The sun melts away into darkness outside the Sony building in New York as John Legend stares straight ahead, contemplating his response to the next question. He’s dressed as if he belongs on page three of a J. Crew catalog, clean cut and classic in a sweater and jeans. With the golden skin of a sun-kissed child and the empathy of an old soul, the Grammy Award winning artist embarks on the journey of his new album, Once Again, which he describes as “fresh and organic.”Â His answers come boldly and with deep sincerity—just like his music—as he maps his life in moments, not minutes.
If you could spend one day in someone else’s shoes, who would it be?
On Oprah I mentioned wanting to have a meal with Marvin Gaye because I feel like I can relate to him, so that would be interesting, but another person is Thomas Jefferson. He seemed like a really thoughtful, thinking man, but he grew up and was around during the era when there were a lot of contradictions. He was saying he was all about freedom and independence, but he had slaves and he was sleeping with his slaves. He seems like a historical character…to know what he was thinking about during that time. He was so eloquent and had so many ideals about what America should be, but yet he had all these inherent contradictions because he wasn’t living up to these ideals. And then my third answer is Martin Luther King, Jr.
You were an English major in college, did that help you explore lyrics more deeply?
Anytime you’re reading a lot, you just get exposed to more words. And whenever you write, it gives you more stories to tell and more vocabulary at your disposal. It can’t be a bad thing.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
One of the coolest gifts I’ve gotten is from Tony Bennett. He gave me a painting that he did himself. It was of Louis Armstrong. It’s a cool combination—Louis Armstrong, given by Tony Bennett and painted and signed by him. Another one was just after the “Legends”Â show Oprah did. She gave me this cool book that was a souvenir from the event and it’s one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever see. It’s got pictures of everybody that was there but it’s cooler than any yearbook.
Speaking of Oprah, who is internationally loved, what is it about your music that appeals to such a large demographic?
The thing is that people experience songs pretty much the same way. Whether you’re black, white, or Indian; whether you’re from Europe or Asia or Africa, music is music. There’s only so many notes on a piano. I think there’s something in every human being that responds to melodies in the same way. I try to write songs that have universal appeal and that musically travel anywhere, no matter if it’s 20 years from now or 20 years ago.
Explain the line “Love hurts when you do it right”Â from your new single, “Save Room.”Â
You can’t have pleasure without having a little bit of pain. There’s gonna be that because it’s intense and there’s a physical interpretation too but we don’t have to go into that [laughs].
What’s something weird about you that people don’t know?
I move my ears without touching them. I didn’t even notice this until people started bringing it up to me!
When you gave yourself the name “Legend,”Â do you think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy?
It started out as a nickname. I would have never just thought of that myself because I’m not that type of guy. But it was a nickname that my friends started calling me because they really believed in me and also because they thought my music had that aura of being from a classic era. It’s a little bit bold but it puts more pressure on me which helps me focus on being a better artist.
If you became president tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would do?
The first thing I would do is legalize drugs. I believe that the underground market for drugs creates a lot of crime and it’s pointless because we’re not stopping people from doing drugs. We’re spending a lot of money putting people in prison, especially a lot of young black men, when they don’t need to be going to jail. Let’s package it, sell it, and let people get access to whatever they want to use. That way, you eliminate the black market, you eliminate a lot of the gang crime that’s associated with it, you make tax money, and you clean out the prisons and let people live productive lives. I don’t think people would even do more drugs if they were legalized.
Name an event in your life that has made you stronger.
One of the things is getting turned down by record labels a lot because that made me more persistent; it made me believe more and it made me work harder. It made me appreciate where I am now.