At The Tiny Desk Or A Sold-Out Arena, John Legend Delivers

Nov 17, 2013
Originally published on November 18, 2013 8:56 am

John Legend has a way of writing songs that create a sense of intimacy. The Grammy-winning soul singer recently performed at one of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. The performances are exactly what they sound like: just a musician in a cubicle with an audience that's really, really close — no frills, no fuss.

While the setting may have varied greatly from what the singer-songwriter has grown accustomed to over the years, Legend says the intimate performance reminded him of his days as an up-and-coming artist.

"I remember when I first came out as an artist, back in 2004 or 2005, the record label used to take me to all the radio stations and just have me sit in, like, their lunchroom or their conference room, and play for the whole staff," he says. "Just to introduce them to me so they would play my records. So I've been doing it since 'Ordinary People.' "

A singer and performer since the age of 6, Legend says he considers the connection he shares with his audience to be an essential part of his performances, and an organic experience that he embraces.

"Some artists I know, they would rather not see the audience or envision them. But for me, I'd rather see them," Legend says. "I feel like part of the reason I perform is to feel that connection. It's the reason I love it so much."

In addition to discussing his Tiny Desk Concert, Legend recently spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about how the new film 12 Years a Slave hits a little too close to home for him. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

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John Legend has a way of writing songs that create a certain sense of intimacy.


JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) What would I do without your smart mouth drawing me in and you kicking me out? Got my head spinning, no kidding, I can't pin you down...

MARTIN: That's Grammy-winning soul singer John Legend performing at one of our Tiny Desk Concerts. The concerts are a chance for musicians to come in and perform at our headquarters. No frills or fuss, just a musician in a cubicle with an audience that's really close.

John Legend took time after his performance and told me what it's like for someone like him who's used to performing for thousands to a play like this, up close and personal. John Legend joins us in our studios in Washington.

Thanks for being here, John.

LEGEND: Thank you. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: How was that for you, the Tiny Desk Concert, having all those people staring at you?


MARTIN: I guess you're used to people staring but...

LEGEND: I'm used to people staring at me. I've played in every type of venue so...

MARTIN: It's no different for you playing in a big auditorium, big concert hall where there's dim lights. You don't have to connect with people.

LEGEND: It's different. Yeah, it's different. I feel like I have to connect with people regardless. And I try to connect with people even in big venues. I try to look at, you know, whoever's faces I can see and look in their eyes. And that kind of helps me get through the show because I want to see people.

MARTIN: Are you always in the mood to do that? I mean there's something...


MARTIN: Yeah? Are you?

LEGEND: When it's show time, I'm ready.


MARTIN: You played three songs in the Tiny Desk Concert. The first, a very intimate song "Made to Love."


MARTIN: This is an intimate song. And when you were performing it at the Tiny Desk Concert, I saw you kind of connecting with people.


MARTIN: There were some hearts fluttering in the audience.

LEGEND: Yeah, it's interesting 'cause the recorded version is a little more grand. The version I did it on the piano, very stripped down.



MARTIN: Does it ever get too uncomfortable to connect with someone when you make eye contact?

LEGEND: No, no, it doesn't get uncomfortable...

MARTIN: Do you stop it organically or do you just move along?

LEGEND: It's very organic. I've been singing and playing since I was 4 years old. Some artists I know, they'd rather like not see the audience or envision them.

MARTIN: Yeah. And look up or look down or close your eyes...

LEGEND: But for me, I'd rather see them. I feel like part of the reason I perform is to feel that connection. It's the reason I love it so much.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about another song that you played at the Tiny Desk Concert. It's called "Move." This is from the soundtrack to the film "12 Years a Slave." This is a very powerful film about a chapter in American history, about one man's particular story.

LEGEND: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: How do you go about writing a song that tries to capture that? Did you see the film beforehand? Did you seize on a scene or an emotion?

LEGEND: Well, I actually had written this song before. I'm familiar with the kind of canon of Negro Spirituals and I grew up singing gospel music. And sometimes I write songs in that vein and they'll feel kind of out of place in the kind of modern R&B context of a lot of the records that I make. And this film provided me the opportunity to kind of showcase that side of my writing and my voice.


MARTIN: I understand Solomon Northup who authored "12 Years a Slave" - he's the main character in the film - that your family has a history that parallels his.

LEGEND: Yeah. Solomon was kidnapped into slavery. He was a free man living in New York State, sold into slavery. My family, I found out from going through the experience of having my roots exposed and finding the roots with Henry Louis Gates...

MARTIN: PBS documentary.

LEGEND: Yes, the PBS documentary series. He explained to me that my ancestors had been freed by their master upon his death. They moved to Ohio and then they were kidnapped back into slavery by some of his family members. So eventually Ohio actually fought for their freedom. It made me feel proud of my home state that they actually fought for my family's freedom.


MARTIN: John Legend's new album is called "Love in the Future," and it's out now. To see his Tiny Desk Concert, go to

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL JORDAN ROLL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.