When you’ve conquered Broadway, television, music and film, it’s time to sit back and take a breather, right?
For John Legend — the youngest artist to achieve EGOT status (people who’ve won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards) — it only means there are so many more exciting challenges yet to come, such as recording a holiday album. And that’s precisely what the singer-pianist-composer-actor accomplished with the October release of “A Legendary Christmas” (Columbia), a 14-track collection of originals and covers. The album was followed up in November with his first-ever holiday TV special, “A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy,” co-starring his wife, Chrissy Teigen. (The program gets an encore airing Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NBC.)
JOHN LEGEND: A LEGENDARY CHRISTMAS
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 13
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
The project also spawned a 25-city Christmas concert tour, which arrives at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House on Dec. 13.
Legend recently chatted with the Sun-Times about the album and more.
Q. This is your first Christmas album. Holiday releases are generally recorded during the summer. What’s it like to record holiday music in June and July?
A. It was a lot of fun to make. I’ve been immersed in Christmas music the last six months!
Q. Why did you decide this was the year to finally release a Christmas album?
A. I wanted to do it for a long time. My family, we would always gather around the piano at Christmastime and play Motown Christmas songs and Christmas hymns and Christmas carols, so it was just a big part of our lives growing up. I always felt I was made to do this type of album. It was always a matter of just having the time. … Everything just came together this year. I’m glad I waited till I had a family to do it. It’s better to do it now with a family. I love having them featured in the album art and I love having something we can listen to for the rest of our lives.
Q. You wrote six original songs for this album. How difficult is it to write a Christmas song specifically?
A. It’s not really any harder than writing any other song. But in some ways, having a specific topic that you want to write about beforehand actually makes writing easier. A lot of times when I write for my own albums that aren’t Christmas-related, it’s kind of like a blank slate — you can write about literally anything. [This time it was] more directed toward a specific topic. That’s why I like writing about movies, too. Writing for a more clear topic makes it a little more easy to come up with [material].
Q. It’s always hard to narrow down the final tracks on any album, especially when you’re dealing with originals and covers. Did any material get left out of this project?
A. There were two or three originals that we cut and did not include on this album. Two or three other covers that we cut and didn’t include. We had 20 tracks to start with and narrowed it down to 14.
Q. Many of the arrangements on the album are big and brassy, giving a whole new feeling to the covers, especially.
A. Raphael Saadiq produced the whole album, and he works with [arranger] Jamelle Adisa, who helped him arrange everything when it came to the horns and rhythm sections. …. Part of it is the person you’re writing with and part of it is the producer and giving the arrangements the energy we were going for. Raphael certainly influenced how we chose the songs we were going to record. … The string arranger [Rollin Weary] is from Chicago. I didn’t meet him directly but I talked to him and he did some amazing string arrangements. Please give him a shout out! … We just really wanted to put our own stamp on [the music]. We wanted to sound classic and timeless but also wanted to give it our own spin and [affirm the album] deserved to be out there. Because when you have songs that have been covered so many times. you want to make a version that’s worthy of being played, because people have choices. With streaming and everything else, you can pull up any version of any song.
Any time you do a new version of a song, you want your version to be special and worth listening to over any other version, or at least to compete and stand up to any other version that’s out there. That’s what we tried to do — make the best versions we could come up with to fit my voice and my style.
Q. Stevie Wonder’s glorious harmonica playing is featured on the album’s opening track, “What Christmas Means to Me.” He’s no stranger to holiday music! Did he have any advice for you about making a Christmas album?
A. [Laughing] That was actually the last track we recorded for the album because we were trying to coordinate our schedules. The day before we were mastering he came in and did this harmonica work, so we were very fortunate! He didn’t give me advice. He trusted me to know what I was doing. We were just happy to have his musicianship and energy on the album! It made a big difference.
Q. Do you have an all-time favorite Christmas song or album?
A. I recorded some of them, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).” I love those. I also didn’t record some of my favorites because I felt I didn’t have anything to add to them. Like, “This Christmas,” by Donny Hathaway. I love that song so much that I didn’t think I needed to record a new version.
Q. What’s the best Christmas present you ever gave/got?
A. My wife has given me some great presents. She gave me a nice backpack every year which I carry every single day to the airport, to work, to everywhere I go. She’s got me some great watches, and those are nice because I wear them all the time everywhere I go. The best gift I ever gave is probably an engagement ring. [Laughing] We got engaged on Christmas in 2011.