John Legend’s debut album, “Get Lifted,” had been out for only a few months when the soulful newcomer found himself center stage at last year’s Grammys.
Except the attention wasn’t focused on him. Legend was playing piano behind his dazzling mentor, Kanye West, who was up for a leading 10 Grammys that evening (he would take home three).
But Legend had an inkling that next time, the spotlight would be on him. “People were telling me at the Grammys, like, ’John, you’re going to be here next year, you’re going to be doing well.”’
He’s doing more than well. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter-pianist is nominated for eight Grammys, including song of the year for “Ordinary People” and best new artist. Only West and Carey matched his eight nominations.
“Everybody had a feeling that this could happen, but you never know the magnitude and I never expected it to be this big, the number of nominations,” says the boyish, sharply dressed musician during an interview at Sony Studios.
“Clearly I want to win but being nominated was big for me, especially being nominated so many times ... being in a headline with Kanye and Mariah is a very nice thing,” he said.
While he may share a headline with Carey, he’s tied to West. After meeting a few years ago, West used Legend’s skills on his album and other productions. In turn, West became Legend’s biggest promoter. Columbia Records signed Legend and released his critically acclaimed album, which has sold more than 1 million copies, in December 2004. West was an executive producer and appears on one of the tracks.
“People cared more about (my album) because he was attached to it and he was an ’it’ artist at the time and still is, even more so now,” Legend says. “So it got more attention than just the average R&B singer would have got.”
Before West’s involvement, record companies weren’t too enthused by Legend’s sentimental, melodic relationship songs. “I just wasn’t getting signed. They weren’t saying go off and become Usher, become this or that singer, but they would say, ’You know, we’re not sure what we can do with this,”’ Legend recalls.
But Devo Harris, his longtime friend and collaborator who produced three tracks on “Get Lifted,” says Legend — who graduated from the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and had a job in finance while pursuing his music dream — remained determined.
“I don’t think he ever got discouraged,” Harris says. “He had a good job and he was making money with the music. It was just a matter of time.”
‘The dude that sings’
During his time on Penn’s campus, Legend spent much of his time singing — in the gospel choir, choral groups, or performing in coffeehouses and talent shows.
“Everybody at Penn knew me as the dude that sings,” he says. His family never discouraged his artsy side: “I think they jut wanted to be happy.”
Besides, he was good — so good that Lauryn Hill had him play piano on her Grammy-winning solo debut, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Of course, back then Legend was John Stephens, a studio session performer lucky enough to gig with one of hip-hop’s brightest stars.
Last year, the relationship came full circle as Hill, on the comeback trail, sang with Legend on a remix of his “So High” ballad. That performance has also been nominated for a Grammy.
“She’s one of my favorite artists of all time, period, and the fact that she was on my project, I was flattered, I was happy as a fan to have her on my record,” he says, breaking out into a wide, awe-struck smile.
Legend is now inspiring those same sentiments from others. Alicia Keys, who selected Legend to open her tour last year, calls him a true musician and song craftsman in a beat-driven, cliche-ridden pop world.
“He’s special. He’s a person that plays and sings and writes his own music, he’s not trying to keep up with the Joneses,” she says. “There’s nothing more special than to see an artist playing his own music. I think a lot of people are seeking it out — the truth of it.”
Perhaps the best example of that kind of truth is his most successful single — “Ordinary People,” which Legend wrote with the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am. An intimate ballad that features only Legend’s voice and a piano, it focuses on the difficulties of a keeping a relationship alive.
“People always tell me (that song) helped save their relationship or helped them think about their relationship or helped them talk through things,” says Legend. “There’s almost a therapeutic component of the album as well where it helps people visualize what they are going through and think of it in a different way.”
Not that it’s all love and romance. There are songs that deal with cheating and lust, and he penned his own song about gold diggers before West made it a hit.
“I wanted to be reflective of the whole kind of gamut of relationship issues that we talk about,” he says. “I think people appreciate that more.”