“I’m not dressed for public consumption,” John Legend apologized, before turning on his Zoom camera. He was swathed in a floral-on-black robe, sitting outside of what looked like a tasteful villa: tiled roofs, cream-colored walls coated in ivy. Legend was three days into a family vacation in Lake Como, he told me. But I knew that already. The press had provided breathless coverage of his wife, the model/cookbook author/social-media maven Chrissy Teigen, and her pregnant belly. Teigen herself had given her thirty-nine million Instagram followers a closeup view of their Italian getaway: posing with Legend on a cobblestoned street; dressing up with their daughter, Luna; drifting on a boat with their son, Miles. Lake Como was where Legend and Teigen got married, in 2013, the same year that Legend burnished their power coupledom in his hit song “All of Me.”
It was early evening, Italian time, and Legend was coming off a long day of not much at all. “We’ve been just hanging out by the pool, eating good food, drinking good wine, and, yeah, just relaxing,” he said. He was so laid back that it was easy to forget that, when he isn’t playing Wife Guy and Instagram Dad, he’s one of the most successful musicians of his generation. He’s one of the youngest people, and the first Black man, to achieve the EGOT, and his honors also include the N.A.A.C.P. President’s Award and People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” (SNEGOT?) When his first studio album, “Get Lifted,” came out, in 2004, he was twenty-six, but his expressive voice was an old soul’s, harking back to crooners such as Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. He’s been a tireless advocate for criminal-justice reform and other progressive causes, and his political convictions have been at the heart of a very public rift with his early producer and champion Kanye West, who supported Donald Trump before launching his own baffling Presidential run, in 2020.
Born in 1978, John Stephens renamed himself John Legend even before he had a record deal, in what he describes as a “bet on myself.” His eighth studio album, which comes out this week, embraces the wager: it’s titled, simply, “Legend.” We spoke about songwriting during a pandemic, his extremely online family life, the loss of his and Teigen’s expected third child, religion, President Biden’s crime policies, and what happened between him and Ye. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
“Legend” is a double album, with an Act I and Act II. How are they different?
The conversation I had with my team is that Act I was like Saturday night and Act II was Sunday morning. Saturday night is more about sensual pleasures, more about the party, more up-tempo. Sunday’s more introspective and intimate and spiritual.
You hear the fun and sensuality right away: the first song, “Rounds,” starts with the lines “Cotton candy fingertips / paint my lips.” So much of the conversation about, for instance, Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” has been about getting people out dancing and being in their bodies together after so much isolation. Did you think about that?
Yeah. You’ll probably find, when people analyze this era of music, that all of us musicians were disconnected from the world in 2020. And then, as the vaccines were starting to come around and Biden gets elected, you just feel like the future’s going to be better, even though it’s not all the way there yet. A lot of people were, like, “Hey, let’s celebrate!” And that thread will probably be common through a lot of the music that was created over the past eighteen months.
Well, there’s been a kind of thwarted hedonism. Last summer was supposed to be “hot vax summer,” and then some variant comes around and spoils the vibe.
When I was writing “Waterslide,” it was last spring, and I was, like, “Oh, man, summer is going to be great!” [Laughs ruefully.]
Yeah. I wanted to write about, like, celebrating us being able to see each other and touch each other again.
In Act II of the album, there’s a ballad about grief called “Pieces,” which has the line “we learn to live in pieces.” Where did that come from?
I’m someone who generally tends to write and perform songs that are optimistic. This song has some of that optimism—we’re going to get through this, we’re going to cope—but we’re not ever going to be the same as we were prior to this grief. I certainly felt that way after we lost our baby, in 2020. You learn to live with that grief and carry it with you. It doesn’t have the same weight and pain, but you’re never the same again.
There’s a line in “Pieces” that you repeat a couple of times: “Wasn’t it you who told me that grief was a teacher?” Was that a real conversation with someone? Who’s the “you”?
It wasn’t exactly a real conversation—there’s not a specific “you,” I’ll say that—but I felt like it worked for that place in the song, to say it that way.
Do you agree with that idea, that grief is a teacher?
Oh, absolutely. It’s an inevitable part of life, but it can be something that helps you. Particularly in my relationship with Chrissy, it made us stronger, going through this together, even though we were broken in some way by it, because we had to hold each other together and support each other through it. It’s a way of forging you, if you handle it the right way as a couple, and I think that’s what it did for us.
You and Chrissy were very open about the pregnancy loss, even sharing the name that you had chosen for your third child, Jack. What was the conversation like, on how much to talk about such a difficult and personal thing in public?
Chrissy felt like she needed to share it. Everyone knew we were pregnant. Everyone knew she was having challenges with the pregnancy even. It felt dishonest and weird not to acknowledge the fact that something happened. I was more reluctant, because I’m more guarded about sharing pain than she is. But, once she did it, I almost immediately saw the wisdom of her doing it. Not only was it the honest thing to do, what it did was open up more of a conversation among people who were afraid to share that kind of detail, who felt ashamed if they lost a pregnancy. We still meet people who thank Chrissy for sharing that, because they’ve gone through the same thing and it made them feel less alone.
In one sense, it has to do with being famous and having a pregnancy play out in the press. But, from the women in my life, I know there’s so much angst about what you share, when you tell people you’re pregnant—all these supposed rules—because if you lose the baby then you have to tell people that. But friends of mine have said, “Why do I have to keep any of this a secret and then suffer through it alone?”
Exactly. You’re allowed to grieve these other losses publicly. Everyone knows when one of your relatives dies, and you’re allowed to eulogize them. But, when something so tough and painful and tragic happens [with a pregnancy], a lot of people feel like they have to be quiet about it. I’m just glad Chrissy was bold enough and honest enough to break that taboo.
I was surprised when you just said that you’re more guarded about sharing pain, because you obviously do that through music, and a song like “Pieces” is sharing pain.