John Legend: 'I wish I was a little more tortured'

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Hey, John, we're at the Google Hangout (1) where you've just been asked questions by your budding-musician fans and the presenter hailed you as, variously "attractive", "a superstar", and "a nine-times Grammy winner".

Which was the best compliment?

Oh, "attractive", come on! No, it's always cool to see young singers inspired by my work. 

Don't you see young pretenders and think "keep out of my way"?

Once you reach a certain level of success, you do see them as competition but it's not a zero-sum game where somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. You can have multiple winners. I worked with Miguel and Frank Ocean and they're doing great in the same kind of space that I'm in. 

Aren't you a classicist compared to modernists like Ocean and Miguel?

I feel like they're classicists, too. You can't really make music without some degree of appreciation for our heritage. I hear Marvin Gaye in some of the stuff Miguel does and Prince in Frank.

Who is your ultimate soul icon?

Stevie [Wonder] is my favourite overall musician because he was producing and writing great original material for so long. Marvin is my favourite voice out of those people. 

Unlike Gaye, you don't seem tortured.

I sometimes wish I was a little more tortured. Maybe it would make me even more interesting as an artist. 

What made you so untormented?

I don't know. Everybody has their demons and conflicts. I went through my parents' divorce and there have been issues with my family, things that have been hard for me. But for some reason I have a very even temper. Maybe as a way of coping. I just don't have a lot of emotional extremes. 

When was the last time you lost your rag?

I can't remember. It's been a while. 

You don't drink, you don't smoke – what do you do? (2)

I do drink and smoke – but not cigarettes [laughs]. Not when I'm on tour, though. When I'm on tour I don't do any of that stuff because my voice is too fragile. I've definitely had my moments under the influence. Not too many crazy-crazy benders, but I've had a few in my day.

You've got a stag do imminent (3), what's planned?

I'll let my guys figure it out. I have let them know that they have to keep in mind that I'm a public figure [laughs] and it can't be too much.

So no strippers?

I don't need that in the press afterwards. We have to be a little more disciplined. 

Was your fiancee jealous of you and the girl in the video for your single Who Do We Think We Are?

Well, you never really want to see your lover simulating love with someone else. I don't know how actors' spouses put up with this. 

Was it uncomfortable the night when you came home from the shoot?

Well, you know, she puts me in the doghouse sometimes … It's not as though I did anything dishonest.

Did you sleep on the couch?

It's always a challenge, put it that way.

Have you ever had sex to one of your own songs? 

No. I don't think I have. I haven't done it in a long time, put it that way. I feel like it's too much narcissism. I don't even like having sex to current artists that I'm friends with. I feel too close to them, I know them, I've had conversations with these people ... so I keep it old-school with my sex stuff. 

On your new album, Love in the Future (4) you sing: "I know I misbehaved." When did you last cheat?

I'm done with that. That phase of my life is over.

You studied African-American literature at university. When was the last time you put your studies to use?

Occasionally I'll engage in Twitter conversations. I remember somebody comparing million-dollar athletes under contract to slavery, and I thought, we're a little too loose with that term when you compare what athletes go through and what slaves went through, with overseers whipping your ass.  

Are you chastising Prince (5)?

I'm not chastising Prince, I'm chastising the idea of cheapening that term. 

You worked with Will.I.Am and he's a judge on The Voice. Are we obsessed with good voices?

No. I wish we were more obsessed. I feel like, with the rise of Autotune, there's almost no premium on being a good, virtuosic singer any more because you can do so much to disguise your voice. 

You were a judge yourself on ABC music show Duets along with Kelly Clarkson and Robin Thicke. Were you the Cowell of the piece?

I was probably the most critical. Not cruel. I wasn't mean, but I was frank. The first episode I was a little too nice and bland but I wasn't being completely honest. Then I started to say how I actually felt. 

Kanye, Pharrell, Timbaland or Jay-Z in terms of impact on modern rap and R&B?

Oh, man. They're all extremely influential. Diddy has been extremely influential, too, not just as a musician but as a personality and curator – having signed Biggie and worked with Mary J Blige, and Sean John and all the things he's done as a marketer. Kanye has been the most daring as an artist. Jay-Z is the guy everybody wants to be – a man's man, kind of like what George Clooney is in acting. 

Finally, why John Legend? Was John Icon too show-offy?

That's funny. "Legend" was organic the way it started. It wasn't just me in a marketing room thinking of which braggadocious name I was going to pick for myself. It was a nickname my friends called me and it morphed into a stage name. I would have been perfectly happy coming out as John Stephens (6). But it helped announce my arrival. Then it became my job to try to live up to it. 

Who Do We Think We Are is released on 16 June. 


(1) A live telecast from the people at Google+

(2) The refrain from Adam Ant's 1982 number 1 hit seems an appropriate one for this clean-living R&B man. 

(3) Legend is marrying Sportswear Illustrated model Christine Teigen this year. 

(4) Legend's fourth album, Love in the Future, is released in September. 

(5) Prince famously felt enslaved by his record company

(6) He was born John Roger Stephens. 

Powered by article was written by Paul Lester, for The Guardian on Thursday 13th June 2013 19.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010