There's a soul consistency to John Legend's musical brew, but his lyrics run from family man to pimp, from doomed to saved.
"I'm certain there's someone who doesn't approve of what I'm doing at my church," he says. "Some want you to go one way or the other, all the way gospel or all the way secular and think you can't do both. I just love music. I just write things I can relate to, my friends can relate to, and things I would want to listen to."
The nouveau-classic soulster keeps glancing in the rearview, his eye on the first-generation soul and r&b that most of his contemporaries have passed and forgotten. You know the stuff: Smokey, Marvin, Curtis --- legends.
It's hard to imagine a 26-year-old legend, but friends pegged John Stephens with that name because they thought it fit.
"I thought it was funny at the time and didn't think it would go anywhere," he says. "But before I knew it, it kind of stuck."
By the time folks recently started to take notice, Legend was already soul-deep in studio work. And not just the daily grind of session work --- hacking away with hopefuls and wanna-be starlets --- but collaborations with bona fide, established talent.
His major label debut was as pianist on Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything." He was vocalist and pianist on Alicia Keys's "If I Ain't Got You"; he co-wrote and played piano on Janet Jackson's "I Want You"; he sang lead on The Black Eyed Peas' "The Boogie That B"; and he contributed piano and vocals to Jay-Z's "Encore" and "Lucifer." He appeared on several tracks on Kanye West's The College Dropout, and will show up on upcoming releases by Britney Spears, Eve, and Common.
"I always wanted to be a musician," he says. "When I was four years old I was playing piano, and when I was six I was singing in the church choir." Legend directed the choir at the Pentecostal church in his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, and directed another in Scranton, Pennsylvania, while attending the University of Pennsylvania. Even after he graduated, he still went back to Scranton once a month to direct the choir. Hence the gospel swell and soul that rises up from the man's music.
"I think it's a blend of classic soul and more contemporary hip-hop influences," Legend says. "And I think a little reggae flavor and a little bit of Latin flavor. And when I say classic soul, I include gospel as part of that."
"I love gospel music," he says. "I love the energy, the spirit of it, the passion of it, the spontaneity. The spirit of that is in what I do now. Musically you can see a lot of the influence in gospel even though lyrically, it's really not."
Legend's songs tell stories of love, hope, and even scoundrel-redemption.
"I create a character for each song," he says. "When I come up with a concept for a song, I try to dramatize with the story I can tell. Sometimes the story's autobiographical, sometimes it's not."
Which raises the question: Which characters on his new LP, Get Lifted, are actually Legend?
"That's up to you, man," he says. "I'm not gonna give away a play by play of my life."
Get Lifted is full of real-life characters as well: Snoop Dogg, Miri Ben-Ari, and the album's producer, Kanye West, all appear. And in a nod to his roots, Legend's family sings on the song "I Don't Have To Change."
"We sing wonderful together," he says. "We've always done it. I can remember getting together at Granny's house for Christmas. I remember how we'd gather around and sing all day. It's a lifestyle for us, it's part of what we do."
He may just be living up to the legend.
"I'm trying to," he says, "everyday."
John Legend | Saturday, July 16 | 6 p.m.