As legend has it, some creative people are bestowed with an abundance of natural talent from birth or act as a conduit for divine inspiration. How else to explain a prodigy or creative genius?
An alternative narrative was offered up by the aptly named, John Legend, who was a guest on the podcast Smartless recently.
In this story, yes Legend exhibits an early love, if not talent, for music. After all his father was a drummer and his mother led the church choir, his grandmother their organist. A home filled with music led to him starting piano lessons at the age of four. Eventually playing piano with the church choir.
Homeschooled by his mother, a heavy emphasis was put on academics. He eventually enrolled in high school but skipped two grades at the urging of his mother. A decision he would not recommend for others.
Awkward in high school, he turned to music. He wrote an essay for a competition around the theme of “How Do You Want to Make Black History?” His response was to create music that could change the world.
He enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania where he joined both the acapella group and led the jazz band. As luck would have it, a friend introduced to Lauryn Hill, of the Fugees, who hired him to play piano on a track from her new album. His roommate also had a cousin in the music business – Kayne West. They too were introduced and began working together.
He left Penn and got a job as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group – earning more money as a first year employee than his father ever had in any given year. The financial security allowed Legend to pursue his music on the side. He thought it would take one year to get a record contract. It ended up taking more than four.
The rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?
He goes to work each day – writing in his studio. Starting with the melody, he records what he refers to as a “mumble track” essentially an indecipherable set of sounds set to something he is playing on the piano or guitar. He says it takes about five hours to compose the first draft of a song.
As his resume expanded and he ascended to the rarefied air of “EGOT” winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), he still seeks out advice and collaboration from others. Ironically years earlier he had asked one of the hosts of the podcast, Sean Hayes, advice on how to start a production company.
He now picks projects that both inspire him and allow him to spend time with his kids and wife (one of the primary reasons he is a coach on The Voice.)
While his work may sound divinely inspired (like Glory) to hear him speak is to recognize how grounded he is. It’s no accident that one of his most popular songs is “Ordinary People” – despite having led an extraordinary life.
In the wonderful film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, a character utters the famous line, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
As clever as it sounds, I think the better option is not to print the legend, but to understand it. And to use that story not just to inspire us but to inform us.
In case you were wondering, Legend’s given name is John Stephens. A poet, J. Ivy gave him the moniker John Legend – saying that he sounded old school. Stephens reluctantly accepted this new stage name. In other words, someone else helped make him a Legend.