John Legend brings his Legendary Christmas tour to the Met
"The thing is every song — Christmas, non-Christmas — has pretty much already been written before," Legend said.
Bob Dylan might have been the first act to hit the famously rejuvenated Met Philadelphia on Monday. But in actuality, there’s an opening week’s treat, with recently anointed EGOT John Legend following on Tuesday. The onetime University of Pennsylvania student has been busy celebrating Christmastime with his wife, actress/model Chrissy Teigen, and their two children, Miles and Luna. The piano-playing soul singer’s celebration has included the release of his debut holiday album of new and classic carols, A Legendary Christmas; last week’s NBC special A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy, and his Legendary Christmas Tour. We caught up with him prepping for his New York holiday show.
“A Legendary Christmas” felt more like a sitcom than a special. Is something in serial television an idea you would ever consider?
I don’t know that we could do a full season of sitcom episodes. It’s a lot harder than it looks. I have so much respect for people who can write and produce that amount of content every year. Chrissy is such a natural comedic talent and so good on screen, though. I think she should act more in film and television.
What are the upsides and downsides of working with your wife?
It’s pretty much all upside. I haven’t seen a downside to it yet. She’s so talented, and our chemistry is really easy and natural. We have pretty different personalities, but we support each other and complement each other. I love seeing her do so well in every aspect of entertainment and I’m so happy we can do so much together.
How does one write an original Christmas song, let alone the six you have co-composed?
The thing is every song — Christmas, non-Christmas — has pretty much already been written before. There’s been like a century of recorded popular music, and it’s hard to write a song with themes that haven’t been explored before. The key is to take these well-worn ideas and themes and chord progressions and melodies and somehow make them feel fresh. I don’t know that there’s a particular science to it, but a big part of it is just telling the story from your own personal point of view. Using your own experiences and passions to make these universal feelings specific. And then to present that story with melodies and chords that feel really good and compelling. I guess that’s the challenge of songwriting, whether it’s Christmas music or not.
What gave you the idea to record a Christmas album, then tour it?
Well, I’ve wanted to do a Christmas album for a long time. Christmas music was always a big part of my life growing up in Ohio. My family is very musical, and every Christmas, we would gather around the piano at my granny’s house and sing for hours. We would sing hymns, Motown Christmas songs, Nat King Cole, Donny Hathaway, and more. And every time Christmas comes around and I’m in the spirit of the season, I’m like, ‘I need to make a Christmas album,’ But, of course, it’s too late in December. You have to make a Christmas album in the spring and summer to put it out during the holidays. So I just kept putting it off because I was doing other things. Finally, this year, I resolved that I was really going to do it. I called up Raphael Saadiq and told him I wanted him to produce the whole thing and we started writing and coming up with our list of songs to cover. Touring with the album was automatic for me. I want to tour every new album. That’s part of the fun of writing and recording this music. You want to play it live for the people.
What are your favorite Christmas albums?
I love James Brown, Charles Brown, Stevie Wonder, Motown Christmas compilations with Jackson 5, Smokey, the Temptations, and more. Plus Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Donny Hathaway As you can tell from the album, we were inspired by these artists when we were coming up with the list of songs to cover and the arrangements.
What song on “A Legendary Christmas” is most challenging to sing? You have range and chops, yet these tracks have odd tempo changes and pitches.
‘Purple Snowflakes’ is hard to sing live. The falsetto is harder to project in a live setting. It sounds so good in the studio because you can basically whisper and everything is captured by the mic. Live, it’s much harder.
Is there any song on “A Legendary Christmas” that has the most dear and tender emotion for you?
'By Christmas Eve’ is really powerful. I know what it’s like to be away for a long time leading up to the holidays. I’m literally living the song now. My wife has to take on a lot of the responsibilities at home while I’m gone and I’m so grateful that she’s able to do that, but I still feel bad that I’m away from the family for a while.
Considering the holiday, are you a particularly religious man?
I grew up in a very religious home, and a lot of my nostalgia for Christmas is tied to my family and the religious tradition we all shared. I’m not particularly religious anymore. But I still love celebrating Christmas and embracing the secular and sacred traditions of the holiday.
You’re going to be 40 on Dec. 28. What do you say about the aging process? What is the boldest, most audacious thing you have learned about yourself going into 2018 that you might take into next year?
I’m not good with inspirational quotes. I don’t really use them in my life, for some reason. But I’m really grateful for my first 40 years. I love being a dad and a husband. I’m so fortunate to do what I love to do for a living. I’m just focused on trying to make the world a little more beautiful and loving in the future. I try to get better at what I do every day.
8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4 , the Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad St., , $59-$199, TheMetPhilly.com