INTERVIEW

A Legend Brings Soul to Seoul

 

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INTERVIEW Checking in with John Legend C’99

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John Legend C’99 has come a long way since his days on Locust Walk. Today he is an internationally renowned musician, songwriter, actor, philanthropist, and down-to-earth nice guy. His roots are in gospel and soul, yet he hits a sweet spot with the masses that makes him a household name. He’s collaborated with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Kanye West to the Roots. He’s also traveled a lot, including on a recent Asia tour, during which Kathy Kearns C’00, who is now living in Seoul, caught up with him.


This is your second time playing in Seoul, this time with two sold-out shows. How does it feel to be back?

It’s great. The fans here are super-loving and receptive and energetic. It’s a performer’s dream when you get to play for people like that. I was kind of surprised the first time I came, because I had no idea how much love and support they would show. It was really good the first time and it was great last night too, and I expect that it will be tonight as well.


Any particular emerging artists or sounds that really inspire you at the moment?

Well, I did a cover of an Adele song, “Rolling in the Deep,” because I really love the song, and it certainly inspired me. And I actually do it in the show, so you’ll see it live if you see the show.

Kanye West also inspires me, even though I work with him closely and directly, but his recorded music is actually an inspiration to me as well. He’s so creative, always pushing himself and pushing where it can go creatively—not only with the music, but also with the visuals and everything else he does.


Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet but would like to?

Beyoncé—because, in my opinion, she’s one of the best singers of popular music. Period. Any style, any genre, she’s just incredible vocally. And I would love to write for her, because you always want your songs sung by someone who can sing like that.


What knowledge or skills did Penn give you, that you feel helped you get where you are today?

Going to a school with international appeal and recognition and international students gives you a little more perspective and broadens your horizons and outlook. You listen to a wider range of things, and then all of those things influence the way you create.

Some of my very good friends, some of my best friends, are people that I sang with in school. Actually, one of my managers was a couple of years ahead of me in Counterparts at Penn.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians at Penn today?

Well, first of all it’s a difficult business to break into, so have a Plan B, like I did. [Laughs.] But just because you have a Plan B doesn’t mean you can’t give it your all and really put a lot of time and effort into being a great musician. And while you’re young the most important thing you can do is get better at whatever you do. If you want to play guitar, be the best guitarist. If you want to play piano, be the best pianist. Now’s the time for you to practice and learn and grow and meet a lot of people who you can collaborate with, so do it.

Penn was actually a good place for me to meet people that were involved in the music business or had a future in being involved in the music business. Through Penn connections I met Kanye, I met my lawyer, and through my lawyer I met my manager. I met Snoop Dogg because one of my classmates at Penn ended up working for Snoop and actually is his manager now. So you never know who you’ll meet at Penn that will help you make it in the business.


Is a new album in the works?

Yeah, I’m working on a new album now and it’s actually pretty far along. I’ve written a lot of songs that I think will be on the album, but it probably won’t get finished until after I tour this summer, because it’s hard for me to work on an album and tour at the same time. We’ll see how much I can get done, but I’d like to have most of the songs written by the summer. I’ll do all of the production—tweaking, arranging, and things of that nature—over the summer and the early fall. And then probably put a first single out in the fall.


Through your non-profit organization, the Show Me Campaign, you have been helping to improve the public-education system in the US. How can the Penn community get involved?

Well, showmecampaign.org is the best way to find out anything. You can donate there and students can apply for fellowships there. We give multiple fellowships of $3,000 for students to work for free at a nonprofit. They just have to submit a proposal to us as to what they want to do for the summer—what area they want to work in and how they think it’s going to help fight global poverty or fight for education reform.

It’s been a good year of progress in the education-reform movement. I think the film Waiting for Superman, which I was a part of, had a lot to do with it. There’s been a wave of governors and state legislatures of both parties that have said it’s time to get serious about reform. We found that the most important thing you can do for student achievement is having great adults in front of the students every day, so a lot of the reform is happening in the area of making sure that teacher quality is kept up.

     
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