It's not that John Legend hasn't had a hard year. It's just that he wants to focus on the positive.
He's thrilled to be back on tour, his first since December 2018, in support of his latest album, Bigger Love, which came out last year.
"When you think about what the album title is, what the cover looks like, I wanted [the tour visuals] to be full of color and joy, and to be soulful and about love and connection," he says. "Those were the creative notes I gave to my team before we started the visuals together, and I feel like we accomplished that."
You can see for yourself if you're in the audience on Saturday, September 25, when Legend's show comes to Arizona Federal Theatre in downtown Phoenix.
He's noticed the positive energy coming off of the audiences, too.
"It’s truly been a lovefest. People are just enjoying being around each other and feeling that connection again. I personally feel it, trust me. I missed it myself," he says. Indeed, he's long used music as a way to relate to others.
He was "kind of naturally shy growing up and a little nerdy growing up, but music has always been my way of connecting with people. It’s made me more of a gregarious person too over the years, I think. The sense of comfort that music has given me, it’s made me more comfortable being a bit more extroverted."
Legend spoke to Phoenix New Times from Los Angeles, where he was enjoying some time at home between tour stops. It gives his family some time to relax as well; his wife, Chrissy Teigen, and their young children, Luna and Miles, have been his occasional traveling companions on the Bigger Love tour, he says.
"They've been out with me a bit," Legend says. "We’re making it a way for our family to explore the country together."
Bigger Love is Legend's seventh LP, a collection of upbeat, feel-good R&B songs that would have been an ideal summer album in any year but 2020. Legend's vocal and instrumental talent are on display on what he calls "vintage sounds with a modern sensibility." Callbacks to vintage hooks like "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "The Edge" (or more recognizably, "The Next Episode) and smooth love songs mix well with hip-hop beats. If you can't dance to every track, you can at least sway seductively.
Last summer, Legend told Rolling Stone that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the record "more relevant."
"The message of the album is about resilience and love and connection ... and I think it’s probably the specific time when you need that," Legend explains to New Times. "There’s no time that you don’t need that kind of feeling, but I think over the last 18 months we’ve especially needed it, and I think as a family we have, and then as a global family, global community we have as well."
There's a lot of talk of romance on Bigger Love (it is a John Legend album, after all), but a number of the songs, taken another way, provide some musical comfort in these weird times.
On the piano-driven ballad "Never Break," the album's final track, Legend reassures the subject that their relationship will stay strong, but given the last year and a half, the lyrics "We will never break / As the water rises / And the mountains shake / Our love will remain" are poignant on several levels.
The title track is another testament to the value of love and family in uncertain times: "The world feels like it's crumbling / Everyday, another new something / But in the end, in the end / Can't nobody do us in."
The concept of being stronger with other people than on one's own is evidenced by the many guests on the album; Jhené Aiko joins Legend on "U Move, I Move," and Koffee is featured on the reggae-tinged "Don't Walk Away," to name a couple.
"Jhené was my first choice for ['U Move, I Move,' and she said yes, and it made it better than it would have been without her," Legend says. "I had already written and recorded the rest of ['Don't Walk Away'], and I wanted exactly someone like Koffee to bless us with a verse, and again, she exceeded my expectations. I think it’s really cool when you can work with people who give you exactly what you wanted and more."
Legend says his next album is already well underway; it'll most likely be released next year.
"I just started the tour, but up until now, I’ve been writing a lot. So I think we have the album written. So now it’s just about getting the arrangements right and then putting it all together," he says.
The tone will be different from Bigger Love, though, informed by the pandemic and other heartbreaking situations he and his family have faced.
"You know, we had a miscarriage last year that was extremely difficult for us, and we’ve had some other difficult challenges and times of grief as an immediate family, and as an extended family," he says. "We’ve lost people to COVID. I think we’ve been challenged in multiple ways over the last year, year and a half. But also I feel even more sure of our strength as a family and our support for each other and our love for each other, so as I think about how it’s affected my writing for the next album, which will probably come next year, I think it’ll affect how I talk about the way we deal with loss and grief and the challenges."
But despite the negatives, there's a lot in Legend's life to celebrate. He doesn't take for granted that he's the first male Black EGOT winner (that's an artist who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony).
"We kind of joke about it on The Voice a lot, but truly, it’s a special distinction and it’s very rare, and to be one of only 16 people in the world who have achieved that distinction, it’s quite an honor, and it’ll be a part of my bio for the rest of my life and beyond," he says.
And he's aware that his position as a public figure allows him a platform for his activism, which over the years has included paying to clear student lunch debt and founding FreeAmerica, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the prison system and ending mass incarceration. (In 2020, Legend received the United Nations Human Rights High Note Global Prize in recognition of his career as a musician and activist fighting for social justice.)
"I care about a lot of these issues, and I may not have an impact on some people — they may not care what I think," Legend says, "but there are some people who listen to what I say, and are interested in my thoughts on these subjects. And I do have thoughts. So I feel like I should say them."
And of course, there's his family. Even in a short interview, his focus on and pride in his children is evident.
"Miles just told us yesterday he wants to sing like Daddy," Legend says. "That’s the first time he’s ever said that, so we’ll see what happens."
John Legend. With The War and Treaty. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 25. Arizona Federal Theatre, 400 West Washington Street. Tickets start at $61.50. Visit the Live Nation website.