Leslie Odom Jr. Releases First Album Of Original Songs With 'Mr'
Leslie Odom Jr. played Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.” Now’s he’s singing his own tunes on a new album of original songs.
On the inspiration behind the song “Go Crazy”
“I got the record deal by saying I wanted to make the music that Nat King Cole might make today. And so we didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but it got us the money, so we went on an exploration of that. And we’re really thinking of Nat, and really the great band leaders of the ’30s and ’40s. And so that’s a tribute to those guys. I think you can hear it in some of the lyrics, some of the non-lyrics, even in the ‘Hi De Ho’ and stuff. So it was really us thinking of more of a style of music and a time that that music might have been sung. So as much as I’d like to say that there’s some deep, personal story about me going to New Orleans and meeting this woman, we were really kind of just thinking of Cab Calloway on a stage, with his band, trying to fire up the crowd.”
What is about that time and that music that made you want to bring it into 2019?
“We just tried to find kindred spirits. When we set out to start making music, we just tried to find, what is the tradition that you’re going to try to move forward? Whose shoulders are you standing on as a vocalist, as an artist? And you know, what’s the most natural fit, both inside and outside? You know, what sounds best on your voice? But also what feels honest — to you, to me. And that’s where we ended up. I grew up listening to all kinds of music — R&B, pop, gospel, soul, folk, alternative music. You know, I really grew up before the Spotify playlist. You know, we created our own little Spotify playlist. I think that’s part of the thing that made ‘Hamilton’ — the score of that — such a natural fit for me. You know, Lin [-Manuel Miranda] and I … we were only a year apart. So we grew up with the same music in our ear – hip-hop — that was a genre I left off. And so, in that show, I got to do a little jazz, little R&B, some Broadway stuff, some folk. I got to really do all the things that I love to do. And so ‘Mr.’ feels hand-in-glove, in the same way. I get to do a lot of stuff on this record. But that is how we started — the Nat King Cole, the Cab Calloway, the Billy Eckstine, Sam Cooke — that’s how we started.”
What made you realize you wanted to be on Broadway?
“It was ‘Rent.’ That was my ‘Hamilton.’ You know, I didn’t know anything about Broadway. We didn’t grow up seeing Broadway shows, and anything like that. The tickets were very expensive when I was a kid. Seventy-five-whole-dollars for a top ticket on Broadway. But that was a lot of money for a family of four. But ‘Rent’ was in a very similar way to ‘Hamilton.’ You know, it was reaching people outside of New York City somehow; was making noise outside of the city. And so in Philadelphia, it reached me. I was 13 years old. And, you know, if I knew about performing at all as a kid, it was really, I understood it in a pop context. You know, it was like Michael Jackson. And I didn’t know where to apply for a job like that. I wouldn’t have even dared. But there was something about ‘Rent.’ There was something about the music. No. 1, it sounded like the music I grew up listening to. But it was like, ‘Oh, here’s a another place where you can kind of sing, act and dance in an evening.’ You can be Michael Jackson for a night.”
On lessons from performing in “Hamilton” that we hear in the new album “Mr”
“The most salient lesson from that experience for me — and there were so many. But, the one that really sticks out for me was the power of a team, was really the assembling of as close to the ‘Avengers’ as you can get. I mean, you want to surround yourself with people who make you want to strive to be a better version of yourself than you ever even imagined. That’s what that cast was for me. That’s what it felt like every day coming to work. I just wanted to keep up. You know, I just wanted to keep up with Daveed and Anthony and Lin and Oak and Jasmine and Philippa. You know, I just wanted them to know when they looked to their left or to their right, and they saw me standing there, that they could trust me, that they could pass the ball to me. And they knew that I would do what I was supposed to. You know, either take the shot or pass the ball. So that’s what I took from that. You know, Lin was so incredibly generous as a creator, and as a scene partner. You know, he didn’t hoard the good stuff. He wasn’t afraid to let the people next to him shine. And so in this record, what I tried to do was surround myself with as many brilliant, lovely, wonderful people as I could possibly find.”
Music From The Show
From The Reading List
Broadway.com: “Leslie Odom Jr. Won’t Tell You Why He Named His First Original Solo Album Mr” — “Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. has had a busy three years. After winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, he released his self-titled album, starred in Murder on the Orient Express, appeared on TV’s One Dollar and is currently earning great acclaim for both his first original solo album Mr and his turn as William Still in the just-released film Harriet. Odom Jr. stopped by Broadway.com’s #LiveatFive to talk with Paul Wontorek about all his projects and revealed what show would bring him back to Broadway in a heartbeat.
“While Mr marks Odom Jr.’s third studio album, it’s the first time he’s singing his own words. ‘A lot of these songs started as journal entries,’ he said. ‘It’s deeply personal and I’ve been working on it for quite a long time. I’m really excited for people to hear it. Whenever I realize that it’s going to be out in the world, I get butterflies like it’s opening night. I feel so great.’
“Odom Jr. didn’t want to limit the creativity of his listeners, which is why the explanation behind the album name will be kept a mystery. ‘It has a personal meaning for me that one day I’ll maybe talk about,’ he said. ‘As an artist, you work on these things and then sit with them for a long while. The best thing about art is that it’s created on a conscious and subconscious level. The audience can tell you thinks about the work that you didn’t even know was there and I don’t want to stop people’s imaginations from working by telling them what I want them to hear. I’m curious to hear what people think ‘Mr’ means.’ ”
Playbill: “Leslie Odom Jr. On Being of Service to Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet Tubman” — “Leslie Odom Jr. grew up in Philadelphia. So although Philly native William Still may not be a familiar name to most, it was to Odom; and when director-writer Kasi Lemmons asked him to play the role of the free black man, conductor on the Underground Railroad, member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and a trusted friend of Harriet Tubman in Harriet, he said yes.
“Odom was excited to offer a foil to Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet. ‘He was born a free man and hadn’t experienced the chains of slavery first hand like Harriet,’ says Odom of Still. ‘So I liked bringing that combustion of that—those different experiences—whenever I could.’
“Though the movie focuses on Still as a businessman and abolitionist, the actor dug into Still’s childhood in preparation for filming. ‘I learned more about his family,’ he says. ‘His mother and father were slaves and had four children. And she escaped with them but then was caught and brought back down. But she escaped again, and this time she took two of her children; she took her daughters and left her two sons behind. So [I] think of that history he carries with him.’”
NPR Music: “Leslie Odom, Jr.: Tiny Desk Concert” — “Leslie Odom Jr. walked through the door with unassuming confidence and a big smile that brightened the room. Later, during his Tiny Desk performance, he recalled advice he’d received from a friend: ‘You have to get used to it — you are part of a cultural phenomenon in New York City,’ Odom said, before quipping, ‘I feel so blessed to be a part of Law & Order: SVU for three magnificent seasons.’
“A Tony- and Grammy-winning star, Odom has added a slew of achievements to his portfolio since 2016, when he left his role playing Aaron Burr in Broadway’s Hamilton. He’s continued his work in television and film, written a book and released jazz and Christmas albums. He co-wrote most of the songs on his latest project, Mr; out earlier this month, it’s his first album of original material.
While Mr features a range of genres, Odom brought three R&B songs to the desk.
“The first, “Cold,” is a hopeful ballad with a beautiful melody and a hint of contemporary musical theater. “Foggy,” which he describes as the album’s most personal piece, is a love song filled with the regret of failed good intentions. Odom calls his set-closer, “Hummingbird,” an ‘odd little bop,’ but really it’s a happy song that’s light and fun — it’s his 2-year-old daughter’s favorite.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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