Oscar- and Grammy-winning singer and songwriter John Legend flew into the spotlight in the early 2000s on the wings of then rising rapper Kanye West, who invited Legend to sing on West’s own tracks and signed him to GOOD Music.
Knowing firsthand the enormous value of having a mentor and champion, Legend has worked in his own career to pay it forward. He was instrumental in breaking artists like British singer Estelle in the U.S., and earlier this year launched a talent search with men’s fragrance line AXE White Label to develop and promote little-known musicians. Legend chose five artists–John Russell (Savannah, Georgia), Allison Mula (Springfield, Virginia), John Rankin (Portland, Oregon), Jelana Jeffries (Pomona, New York), and Alejandro Palma (Austin, Texas)–and worked with them ahead of a launching-pad showcase at this year’s SXSW festival.
The talent search–starting with music and moving into fashion later this spring–is part of AXE White Label’s yearlong campaign to tie a real-world search for emerging talent to its brand-aligned “moments when confidence is key to taking the leap and turning aspiration to action.” For Legend, it’s a chance to do what he’s done informally for years in a formal partnership. “I think everybody needs this kind of thing no matter what they’re doing, whether it’s journalism, music, especially in art,” says Legend. It’s good to have people that you look up to give you advice, because there’s really no defined path of how to get to where you’re going to go.”
Legend recently shared with Fast Company his most enduring pieces of advice, helpful not only to artists, but to anyone who wants to put their ambition to work.
Even though the Internet has made creative success possible anywhere, Legend says that part of his advice to his mentees “was me telling them to move.”
“I think a lot of times you have to be in the right cities where other writers are, other producers, where the industry gatekeepers are,” he says. “It’s hard to make it happen remotely from another city. You can be from somewhere, but you eventually have to go to somewhere. I’m from Ohio but I eventually had to go to Philadelphia and then I had to go to New York to really make it happen.”
Even if your field isn’t as concentrated in a few locations as the music business, you have to be willing to make a big change and go outside your comfort zone. “I think when we talk about taking a leap, and that’s definitely taking a leap, it’s making that decision to really put yourself out there, go to a place that’s new,” says Legend. “You might not have a lot of money to move, and you just have to go out there and take that leap of faith, believe in yourself enough to go ahead and do it.”
One question artists have when starting out is where to focus their time to improve the chance of success. The answer, says Legend, is on the work you want to do, whatever that is. For budding musicians, that may mean drilling down on songwriting.
“You’ve got to write all the time,” he says. “Just spend as much time as you can writing, because some days you’re going to write great songs, some days you’re not, but the more you push yourself, the more you set aside time for creativity, the more prolific you are, and the better chance that you’re going to write something great in that collection of stuff that you’re putting out.”
No matter how good you are at what you do, there are multiple benefits of actively seeking out other people to work with, even if it’s not your natural inclination.
“I think a lot of times, especially when you’re new, you’re like, ‘I’m just going to do this on my own,'” says Legend. “‘I could play the guitar, I’ll record it, I’ll write it, do everything on my own.’ That’s cool and it’s a good story, but I think sometimes it’s good to have other people contribute. Not only do they contribute their creativity, but it also is good to have somebody else that has a stake in your success. If they write something with you, then they want that song to do well, just as much as you want it to do well. When you have all those people out there that have a stake in your career, then it actually broadens your reach and broadens the group of people that’s fighting for you.”
Legend says that one of his tricks to encourage concentrated creative time is to make a financial investment in your work time and space that you’ll lose if you don’t buckle down.
“It might be expensive for new artists, but I schedule studio time,” says Legend. When you say, ‘I’m going to be in the studio from this time to that time, I’m going to pay an engineer, I’m going to rent the room,’ you should do something. Even if I don’t know what I’m going to come up with. It gives you a sense that you’re going to work, there’s a cost to it, and so you don’t want to be there and not feel like you accomplished something.”
Even if your craft doesn’t require getting on stage and performing in front of a ton of people, there’s likely something about what you do that scares you. The trick, says Legend, is to do whatever that thing is enough that it becomes familiar enough not to be frightening.
“If you’re a singer, you need to find opportunities to be on stage in whatever way you can, whether it’s a cover band or a cappella or karaoke,” says Legend. “Whatever it is, you need to start engaging with an audience and feeling what it feels like to be on stage so that you become accustomed to it.”
He also advises in collaborating with others on whatever the hardest thing is, even if you ultimately plan to take the lead. “For me it was being in choirs,” says Legend. “If it’s being in a choir now, or something that takes the pressure off you individually, whatever that is, you need that experience.”