In an effort to help artists “find their magic,” AXE and John Legend teamed up to give five aspiring artists their big break at this year’s SXSW music showcase. Cool Hunting had the pleasure of attending the Austin event, where we witnessed the immense passion and dedication coming from the AXE Collective artists, both on stage and off. Their energies were palpable, and as their mentor, so was Legend’s. Putting himself back in their shoes and hearing about the hopes and dreams of his mentees is a task Legend delights in. “I’m always hoping I can work with new talent,” he told us. “I think being creative is about evolution, growth, listening and being inspired.”
We spent a few minutes chatting with the ever-humble Legend, as well as Jack Freeman, Korbyn Rachel and Roni Marsalis—three of the five AXE Collective artists—moments before their performances at this year’s SXSW.
Who has been a mentor to you?
My grandmother was a big mentor of mine, early on she taught me how to play gospel piano and that was really a big foundation for my style as a singer and as a pianist.
What was your first big break?
The first big thing I did was I played piano on Lauryn Hill’s album while I was still in college. I was directing the choir at a church in Pennsylvania while I was going to school at U Penn. One of the young ladies at the church was friends with Lauryn and had gone to high school with her. She was going to go visit her in the studio and she said why don’t you come with me and meet Lauryn. So I met her and we just hung out for a bit and eventually my friend was like why don’t you play her a couple songs, so I went to the piano and played a couple songs for her and she thought it was pretty good so she had me play piano on “Everything is Everything.” That was my first little taste of what it was like to be part of something that was major.
I finished school and moved to New York in 2000, and I had a friend who was a roommate and collaborator of mine who is cousins with Kanye. So another big break was him inviting Kanye to my show and us starting to work together. Because Kanye introduced me to Alicia Keys, to Jay-Z and all these other artists that he was producing at the time. He was also working on his debut solo album and then he started to help me work on my debut album as well and he helped me get a record deal.
It seems like you’ve had a lot of lucky moments.
I always say luck is when opportunity meets preparation. You have to be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities, but you need the opportunities too and that’s where the luck comes in, you meet the right person at the right time and you’re ready to take advantage of it. That’s really been the story of my life and I think that’s the case for anybody who’s successful. You get some breaks that go your way, but you also have to be prepared; that means you’ve practiced and developed your skills. And you have to actively seek out the right people and be ready when you meet them so that you have something to show them that’s worth considering.
What’s it been like working with the AXE Collective artists?
I love working with new talent and giving them advice. I know what it’s like to be them and so any encouragement and advice I can give them I’m happy to do it. Whenever I can use my position to help get great art that’s interesting and provocative out there, I’m always excited to do that.
What do you hope to achieve through music?
I think my job is to spread love and light to the world and make the world a little more beautiful if I can.
AXE COLLECTIVE ARTISTS
What advice did John give you?
Jack Freeman: The main thing is knowing what you want and knowing how you want to be presented. And not to necessarily overthink what it is that you’re doing, just to get out there and have fun because the preparation is already there. The rehearsing is done, you’ve already written the song, now you’re in front of people that don’t know you and you have to teach them the song.
He told me if an opportunity comes up then take it
Korbyn Rachel: He told me to not rush, since I’m young, to take my time and if an opportunity comes up then take it.
Roni Marsalis: That it’s important to have a stage name different from your personal name. Working with producers, it’s important to make a mood board, so if you want a certain sound—if you can’t really describe it—you can depict a certain mood for them. We talked about going with the flow, and being able to be a mentee, be willing to learn.
How do you describe your music style?
JF: It’s really soulful, a lot of blues. A lot of R&B vibes to it. I try to tap into human emotions.
KR: I’ve gotten from a lot of people that my voice is sultry. A lot of my songs have a deeper meaning to them, it’s not just about the music it’s more about the story behind it.
The sound that I aspire to have fuses jazz with dreamy type of sounds
RM: The sound that I aspire to have fuses jazz with dreamy type of sounds. Almost like you could meditate to it, I like a meditative sound but with live jazz instruments with a gospel hip-hop vibe.
What do you hope to achieve through your music?
JF: It’s really about people and giving them another way to express themselves. I like to write a lot of music that men are afraid to say or they don’t know how to say it (and sometimes women) and just give people that outlet and a way to escape.
I like to write a lot of music that men are afraid to say or they don’t know how to say
KR: I want to share my love of music with everyone. That’s why I love festivals so much, because it’s everyone coming together and sharing their love for music.
RM: I would like for people to embrace the pain that comes with the joy. To be able to speak on the past, know that it happened, but also always have a positive outlook and keep a higher perspective.
Images courtesy of Getty for AXE Collective