Anything but Ordinary
One Moving Song Catapults John Legend Into the Public Eye
Great songs convey sweeping ideas in disarming ways. Sure, there are new adds every day to radio-station playlists and gainers on the Billboard Hot 100, but addendums to the Great American Songbook, touchstones that people remember and remake over and over again for decades—in a word, classics—are few and far between. Maybe, just maybe, pianist, singer, and songwriter John Legend’s “Ordinary People”—a stirring, acoustic anomaly in the middle of a digitalized world about two people “right in the thick of love” off his 2004 Get Lifted—has achieved that status.
“I don’t know how, but ‘Ordinary People’ really and truly connects with the way people live their lives,” he observes of the tumultuous ballad, amazed. “The song means a lot to people. And I get that feedback everywhere I go, all around the world.”
He is speaking from a Paris recording studio, where the Ohio native is using the downtime between shows on his first headlining European and U.S. tour to hammer out a demo of material he is proposing for an upcoming Aretha Franklin album. In the background a door slam sounds muffled, and then the room is instantly soundproof silent again. The day before Jamie Foxx stopped by to lay down some tracks with the soft-spoken piano man. “We’ll see which ones they use,” Legend says, as if speaking to himself in an aside.
His established partnership with Kanye West keeps him relevant with the hip-hop crowd, but it’s clear that Legend, who has written songs since he was 10, is at home in many styles: gospel, jazz, pop, blues. And with writing and performance credits on recent albums from the Black Eyed Peas, Keyshia Cole, and Common, and past credits with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Janet Jackson, and Jay-Z, industry insiders know Legend knows music.
In between other people’s projects he works on his own. “I’m always writing, so I don’t really think, I’m working on an album now,” he says. “I just think of it as songs. I’ll start thinking of it as an album when it’s time to put everything together.”
His studio debut, Get Lifted, though a bit derivative and as sample-heavy as much of urban radio is today, possesses a healthy attachment to live instrumentation and traditional song forms and consistently bears the mark of a gifted lyricist and songwriter. That imprint is all over the single “Ordinary People,” the album’s crown jewel. The song was born during a New York recording session with the Black Eyed Peas in the spring of 2004.
“Will.i.am played a beat for me that had a chord progression which suggested the hook,” Legend recalls. “Mumbling to myself, I came up with ‘We’re just ordinary people.’” He quickly trails through the song’s hook. “I was supposed to be in the studio writing for the Black Eyed Peas, but when I came up with the hook I started joking with Will, ‘This is not a Black Eyed Peas song. This is a John Legend song.’”
How can a ballad about human imperfection be so flawless? Four or so basic chords anchor “Ordinary People,” but its true genius lies in the lyric, melody, and the “take it slow” motif reprised in the piano accompaniment. And the bridge—most songwriters’ bridges are stodgy and perfunctory. In poorly constructed songs, the bridge, if there is one, is where most people tune out. But in great songs, the bridge is where something unexplainable happens. Legend uses the bridge in “Ordinary People” to “go to a place only lovers go,” and he does it with a very common 4-5-1 chord progression, an excitedly stairstep, pitter-patter melody, and a long list of maybes:
Maybe we’ll live and learn, maybe we’ll crash and burn
Maybe you’ll stay, maybe you’ll leave
Maybe you’ll return, maybe another fight
Maybe we won’t survive, but maybe
We never know, baby, you and I.
By the time we get over that tenuous, uncertain passage, we run long-lost into the arms of the climactic final chorus where the declaration—“We’re just ordinary people”—is not a resignation but a celebration. The ensuing realization that “we don’t know which way to go” is not a fault, but a virtue. And the coda’s resolution, “this time we’ll take it slow,” isn’t a call for the proverbial space, but for time for intimacy.
“I feel like I understand the way humans behave,” Legend says summarily. “I don’t have any kind of degrees or anything, but from all my experience, from what I’ve gone through and from what my parents have gone through and what my friends have gone through, I just feel that I know enough about relationships that I’m able to talk about it in a way that people can relate to. ‘Ordinary People’ is probably the quintessential expression of that.”
As played and sung by Legend accompanying himself on piano, the song’s bare, elegant, hotel-lounge rendering sticks out like a much-needed mutant on mainstream radio. But it was not supposed to be the final version.
“Not long after I created the hook with will.i.am in New York I went to Europe on tour with Kanye, and every sound check I was writing, trying to finish the song,” Legend says. “By the end of the tour, I had finished writing pretty much all the lyric and melody, and when I got back to the states in September I went to L.A. to start work on my album. I recorded a demo version of ‘Ordinary People’ ’cause I was gonna get it produced, but the demo version ended up being the album version because we felt like it was perfect just pure and raw. It wasn’t even like I was trying to create a polished version. My vocals aren’t even perfect on it. We just felt like the vibe was so perfect we just wanted to leave it.”
Of course, writing a possible classic at 26 years old means he has to follow it up, and when thinking about what’s next the former choir director is at a loss for words. “Oh wow,” he exhales, but nothing comes to mind. And mere moments later: “My approach has always been to let the music drive everything,” he says bluntly, as if embracing his uncertainty. “I hear music and music inspires me to go in a certain direction.”
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