How Leon Bridges Went From a Texas Dishwasher to a Grammy-Nominated Soul Singer
He's come a very long way in a very short time.
Whenever Leon Bridges gets back from a tour to his home town of Fort Worth, Texas, he sits down for a meal at at Del Frisco's Grille. After playing Saturday Night Live, or performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was back to Frisco's. After a mostly-sold out headlining tour of the U.S., it'll be back to Frisco's. It's where he scrubbed plates to keep afloat while playing open mic nights around town before signing to a major label deal with Columbia Records. It's where he worked two years ago.
"They're always so excited for me to get back in town and eat. The thing is they've always been supportive of me," Bridges tells Esquire. "Even when I was doing open mics they were always excited when I was telling them I'd be doing this and that and showing them new recordings. They've always been there for me."
And it's where he'll be eating when he gets back from the Grammy Awards, where Bridges' 2015 debut album Coming Home is nominated for best R&B album. Most often compared to Sam Cooke, Bridges doesn't make the music of your typical 26-year-old. His soul is in the 1960s, and his music sits comfortably in the doo-wops of that time. While the charm comes from Bridges' dedication to the era, the heart comes from his deeply personal stories. Last week, Bridges released the stunning video for his gospel ballad, "The River." It's not just telling his story, but an entire community's story through the eyes of a handful of characters.
"When you look at the video you see a depiction of a struggle within black communities. I wrote that song three years ago when the topic of injustice wasn't as prevalent in the media," Bridges says. "The song as it was originally intended is the song of salvation. Within my struggle and within my pain I can lean on god for salvation. That's what a river has always meant in gospel music. You go to the river to be baptized and that's how you know God."
"Despite all the pain and injustice and hurt, there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Bridges says.
This is, in part, what put him in the Grammys running among the likes of D'Angelo (who won the award for 2000's Voodoo), Charlie Wilson, Andra Day, and Jazmine Sullivan, who are up for the same award. On Monday, Bridges and his guitarist will toss on their bolo ties (a nod to back home) and head to the biggest night in music. "You just show up, do the red carpet thing, which is kind of funny. Then you go chill," says Bridges, who's not at all nervous, particularly since the R&B category isn't even televised. During the ceremony, Squarespace and Preacher will run a series of advertisements that highlight Bridges' incredible journey from the kitchen to the Staples Center. He'll also appear in a short documentary showing at film festivals throughout the year that delves into his home life.
That's a lot of attention, especially for a guy who quit his dishwashing job in October of 2014 ("There was talk of going on tour and it didn't make sense for me to ask for that much time off of work," Bridges says. "So that's when I made the decision to leave."). He's come a long way in a short time.
"I don't ever want to stray away from that, of being a voice for those people. I just need to keep myself in check, and my mother, and my friends keep me in check. It's all about that accountability," Bridges says. "As humans, we can get blinded. All this shining stuff is in our face and everything's going good. It's just about going back to that place and remember where you came from and the people who are truly supporting you and the people in your community who are hurting."
So for now, his focus is on recording a better album when this promotion cycle ends in September. But, first, it's the Grammys (where he hopes Kendrick Lamar will win album of the year), then back to Frisco's to sit in front of a plate of hometown food.