The staccato shutter of a digital camera snaps in beat with an early Eighties funk track playing from a Bluetooth speaker. Leon Bridges moves with elegant rhythm against the white backdrop of a Manhattan photo studio. “A little light foot work,” he says with a smile. Donning wide-leg raw denim overalls and a midcentury-style pompadour, the Grammy winner looks anachronistic alongside a scattering of modern technology.
“I love the vintage aesthetic,” he says of a fact that is apparent with a glance at the singer-songwriter. “When I was in high school big white Ts, Air Force Ones and fitted caps were popular. But my style has really evolved over time.”
Looking at him now, it’s difficult to envision the Louisiana-born musician as having anything but a polished retro look. After moving to Fort Worth, Tex., as a child, Bridges discovered a love for dance, which he says helped to shape the Sixties R&B-inspired persona for which he’s known.
“When I was studying dance [at a small community college] I was inspired by guys like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, so that’s where the whole vintage look came from,” he recalls. “I met guys at school who were from the ‘hood, but they were taking ballet classes. That was also inspiring to me because I never thought ballet was a masculine thing. It all prepared me for what I do now, but I didn’t think I would be able to apply that in the future.”
Despite his growing celebrity, Bridges stays grounded by maintaining aspects of his early life. He sees “no need” for day-to-day security, but instead has “friends who look out for me at home.” But thoughts of home and family — which served as primary inspiration for his first album, “Coming Home” — has the singer constantly philosophizing.
“I think about it all the time,” he admits. “The more my career grows, the harder it is to remain anonymous. I want to be able to go chill at a coffee shop or go to a restaurant and not be bothered, but that’s becoming the hardest thing for me — especially back in Texas.”
While many artists relocate to Los Angeles or New York for the sake of their career, Bridges has found staying close to his North Texas roots a way to maintain focus. “It’s home for me,” he continues. “I wanted to be close to my friends and family so that’s why I kept it as home base.”
Bridges reaches for a glass of water, displaying a crudely executed tattoo on the back of his hand that reads “817” — his Texas area code. “It’s kind of f—ed up,” he explains of the rudimentary body art. “A good friend gave me some stick and poke tattoos in a hotel room over a bottle of Jameson after a show in Switzerland. I kept saying ‘more, more more’ [whiskey] — this hurts.”
Describing himself as a “lazy songwriter,” Bridges collaborated with producer Ricky Reed in writing his forthcoming second album, “Good Thing,” which he says kept him on an unprecedented schedule with the duo completing full tracks in the span of eight hours. “I’ve never pushed myself to write songs like that because I like to start a lot of ideas and never really finish them,” he admits.
“But I feel like this album displays my wide range of artistry,” continues the musician. “I want people to know I’m more than just Sixties R&B. This is everything from Nineties and Eighties R&B to country twang moments.”
Contemplating the idea of introducing his new music to live audiences, Bridges says, “I’m definitely excited to get back out there and connect with fans and play new material. I toured ‘Coming Home’ for three years and by the end of that I was ready to make something fresh — that’s reflective of this new album.”
In addition to releasing the album next month, the singer is preparing to embark on a 60-city world tour with Harry Styles joining for dates in Central and South America.
“I haven’t toured hard for about two years and especially now I still get stage fright before shows,” he explains. “It will be nice to get my feet wet and play some stadium shows,” which Bridges says are often easier than playing to an intimate crowd.
Describing his on-stage stamina as “easy” because of his age, Bridges says he comes down from the energy of a performance by watching “vintage” cartoons from his youth including “Pinky and the Brain” and “Animaniacs” — further evidence that for Bridges, there’s no place quite like home. “I’m a simple person, really. For me a great way to unwind is when I’m back in Texas away from all of this and around solid friends. They definitely lift me up.”
But when it comes to his public trajectory, the 28-year-old entertainer remains skeptical.
“I always question my future,” he reveals. “It seems like when you make quality music it really propels you to high levels, but I [ask myself] do I want that? A lot of this stuff is a little bit of a heavy weight for me — maybe for anybody.”
Glancing down at his “817” tattoo, Bridges adds, “My goal is to continue making great music for the people and I’ll just let all that other s—t happen organically.”
More from WWD.com: