His new hit song is all about cutting loose onto a highway with your lover holding on tight, switching lanes and not looking back. But don't look for Leon Bridges coming up in your rearview mirror on a motorbike anytime soon.
"I've actually never been on a motorcycle, and I'm hella terrified of them," the soft-spoken Texas R&B singer admitted with an atypically hard laugh. "I just wanted to create that vibe of living in a moment and escaping with someone."
What a perfect idea for a feel-good song to fast-track us out of the pandemic; never mind that both that song and his new album's tribute to Black men killed by police were both actually written before the calamity of 2020.
Talking by phone just a few hours before he performed "Motorbike" on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" — his second national TV gig of the week after the Emmy Awards' in-memoriam segment — Bridges explained how his new album, "Gold-Diggers Sound," was created "without the dark cloud of the pandemic."
"It was mostly done by [March 2020], which was lucky," he said. "It couldn't have been made during the pandemic the way we did it."
Bridges, 32, described the goal behind the recording sessions as "capturing the nighttime version of Leon." That term was coined by co-producer Ricky Reed, who's also Lizzo's main collaborator.
Bridges and Reed set up shop at Gold-Diggers Hotel on the outskirts of Hollywood in Los Angeles. The boutique hotel — sure to be in high demand with this album's release — also houses a recording studio and venue, so it was perfectly suited for a long stayover during which Bridges could work late at night writing or singing, and then invite guest musicians here and there to join him.
Players who turned out include pianist/producer Robert Glasper, saxophonist Terrace Martin and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, all vets from some of hip-hop's biggest recent albums.
"It was a place I was living in to create music, and it serves as this refuge of sorts of what's kind of a gritty part of that city," Bridges recounted. "A lot of the songs were derived from live jam sessions. It felt great to be able to curate some of our favorite artists and musicians and create something that felt very organic and unique to me."
"Gold-Diggers Sounds" furthers the sonic evolution that started with Bridges' second album, "Good Thing." That 2018 effort found him discernibly stepping away from the old-school, Sam Cooke-style R&B that made him an almost-instantaneous star in 2015 with his breakout debut "Coming Home."
Other tracks on the new record — such as the Sade-inspired "Magnolias" and the sizzling low-flamer "Why Don't You Touch Me" — boast a more distinctive, modern sound. Traces of classic Cooke and Teddy Pendergrass are still there, but so are echoes of smooth 1990s groovers like Boyz II Men and modern R&B innovators such as Anderson Paak.
"I'm more confident being myself," Bridges said of the new album's sonic approach. "I'd been a little apprehensive to experiment with new sounds in fear of it being detrimental to my career, but I've learned not to worry about that — and to just be more transparent about some of my experiences as a writer."
The clearest example of him opening up in his lyrics comes in the album's elegant closing track, "Blue Mesas," written about the hard adjustment he faced when he first came into fame: "Ain't no peace at the top/ I don't know how much air I got," he sings.
As is now a famous part of his lore, Bridges went from working as a dishwasher at a well-known Fort Worth, Texas, restaurant to recording his Columbia Records debut in about a year's time.
"It still feels surreal," he said. "'Blue Mesas' was taken from a point in my life when I was really insecure with my appearance. It was tough going from never seeing myself in video footage or photos, and then suddenly being out there a lot.
"You can feel very isolated even in the midst of having a lot of people love you."
One way the singer has avoided the challenges of fame, he said, is by retaining a home in Fort Worth, where he lived through the pandemic. For that reason and more, he said he didn't "have too bad a time" during lockdown.
"The thing about us introverts is that we definitely thrive on solitude, so that part of it was nice," he said. "I didn't focus much on writing songs. I'd let it happen when it did, and I did write some good ones here and there. I also just played a lot of guitar. I felt like I had hit a wall with my guitar playing, so I sort of focused on finding new guitar chords and structures and expanding my abilities."
His abilities as a songwriter have clearly taken an upturn, too. Stark evidence of that came in the form of his emotionally raw but potent single "Sweeter," which he released on June 8, 2020, in reaction to George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis Police. Lyrics include:
"Hoping for a life more sweeter
Instead I'm just a story repeating
Why do I fear with skin dark as night?
Can't feel peace with those judging eyes."
Also now featured on the new LP, "Sweeter" was not surprisingly already written and recorded when the tragedy happened in Minneapolis.
"That's a reflection on how perpetual this problem is, how often unarmed Black men are dying at the hands of police," Bridges said, while still noting the unique reaction he had to Floyd's killing.
"I felt like I had been somewhat numb about it all before that. And then I remember seeing that clip of George Floyd and immediately being led to tears. It totally ignited a fire in me, and I don't think it well ever go out."