We spoke to Leon Bridges about the influence of Marvin Gaye on his artistry and why he was drawn to cover the Christmas song “Purple Snowflakes.”
Grammy-award winner Leon Bridges is a standard bearer of the soul tradition of Black music.
Since his arrival on the scene in 2014, the Fort Worth, Texas native has released three critically acclaimed albums, Coming Home, Good Thing and Gold-Digger Sound and has gained a reputation as a compelling live performer melding R&B, soul, folk, and country into his own unique sound. Now, Bridges is expanding upon his creativity as he releases his first Christmas song
For the latest installment of Amazon’s Original music series, Bridges recorded a reimagined version of Marvin Gaye’s 1965 classic “Purple Snowflakes” at Niles City Sound, located in his hometown.
“When I first heard I was going to do an Amazon Original, I immediately thought of the Marvin Gaye version of ‘Purple Snowflakes,’” Bridges said. “It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs and I love the classic stuff… but this one has a little bit more soul to it. There aren’t too many renditions of this song and I wanted to kind of put my own spin on it as far as figuring out the arrangement and give it the Fort Worth, Texas approach.”
Okayplayer spoke with Bridges about the diverse landscape of Texas shaped him as a musician, the influence of Marvin Gaye on his artistry, and why he was drawn to cover “Purple Snowflakes.”
What is your first music memory?
Leon Bridges: My first music memory or first music experience, I would say, that was kind of like seared into my memory as a kid was when we used to go pick up my dad from work. My mom used to play the Sleepless In Seattle soundtrack. There was a song called “Wink and a Smile,” by Harry Connick Jr that I remembered. At the time, I thought it was an older song but it was a modern phone at the time. I was probably three years old.
How has growing up in Texas, with all of its musical diversity shaped, your vision as a musician.
Well, in Texas there’s a wide spectrum of sounds. I guess early on I just kind of gravitated towards what was popular, but specifically R&B music like Usher and Ginuwine. But I really started pursuing music and when I first picked up a guitar, I was exposed to country music, folk music, and rock & roll music. Now I can see that my sound is a composite of all of those things that I grew up with discovering in Texas.
On your last album, Gold-Diggers Sound, you sought to address the racial reckoning that was happening in the country with “Sweeter.” Was that song and the album recorded during the height of the pandemic?
The album was pretty much completed by the time the world shut down. I started working on Gold-Diggers Sound in early 2019 until about October. During the pandemic, “Sweeter” and a couple of other songs that I worked on ultimately made the album but it was pretty much finished before everything shut down.
Coming through that time, did anything change in your creative approach to your music?
You know, I did enjoy making music remotely. I was at a point in time where I had the time and the space to just kind of make whatever I wanted to make. Normally, when I’m in these recording sessions, there’s a lot of people throwing ideas around to make a song. It was really nice to kind of dig around and play a little bit more guitar during the pandemic, and it was just writing with no boundaries.
How did you make the initial connection with Amazon to be a part of the series and to release this new song?
Man, I’ve always secretly wanted to do a Christmas song and my fans are always asking me to do a Christmas song, so I pretty much jumped at the opportunity. I love that I pretty much had the freedom to reimagine “Purple Snowflakes” in my own way.
“Purple Snowflakes” is a song that was initially a love song called “Pretty Little Baby” by Marvin Gaye. It’s just one of those deep cuts that not a lot of people know about. For me, there’s a lot of classic Christmas music but a lot of it kind of gets a little cheesy, in my opinion. So “Purple Snowflakes” has always resonated with me. So, I was like, “If I’m gonna do this, I got to put my own spin on it and I have to incorporate the elements that are unique to Texas.” So we gave it a little bit of a Twangy, kind of vibe.
Out of all of the Christmas music, particularly Motown’s discography of Christmas music, we often think of the Jackson 5 and The Temptations songs that have become holiday standards. “Purple Snowflakes” is one of the rare gems that often gets overlooked in their Christmas canon. I think it’s melancholic and it gives “Blue Christmas”vibes. Is that one of the reasons you were drawn to the song?
You put it perfectly. A lot of that has to do with some of the minor, you know, core, you know, chords throughout that song. And, you know, that’s my whole world. I’m always surprised that that song is not even on any of the a lot of compilations but because it was a little dark, that’s what definitely drew me to the song.
How has Marvin Gaye’s artistry influenced your music?
Marvin Gaye pretty much laid out the blueprint for my trajectory as an artist. I think one thing that we can all that we can take from Marvin Gaye is the same Marvin Gaye at Motown was that same Marvin Gaye at Columbia when he made “Sexual Healing.” While it was a song for the times, it still had the essence of who Marvin Gaye was. I try to take after that, in my own sound to continue to push the soul, the soul genre forward and not keep it stagnant.
Another beautiful thing about Marvin Gaye is that he was able to speak to the times and the social climate but still not be too preachy. I think those aspects of Marvin Gaye is what I’ve tried to incorporate in my music.
You mentioned earlier that your fans have expressed that they want you to make a Christmas song. Are there any plans in 2022 for you to release an entire Christmas album?
You know I’ve been doing these collaborative projects with this band called Khruangbin out of Texas and the lead bassist and singer of that group Laura suggested that we should do a Christmas thing together. It would be fun to mix some original songs but some classics in there as well. We might work on that one.
Lastly, when fans hear your rendition of “Purple Snowflakes,” what do you want them to take away from the song?
I hope it really translates and I hope that those who hear will say that I did justice to the original song while still making it my own.I really hope that people will choose this song as a part of their soundtrack around the holidays.
Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.