John Legend talks anxiety dreams, music and why 'we all have to have a health care plan for our minds'

Erin Donnelly
John Legend opens up about the power of music, meditating and the importance of having a
John Legend opens up about the power of music, meditating and the importance of having a "health care plan for our minds." (Image: Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwindis Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

"Legend" may be a stage name, but it's one the man born John Stephens has rightfully earned thanks to becoming in 2018 the first Black man, and second-youngest person, to achieve EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) status. Last year the singer-songwriter added another string to his bow, becoming the chief music officer for the meditation app Headspace. It's a role that has him helming the just-launched YouTube series Music on My Mind, in which Legend, cognitive neuroscientist Sahar Yousef and neuroscientist Yewande Pearse dig deep into the impact music — whether it's a throbbing EDM tune or a slow, soulful ballad like, say, "All of Me" — can have on the brain, from sparking emotional connections to improving focus, memory and relaxation.

For Legend, music isn't just a profession — it's a workout motivator and mood-brightener, too. Here, he speaks to Yahoo Life about tunes, meditation and how he and wife Chrissy Teigen are prioritizing their mental health.

Chrissy has been so open about mental health and therapy and grief amid a horrible year. What's your approach to it?

I think we really have to be intentional about how we think about the way our mind needs to be tended to, just like we think about our diet and we think about a [physical] workout. I think we all have to have a health care plan for our minds — whether that involves therapy, whether that involves meditation, whether that involves music. There's all kinds of ways you can affect the way your mind is responding to life. And the more I learn about it, the more interesting it is. I think we're trying to take advantage of all the things that are out there that are available to us to make sure we're taking care of our mental health, just like we're taking care of our physical health.

What stresses you out?

I don't like when I feel like I'm running late. It's funny, because your dreams kind of tell you what your stressors are, because when you have anxiety they're, like, revealing what you're worried about. And one of my anxiety dreams is that I'm perpetually late for something [laughs]. I can't get ahead of it. Like, I'm supposed to be on my way to the airport and I'm way behind, I'm lost ... like a stressful experience. And so I think that's telling me that I don't like being late.

You've mentioned that you'll sometimes put on an audiobook to "kill two birds with one stone" while you work out, but what are some of the songs that get you going?

I do like to listen to hip-hop as well, actually, when I work out. I'm not a big EDM person. So when you're thinking about the kinds of music that you would listen to to get you pumped up that has an upbeat BPM, hip-hop usually satisfies that for me — so Jay-Z, Outkast... I'm still stuck in the '90s and early 2000s [laughs]. I like Kendrick Lamar a lot. I've been playing my "I Love '90s Hip-Hop" playlist on Spotify. So '90s and early 2000s hip-hop definitely hits my sweet spot, and it's kind of a nostalgia for my days when I was out going to clubs in New York.

Is there anything — a good night's sleep, music, a workout — that you really need to have in your daily routine? Anything that makes a big difference in terms of your mental headspace if you don't have it?

I don't think about the negative effects of not listening to music, but there's definitely positive effects when I do listen to something that gets me going. It does give me that extra little jolt I need in the day, and then it takes my mind to a good place. I don't know that I necessarily notice when it's not there, or that has some really strong negative effect when it's not there, but I definitely feel the positive so it's worth doing.

You've said that sleep is a big topic of conversation at your house. It seems like a lot of people are struggling with sleep issues during the pandemic.

Well, Chrissy has a lot harder time falling asleep than I do. You're like, do we need more melatonin? Do you need this, do you need that? Everybody's different when it comes to what works for them and what makes their sleep more sustainable and more peaceful and all those things. And so I found it helpful to talk to a doctor about it, just so we can hear how music can play a role in that.

As chief music officer of Headspace, Legend is exploring the impact music has on mindfulness with the YouTube series Music on the Mind. (Photo: Headspace)
As chief music officer of Headspace, Legend is exploring the impact music has on mindfulness with the YouTube series Music on My Mind. (Photo: Headspace)

You've also shared that you meditate. What does that look like for you? Do you go to another room?

Yeah, we have a little gym in our house, so I just take a few minutes to be mindful and then I work out. So it's kind of like trying to get a moment in that room to get my mind and my body ready for the day.

Do you have any other self-care rituals that you practice to brighten your day or create a more positive experience?

I think starting the day with being mindful and working out, those are very helpful for me. There are also certain things I like to do to be more productive at my job, which is, you know, writing music, creating music. There are certain spaces that work better for me. Like, I don't like to work from home when it comes to writing. I like to be in a space where I feel like I'm at work. Some people are just fine writing at home, but I don't enjoy writing at home. I like to go to a space to do that work, and then come home and just be at home.

With all of your awards, and your fame, you've reached a very high level of success, but you have a reputation for seeming sensible and relatable. How do you stay grounded?

I don't know. Like, I get that I am pretty grounded and I'm actually grateful that I am in a lot of ways because I feel like it's helped me to handle what could be a crazy life situation with some peace and some grace and some calm. It could be a lot crazier if I wasn't that way. And I think part of it was me becoming successful relatively later than a lot of people. A lot of people in my business become famous when they're still either late teenagers or maybe, like, 20, 21 years old, and you still haven't really experienced a lot of life. And it happened for me when I was 26, which isn't very old, but it's enough to where I had gone to college, I had worked in the corporate world, I'd experienced a lot of different aspects of life and had to take care of myself and be independent for quite a while and had formed my personality and had a good foundation before I became famous. And so I think that helped me kind of just be an adult through all of this, and not have my head spin too much. I was able to become an adult and live a little bit of my life before all the fame hit.

Your social media often shows you playing the piano around your kids. Are you passing on any lessons about the power of music and how it can make them feel?

Music is part of so much in our house, and our kids are very intentional about listening to music day after day. They know what they want to hear. They have requests; they like to hear it in the car. They want to take turns, where, like, Luna's like, "Well Miles got to pick a song, now I want to pick a song." And so they have clear preferences and tastes, and they love music. I'm sure that they're not that aware of what that means or what this or that song selection means, but they know at that level, that this is what they want to hear. I think that's the beginning of them developing their musical sensibility and their taste.

I would love for them to try to learn an instrument at some point. I don't know what it will be. I'm not going to push them too hard, but I would love for them to grow up with the ability to play an instrument and hopefully love music as much as I do. But if they don't, then that's OK too. There are plenty of other fun things for them to do. But it would be my preference if they ended up loving music and try to play an instrument, even if they don't do it professionally.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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