Before John Legend won nine Grammys, he was an English major singing in a college a capella group, performing and writing music whenever he saw the opportunity. Now, he's an international superstar. Casual.
MTV News caught up with Legend Saturday afternoon (Mar. 21) while he was at SXSW for AXE's White Label Collective Party. For the event, he handpicked five aspiring musicians to debut their skills at the music festival in Austin, Texas. Since he's helping talented artists get their big break, we spoke to him about his own path to success and what it takes to turn your passion into a full-time career.
MTV News: How did you go about pursuing music while you were still in college?
John Legend: Music was my life...It was everything to me, even though I was in school majoring in English. I was still very focused on music and always finding ways to perform, so that was what set me up to want to become a recording artist.
My first big break was playing on Lauryn Hill’s album back in 1998, when I was a junior in college. She was working on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and I knew her through a friend of mine who was a friend of hers...We went to the studio one day to visit and I kind of auditioned for her, I played a couple songs and she asked me to play piano on "Everything Is Everything"...That was my first major label appearance on a record.
I thought my big break was going to come quicker than it did. I really started pursuing a record deal in '98, but every time I would play my music for record labels, they would tell me I wasn’t ready yet, so I just kept working on more music.
Here's Legend getting his "Pomp and Circumstance" on at the University of Pennsylvania. He gave the commencement speech there last May, 16 years after he graduated from the school himself.
MTV: After you graduated college, you went into consulting. How did you balance that job with music?
Legend: You know, I just made it work, I didn’t sleep a lot then (laughs). I actually sleep more now than I slept back then.
I was trying to do two things at once. I was working during the day and [in the] studio at night...I would perform live around New York and Philadelphia...I just wanted to be heard and I wanted the opportunity but also needed a day job to pay my bills, so I tried to do both.
It was sustainable for a while but after a while, music started to really take over. I had to quit my job and focus on music, and I took a part-time job and really focused on trying to get a record deal. Within two years, I got one.
Here's him and Chrissy Teigen looking fabulous as always at the Golden Globes.
MTV: What's your advice for students who have creative interests but aren’t sure whether or not they can make a career out of their passion?
Legend: The thing is, you’re never going to know unless you try. And trying doesn’t just mean you kind of hoping it happens, you have to really put in a lot of work. If you really want to be great at something, you have to spend hours working on being great at it. You can’t just kind of wait to be discovered, you have to be proactive and spend a lot of energy on it, and you can’t take that for granted. And so for me, I definitely did that, I spent a lot of time, a lot of energy trying to be a better artist and I still [do]. I spend a lot of time focusing on my craft. If you’re going to take your passion into something beyond just something for fun on the side, you got to spend a lot of time on it to be great, and then you’ve got to make smart decisions about who you collaborate with [and] where you live [to] put yourself in the right situations to meet the right people to catch those breaks.
Opportunities may come your way but you have to be ready to embrace them and ready to take advantage of them.
MTV: What about kids dealing with pressure from their parents, peers, or teachers to pursue a career that’s more "realistic"?
Legend: Well you have to make it realistic! You have to...be so great at it that everyone sees the vision, and you don’t just become great, you have to work at it.
I think when people see...the willingness you have to work to make yourself great, then they’ll understand. But yeah, people are going to doubt you. I had people that doubted me, but you just have to keep working [to] prove what you’re capable of doing.
MTV: You’ve had a crazy 2015 so far. What’s coming up next for you?
Legend: I’m about to focus on a new album. I really haven’t been writing a lot lately, because I’ve been so busy, and I’m ready to just focus on writing now. So pretty soon I’ll be doing a lot fewer performances and a lot more writing in the studio.
It’s a discovery process. You never know how it’s going to go. I have ideas about what I want to do, but if I collaborate with people, ideas...they take interesting turns and twists, and I’m excited for that and that process and excited to see what we come up with.