracks. By the end of the year Legend's own debut, Get Lifted, came out on West's GOOD Music label.

"The timing was exactly right," he reflects. "The fact it happened after the College Dropout set me up perfectly."

He's never looked back. He won the best new artist Grammy in 2006, scored his first platinum single with the 2008 shoe-shuffler Green Light, and in 2010 recorded a searing covers album full of still-relevant protest songs, called Wake Up.

John Legend and his family
Legend and Teigen have two children, Luna and Miles, with a third on the way

He met Teigen on a video set and proposed at Christmas 2011 during a trip to the Maldives (the surprise was nearly ruined when airport security demanded to search his bag).

When he first played her All Of Me, she burst into tears... and his music still has the power to move her today.

His new album, simply titled Legend, delicately dedicates two songs to Teigen and the baby she lost in 2020 as the result of a pregnancy complication.

The couple had already named the unborn child Jack when it became apparent he would not survive. Teigen's life was also in danger. Diagnosed with partial placental abruption - where the placenta comes away from the inner wall of the womb - she was continually losing blood despite "bags and bags of transfusions".

Eventually, the couple made the "difficult and heartbreaking" decision to end the pregnancy.

"That pain is never going to completely go away," Legend says. "You're never exactly the same after you lose someone."

Chrissy Teigen is comforted by her husband in hospital
Chrissy Teigen posted emotional photos from her hospital room, while offering words of solace to other families who had lost children

Part of the healing process was a song called Stardust, in which Legend lifts up his wife, celebrating her strength and spirit despite their devastating loss.

"That was one of the earliest songs I wrote for the album, in the aftermath of losing our pregnancy, and it was really meaningful for Chrissy - because it was therapeutic after going through what we went through," he says.

Another song, Pieces, is a raw but graceful piano ballad about navigating unimaginable grief.

"The only thing you can do is pick up the pieces," sings Legend. "Let your broken heart learn to live in pieces".

"That whole section of the [album] is really about healing," he says. "It's about figuring out a way to survive through your grief and remembering what you mean to the people that love you, and who you love."

Legend says he and Teigen found their way through the darkness by focusing on their first two children, Luna and Miles.

"To have two little ones that we could dote on and nurture and enjoy... They bring us so much joy.

"We just were able to hold each other through what was a very tough time."

Teigen recently announced that she was pregnant again, after "one billion shots" of IVF - but Legend says the excitement is tempered by their previous experience.

"There's always this sense of cautious optimism, because you know what it's like to lose one," he says. "And I think that's kind of the message of Pieces: You'll never forget that pain, but you'll find ways to keep going."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RrMneXJ9w0

Stardust and Pieces are just two of 24 tracks on Legend's epic eighth album.

Arranged over two discs, it's frontloaded with slinky dance tracks like Dope and All She Wanna Do Is Dance - on Strictly Come Dancing's launch show this week.

Splish Splash is another ode to Teigen that, to put it politely, celebrates their marital relations with a cunning linguistic approach.

What, I wonder, will their kids think?

"You know, I make my music for grown-ups," he laughs. "But at some point, they'll figure out what it means and they'll probably be embarrassed by it."

The second half of Legend settles into a more comfortable neo-soul groove, full of songs about the healing power of love. Wonder Woman is an sparkling standout; as is Good, a duet with Ledisi, whose jazzy harmonies put some spice in Legend's step.

"Yeah, we definitely did that," he smiles. "Sometimes we make the chord rub a little more. There's a little more dissonance, and the notes are crowded up together, instead of being evenly spread out. It feels really cool."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjI4c-QNt0s

Reviewers have largely preferred the first disc. Rolling Stone said it was refreshing to see Legend shake off "his usual supper-club decorum", while Pitchfork noted that collaborators like Rick Ross and Jazmine Sullivan helped the star "bring more fun to his music than he has in years".

As J Ivy once observed, Legend's biggest skill is blending vintage and modern sounds - and this album contains traces of everyone from Prince and Marvin Gaye to Nina Simone and Nat King Cole, while the low-slung groove of You riffs on Curtis Mayfield's Diamond In The Back.

Does he worry about referencing his influences after the notorious Blurred Lines copyright trial - where Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were successfully sued for copying the "feel" of Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up?

"That was a terrible court decision," Legend says. "Terrible for music.

"It was not based on any real understanding of how songwriting works. Part of the creative process is having those influences and letting them inspire you to create something new. And if writers and producers aren't able to do that, then we're not really able to make music.

"So I try not to let that creep into my head - but lawyers definitely let it creep in there, labels definitely let it creep in there. And I'm like, 'Leave me alone!'

"I don't want to re-adjudicate that case... but it was a mess of a decision."

He pauses.

"My lawyers are gonna be so mad I talked about that."

Legend is out now.