Following his first Golden Globe win, for the track “Glory” from the film “Selma,” John Legend, along with his fellow songwriter Common, are favored to win their very first Oscar. But before Legend gets there, he stopped by Sundance to perform a few Nina Simone covers following the world premiere of “What Happened Miss Simone?” Next up, Legend will perform at the Grammys, where he’ll also vie for the Best Pop Solo Performance trophy. He also recently teamed up with Axe to form the White Label Collective in order to help bring out and mentor aspiring artists. Legend sat down with HuffPost Entertainment to discuss the “Selma” snubs at the Oscars, working with Axe and writing his next album.
You recently won a Golden Globe for your song “Glory” with Common, and the track earned an Oscar nomination. How much more weight do these honors hold that the song is a part of “Selma”?
Well, anytime you are nominated or awarded, it’s a huge a thing. But I think it makes it even more special being a part of “Selma.” You know, the film is so important, and I feel so connected to the material of the film just having grown up inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King and the great work of the Civil Rights Movement. Ava DuVernay did such a beautiful job rendering that in a way that was really powerful and poignant, and really inspiring and relevant to what’s happening in America and the world right now. Having a song that was able to add to that and help bring attention to that film is such a huge honor for me, and a huge honor for Common, and we’re just so grateful for having this opportunity.
Common pulled you in for the song, so what were some of the first discussions or ideas that you guys had when decided how you wanted to write it?
I knew what the film was about, of course, and he called me saying that they needed a title song and you want to write something that’s very special for that moment. We all know how the story goes, even if we don’t know all the details, and so you want a moment that’s inspiring and powerful and uplifting. So that’s what we tried to do. He helped me by suggesting titles for the song before I started writing it. When he said glory, I just felt like that was a perfect title for it, and I built off of that. I wrote the piano part and my vocals and then sent him the idea I had put down and he loved it and wrote his verses to it.
How do you view music as a vehicle for social change?
I think the movement is really driven by the people and their desire for change, but I do think music is able to inspire, and can provide a little more fuel for the movement. But most of it is driven by the people and their own concerns — being fed up with injustice, being fed up with unfairness, and going out there to seek a way to make change happen. To pressure politicians, to pressure the public to say, “Hey, our concerns need to be met.” But I do think music can help galvanize and inspire movement.
Music sometimes provides a moment or context that people can remember and draw from.
It gives you more of a connection to the subject matter and sometimes certain things can be said in a speech, but hearing it as a part of music that you listen to over and over again carries a certain resonance that speeches might not carry.
Ever since the Oscar nominees were announced, there’s been a lot of discussion around the idea that “Selma” was largely snubbed, however there was little outrage to be heard from the actual cast of the film.
Nobody wants to feel like they’re not being gracious because we are all grateful, first of all, that I was nominated and Common was nominated and the film is nominated for Best Picture. But I do feel a bit disappointed because Ava and David [Oyelowo] did Oscar-worthy work. It’s truly a brilliant film, and David as the center of the film did such a masterful job capturing Dr. King’s spirit, and I thought it was Oscar-worthy work. It’s unfortunate that they weren’t recognized for it.
As far as music goes, what other projects do you have going on?
First of all, I’m excited about what I’m doing with Axe White Label Collective. We’re giving new artists, aspiring artists, the opportunity to be where I am basically. We know that luck is really when opportunity meets preparation. You can practice your craft, study your craft, you can do all that you can on your own, but sometimes you need somebody to give you that opportunity to really let you shine and that’s what we are trying to with the Axe White Label Collective. We’re inviting aspiring recording artists and musicians to submit their art on YouTube, some kind of original song they are performing and may written as well, and the winners will get a chance to meet me and get mentoring from me and also perform at South By Southwest.
Is mentoring artists something you constantly want to do or are very passionate about?
It’s something I’ve done in the past, I’ve signed artists like Estelle, and worked with other artists like Stacy Barthe. And even artists I didn’t formally sign a deal with, I’ve given them advice and written with them, just trying to help them along. Kanye did the same thing for me. We’re close to each other in age, but he had started to blow up as a producer before I had blown up as an artist and he started to help me by producing my demo, featuring me on other records he was doing. A lot of times you need that extra helping hand so you can take the leap.
Are you working on any solo music?
Yeah, I’m going to start writing my next album soon. I’ve been so busy with the last album, I toured almost a year and a half with the last album, and with awards season it has been pretty crazy, but once this has all settled down, I want to just go back to writing.
What’s your ideal situation for writing?
I love to write in the studio, actually. I write there and then record a demo version, and a lot of times I will revise the arrangement and maybe recut the vocals later. But I still like to write in the studio because it makes me feel like I’m at work, I’m focused, I can’t, like, stop and watch TV or any other stuff. Going into the studio just gets me focused and it’s where I get the most work done.