Eighteen months ago, Leon Bridges was washing dishes at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Texas, in the US. Today, the 26-year-old singer has been featured on music magazines like Billboard and NME, and is set to sway the world with his honeyed voice and old-school soul music. And this dramatic turnaround in his life was all thanks to a pair of high-waisted blue jeans.
Bridges was at a bar one night when a lady, who appreciated his slick style, approached him to introduce her boyfriend, who shared Bridges' love for quality denim. Only later did Bridges realise that the man he was talking to was Austin Jenkins, guitarist of a Texan psych rock band called White Denim.
A week later, Jenkins heard Bridges at a gig and offered to pay for studio space and session players. Because Bridges didn't have a car, Jenkins picked him up after work and drove to the studio to record his music. They recorded eight tracks using vintage equipment, two of which - the mellow Coming Home and upbeat doo-wop piece Better Man - were soon featured on music blogs. Bridges' music was soon receiving regular airplay and Coming Home became one of Spotify's Top 10 Most Viral Tracks. Labels flocked to him, and on December 2014 he signed with Columbia Records - the company behind artists such as Adele and Beyonce. In June last year, he released his debut studio album, also titled Coming Home, which made it to the top ten in the US, UK and Australia. Recently, he appeared on Saturday Night Live, and performed with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at the American Music Awards. He also wrote the track So Long for the drama film Concussion, which stars Will Smith.
As sleek as he looks now, Bridges didn't always have the money, or the guts, to wear vintage clothing.
When he first adopted his retro style three years ago, it was a lot of scavenging at thrift shops to find the rare gem, but Bridges soon found a treasure trove of clothes in the costume shop of his college's theatre department. "I wasn't supposed to, but I would take some stuff out there and bring it home and wear it. It took me a while to get my style to what you see today," says Bridges, whose Instagram is filled with black and white photos of him in suits and hats iconic of the 1960s. "But when I put on a suit it makes me forget and takes away my insecurities," he tells Young Post in a phone interview.
A dance student at college, Bridges bought his first guitar at the age of 22, and decided to start writing music to perform at open mic nights. Despite growing up with Usher's R&B music, his songs turned out to be more like his fashion sense: classy, mellow, and inspired by the past. It wasn't until someone compared his music to Sam Cooke's that he began digging into classic soul music, and fell in love with its simple raw quality.
One of his crowd favourites is a song called Lisa Sawyer. He first came up with some chords, and wrote lyrics about crayons to go with it. "Melody, phrasing, delivery - those are the most important things in a song for me," he says. When he realised the potential of the song, he re-wrote the lyrics to be about his mother. "She inspired me to work hard and never complain about anything. She was a single mum, working 12 hours a day and making meals," says Bridges.
Like his mother, Bridges works hard. He's already gathering ideas for his second album, in which he'll be adding elements of country music in the style of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. He also has a new year's resolution to read more: "I didn't really focus in high school or college so there are a lot of things that I don't know. A lot of words, history … I just wanna push myself."