Leon Bridges Unearths His California Gold Rush

When grammy-winning soulful singing Leon Bridges tells you to buy the boots—you buy the boots.

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Leon Bridges:

Gold-Diggers Sound

Genre: R&B

Sound: Catchy riffs, smooth like honey vocals and velvety bass
If you like: Ginuwine, Lucky Daye, Jacob Banks
Why you should listen: The soulful singer matures into a sexier sound on this addictive R&B record that ranges from sensitive to seductive.
Best track: Motorbike

 

Listen on Spotify
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When Grammy-winning, soulful singing Leon Bridges tells you to buy the boots—you buy the boots.

I’m talking style and sonics with the dapper dresser, who helped make retro soul cool again with his irresistible 2015 debut album Coming Home. Then, after a slew of nominations, Bridges grabbed a Grammy two years later for a performance on his sophomore project, Feel Good.

In 2021, he is no longer the charming fresh face who made a splash on the scene with his 60s gospel-inspired style and zoot suits so dapper your grandma probably had a crush on him. Instead, Bridges has grown into a suave 70s hustler aesthetic, complete with a coolly confident rhythm and blues feel, on his latest album, Gold-Diggers Sound.

I mention eyeing a pair of white cowboy boots online, and Bridges gives me a drawn-out “heeelll yeah” of approval. He counters with a story about one of his favourite vintage pieces: a cream and baby blue-checked blazer that belonged to a preacher in Compton in the 60s.

The jacket no longer fits, but that’s okay—he’s matured into his Gold-Diggers Sound era, a decidedly funkadelic period. We’re talking macho sideburn-beards, snazzy button-downs—emphasis on the down—revealing thick gold-link chains atop chest tattoos and bell-bottom trousers, with slick western boots peeping out underneath.

There’s a playful 70s sex-symbol feel to the whole thing, which Bridges confirms.

“A lot of it is a sexy, in-the-bedroom kind of vibe,” he explains.

His early career successes had left him hungry to explore new frontiers in fashion and in music, so he tore himself from his beloved Texas to link up with high-profile artists like Anderson.Paak and John Mayer in a strip club. Well—a former strip club.

During his two-year post-up at Gold Diggers, a newly minted boutique hotel, recording studio and former bikini dive bar on Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A., his routine entailed sleeping, eating, drinking, recording and drinking again. A crew of all-star collaborators paid regular visits, and as the liquor flowed, the songs kept coming. Bridges soon realized he had the makings of his third album, and named the sensual R&B record after the historic space itself, in all its seedy and glamourous Sunset Strip glory.

Though Bridges feels it’s a big genre change, lovers of his gentle, deep-feeling tunes will hear it instead as a nuanced development building upon the foundations of his warm, old-school style. Gold-Diggers Sound follows the R&B recipe but bears Bridges’ soulful seal. The classic swaggering bass and punctuating hi-hats are there, but warm tones of brass and charismatic guitars looping catchy compositions are there too, as if R&B stands for riffing and blues.

Bridges’ silk-and-smoke vocals float intimately through it all—if his previous sound was sweet taffy, the new edition keeps the same great flavour but stretches it out slowly, its suppleness designed to be savoured.

“A lot of this was inspired by my nightlife experience. I remember thinking to myself, how can I make music that is true to me, but can be played in this environment?”

It certainly helped that he lived above the hotel bar, and especially helpful that this all went down pre-pandemic.

“We were just excessively drinking tequila every night,” he confesses. “It was a party environment. I think it’s pretty evident in the energy of the music.”

“I didn’t have to go to the studio until about five. My routine was shop or grab grub during the day, then grab some juice from this shop—not your typical gentrified juice shop, but legit Mexico vibes—then go into the studio. We had a big live room where we invited some of our favourite musicians to come through and basically have a jam session. Lots of the songs were devised from that.”

And if he ever hit writer’s block? More tequila.

“I’d step out of the studio, go to the bar, get a drink, and come back and finish the idea.”

Musicians like legendary fret father John Mayer, celebrated producer and pianist Robert Glasper and Kendrick Lamar-collaborator Terrace Martin were all guest stars in this easygoing musical haven, creating with ghosts of Gold Diggers past like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. This spot was their rehearsal space in their heydays.

The collab with Mayer resulted in the soothing duet Inside Friend, released at the beginning of COVID, while the rest are on the album roster. Renowned music maestro Anderson .Paak popped by to direct the video for breezy summer-love tune Motorbike in the cinematic Bonnie & Clyde style.

Though Bridges’ sound has a nostalgic hue to it, his work with some of the most celebrated artists of today gives his music a contemporary edge.

The Gold-Diggers Sound years were clearly a damn good time, “but there’s also moments of introspective on there,” the naturally soft-spoken Bridges says.

Sweeter, a heart-aching track made in collaboration with Terrace Martin, was intended for release with the album. Instead, they dropped it early in response to the murder of George Floyd.

“I saw it as my contribution to the movement, a beacon of light for the Black community. The whole premise of the song is hope—I hope it isn’t always a relevant message.”

Then there’s Magnolias, a romantic and luxuriously bass-filled song that’s his favourite on the album. He wrote it at his mom’s request.

“My mother kept encouraging me to write about a magnolia tree because she grew up with one in her backyard.”

He may have hit the artistic gold rush big time out west, but for the Texas faithful, the sweet magnolias will always be in the south. “I barely got to spend time at home prior to the pandemic. COVID was a time when I really got closer with my family. It was nice to be still for a while,” he says. “I just bought an extra piece of land in Fort Worth.”

Now, after nearly a year and a half of pandemic lockdowns forcing everyone to stay six feet apart, the United States are virtually restriction-free and Canada is opening up for summer. Gold-Diggers Sound is an ode to intimacy and closeness, and the fact that it’s dropping in the summer of 2021 feels like a celebration of the (albeit cautious) return of these things. Social media is currently rife with “vaxxed girl summer” captions and ambitious talk of the roaring 20s, but all I want to do?

Slip on my brand-spanking new white cowboy boots—yes, I bought them after Leon gave his blessing—pour a little tequila, drop the needle and groove with loved ones to some fine-ass tunes.

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