Leon Bridges remembers the exact moment he realized something had gone wrong. It was June of 2016, and Bridges was performing a headlining set in front of a mixed crowd at the Roots music festival in Philadelphia when he noticed a visible disconnect with the black fans in his audience. As Bridges interspersed his pop-leaning, 60s-inspired R&B with a cover of Ginuwine’s modern classic Pony, he noticed the black portion of the crowd stirring about, disengaged with his music. “It was definitely shocking to me, to not be able to connect with my own people,” he said to the Guardian.
That experience, which inspired Bridges to pursue a more contemporary sound on his recently released follow-up album Good Thing, was a culmination of the year-long struggle the singer faced since releasing his retro debut Coming Home in 2015. As soon as he became recognised, he was inundated with reductive categorisations of his music, skepticism surrounding his influences and criticism regarding the racial makeup of both his band and audience.
“People took me as some kind of Sam Cooke retro prodigy, and that wasn’t what it was about. I wanted to tell my story through that sound,” says the singer, who, despite having a soft-spoken, crooning voice, says he was consistently compared to more emotive soul-shouting contemporaries like Sharon Jones and Paul Janeway. “As much as I love those guys, it was annoying when people would try to say I wasn’t living up to that kind of music. I associate myself more with Willie Nelson or Townes Van Zandt than with Otis Redding.”
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