Barack Obama had only one piece of advice for Leon Bridges: "Don't let them change you."
It was 2016, and the singer from Fort Worth, Texas, had been invited to the White House to help celebrate the president's birthday, joining a guest list that included many of his musical heroes, such as Stevie Wonder and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
At one point in the evening, Michelle Obama gave Bridges a nudge and reminded him that "this is kind of like an open mic setting", but the then-27-year-old was too intimidated to take the stage. Instead, he opted to dance the night away.
Before Wonder's performance, the president took Bridges aside and imparted his advice.
"He was like, 'This morning I was getting ready and I was listening to [the song] Smooth Sailing. I love your sound. Keep it raw'," recalls Bridges.
Like many others, Obama had become enthralled with the vocalist's 2015 debut album, Coming Home, and its authentic blend of 1960s soul and R&B; a sound that, when combined with Bridges' impeccable dress sense, gave him the aura of a man out of time.
Of the many spoils afforded Bridges in the wake of Coming Home's success – a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album; gold-sales certifications in America and Australia; a performance on Saturday Night Live; festival appearances around the world – it was his time in the White House that meant the most.
He'd previously performed there at a tribute night for Ray Charles, where he serenaded the Obamas with a spirited rendition of Lonely Avenue, and on both visits was struck by what it would have meant to his grandmother, who as a young woman wasn't even afforded the right to vote.
When the Coming Home touring cycle came to an end, Bridges retired to Fort Worth to focus on his second album, Good Thing (released this week), Obama's advice still ringing in his ears: "Don't let them change you."
Only by that point, the singer had already decided that the successor to Coming Home had to be more than just a carbon copy.
"If I wanted to be safe I could have created the same sound for sure, but for me I feel like I wouldn't have been pushing myself hard enough," he offers.
"I was ready to make something fresh," he adds, "but not lose who I am."
It was a bold move for an artist who, before the success of Coming Home, was washing dishes and performing at open mic nights, and who refers to his single-parent upbringing – his mother was his primary carer after splitting from her husband when Bridges was seven – as being "pretty simple".
It was, however, entirely necessary if he wanted to avoid the "retro" pigeonhole. "I wanted to break away from the box that I was in," he offers.
Bridges began by writing songs on his acoustic guitar and recording them at Niles City Sound in Fort Worth with Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block, the production team that helmed Coming Home. Rather than give the songs a '60s treatment, however, they applied '80s and '90s production techniques.
"This is dope," Bridges thought to himself. "This might be the direction I want to go in."
Determined to explore that sound further, he decamped to Los Angeles to team up with producer Ricky Reed (Twenty One Pilots, Jason Derulo), with whom he'd worked while guesting on a song by Detroit rapper Dej Loaf.
In truth, Good Thing still exists in the same universe as Coming Home, in that Bridges' soulful vocals remain front and centre, nestled on an authentic musical bed that mines soul and R&B.
But where his debut drew its influence primarily from the '60s, the new album calls on the sound of later decades as well, particularly on the snappy funk of You Don't Know and the George-Benson-meets-James Brown groove of Bad Bad News. An autobiographical song of sorts, its chorus features the lyric, "They tell me I was born to lose/But I made a good, good thing out of bad, bad news".
"I've never had anything handed to me," Bridges explains. "And growing up it was hard to see my mother raise me and my siblings alone, but it taught me the importance of hard work. It's a song of triumph. I made it out of all that, out of not having anything."
It's also a song of defiance; of not accepting the cards you've been dealt. It's the kind of attitude that allows you take the advice of the president of the United States, and still do whatever the hell you want.
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