IT'S difficult to remember a time when John Legend wasn't—well—on his way to being the stuff of legends.
But the prodigy didn’t get his big break until Lauryn Hill asked him to play piano on a solo record. Known for being just a nice, down-to-earth fella, Legend lived up to his reputation in the wake of this year’s South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), teaming up with AXE White Label and SPIN to give up-and-coming artists a platform for expression.
Selected musicians would get a one-on-one mentoring session with Legend, plus the opportunity to join him onstage at SXSW.
In promotion of the program, Legend said, “I want to cultivate talent and turn aspiration into action by providing access to industry resources, building confidence and delivering opportunities to shine.”
Savannah’s own John Russell was one of five talented musicians selected from across the globe.
Russell, a self-described “video hobbyist,” frequently submits to video contests to earn some extra cash. While cruising for a new competition, he landed on a link from AXE’s White Label Collective.
“I thought, ‘this is kind of crazy, but I’m just going to do it and see what happens,’” Russell recounts.
The submission process allowed Russell to show off two sides of his artistic talent, requiring a video submission of an original song. Utilizing footage of a solo performance shot down on idyllic Factor’s Walk, Russell created the perfect Savannah setting for his song “Upside Down.”
“I’d written it sometime in September; it kind of had that R&B vibe,” he explains. “I submitted it and crossed my fingers.”
It was a whole month until Russell received a promising email.
“It was basically saying, ‘you’re a potential top participant.’ My wife and I were like, ‘that’s cool, but potential doesn’t really mean anything.’”
Another week went by.
“We got another one saying, ‘We’re calling you tomorrow to book a hotel, give you flight information, and schedule a Skype session with John Legend’—that’s when it was pretty real!” laughs Russell.
Thousands of entries from around the world poured in for the contest. AXE White Label watched every single video, narrowing it down to 20 selections. From there, Legend himself sat down, listened to the top videos, and handpicked five winners.
“It’s really awesome to just say that John Legend picked me!” Russell says. “That’s really something that is a confidence boost.”
For nearly an hour, Russell and Legend chatted over Skype like old friends, talking about growing up, their mutual love of Savannah (“He loves the food here!” Russell says), and the ins and outs of the music business.
“I even got to sit down and have him worth through one of the songs I was writing. He helped me along with that song—and I got to hear John Legend sing to me!”
A huge Legend fan, Russell made sure to prepare some questions before the hangout sesh.
“I knew that as soon as I talked to him, I was going to fangirl out and lose all my words!” he chortles. “He’s just the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in your life. He’s so down to earth and humble; he’s so wise. You just wanna talk to him all day.”
When it was time to head to Austin, Russell got the full star treatment. A driver picked him up from home and escorted him to the Savannah/Hilton Head Airport; once in Austin, he was swept away to a lux hotel in which the likes of Miley Cyrus and Legend himself were also staying.
SPIN, the media partner in Legend’s project, documented the entire experience.
On Saturday, he and the other winners hit the stage at Cheer Up Charlies to perform an original song before Legend’s performance.
“When John Legend is your hype man, the crowd is definitely into it!” Russell says. “It was such an interactive experience; it’s just a different feel than singing at a bar.”
One of the best parts of the experience for Russell was getting to know fellow performers and contest winners Alejandro Palma, Jelani Sinclair, John Rankin, and Allison Mula.
“We actually bonded really quickly,” he says. “We’re all sharing this amazing experience together, so we could all understand each other on a different level right from the get-go. We’ve already talked and want to collaborate on projects and keep these relationships. It was really cool to meet them and, now, have connections everywhere.”
In the frenzy of SXSW, Russell is gracious to have such a unique opportunity to stand out in the crowd of up-and-comers and industry professionals.
“You do meet people,” he says, “and it’s kind of cool, even just being on, like, John Legend’s Twitter and Instagram account. Then you start having record labels following you on Twitter and kind of csontacting you and stuff...the whole thing gave me something that’s really invaluable. And more than that, they documented the whole thing, and that was really, really important.”
From here, Russell wants to book shows around Savannah to showcase his original songwriting. Currently, the multitalented player handles keyboard duties for local band Ambrose.
“I’m kind of in this mood of shooting for the stars,” he says with a smile. “So why not?”
See more on Russell’s journey at SPIN.com.