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Leslie Odom Jr.: 'I Want To Sing To The Moment That You're In'

Leslie Odom Jr.'s self-titled debut album is out now.
Christopher Boudewyns
Courtesy of the artist
Leslie Odom Jr.'s self-titled debut album is out now.

Ahead of the 2016 Tony Awards, it seems fair to make a few educated guesses. First: This stands to be the most widely watched Tonys in recent memory, thanks to a little show called Hamilton and its record-breaking 16 nominations. Second: Even fans of that beloved musical are going to be a little on edge — since, in a few of those categories, the show's stars are up against one another.

One of those stars is Leslie Odom Jr., a guy who just a few years ago grew so discouraged with his performing career that he started applying for jobs as a hotel clerk. After more than 15 years spent mostly under the radar, he's now something of a theater-world rock star, thanks to the buzz around Hamilton and his performance as Aaron Burr. And to hear him tell it, that's more than enough validation.

"If there's sort of a low hum in your life," Odom says, "of anxiety or worry or just wonder: Am I good enough? Is this what I'm meant to be doing? This experience has answered that, and answered that, and answered that."

This week, Odom is following up on another ambition. His debut solo album, a songbook collection that he crowdfunded and quietly released in 2014, has been remade with new songs and the backing of a record label; the new version is out today. Odom joined NPR's Mary Louise Kelly to talk about what his childhood pastor and a karaoke machine taught him about his voice, and why his breakout moment couldn't have happened any other way.

Mary Louise Kelly: I want to ask you what feels like a simple question, but I imagine the answer is not so simple: How has your life changed since Hamilton?

Leslie Odom Jr.: I'll say this: It is a profoundly healing experience to be a part of an original cast of anything, but especially of something this successful. For most of your career, what you're trying to do is to step into other people's shoes. Until you make a name for yourself, they're like, "Be a little more Denzel," "Be a little more Wesley Snipes." And so, an original cast, something like this, is where I've never heard so much "yes" in all my life.

I mean, from the outside, it feels like, "Ta-da! A star is born." Did it feel like that for you?

[Sighs.] You know, kind of. But I'm just grateful that a moment like that is happening now, at 34, and not at 24. I'm so grateful for the 15 or so years that I have behind me, that have led me to a moment like this.

Really? You wouldn't have rather had this happen at 20?

Oh no, it'll make you crazy for sure. I can completely understand how somebody loses their mind in a moment like this; it's even hard for all of us to reckon with it. It's a great deal of praise and generosity and love that you're getting, and so if you don't feel in some way that you've earned it, that you've worked for it, I imagine that it could become a burden. "What did I do to deserve it?" You know, I'm 21 years old, or I'm 16 years old — why are these people, what do they want from me? And as a 34-year-old, the perspective is much different.

I want to ask about this album. You released an earlier version that you financed through a Kickstarter campaign; now you've got a record deal, and some new songs.

Yeah. One of the other wonderful things that this show has brought into our lives is that people come to you and say, "What do you want to do? We can get you a meeting." So we took a meeting with BMG and S-Curve Records, run by Steve Greenberg. I did not plan on signing the first deal that came along, but it was so right — it felt like, again, I was sitting across the table from somebody who was saying yes to who I was.

Was there a particular song that made him and the label say, "This is why we love it, this is what it's all about"?

No, they loved what I did in Hamilton. When we first took the meeting, he was actually saying, "We should make a record." And I said, "Oh, great! I would love to make another album." He said, "Another album?" [Laughs.] "You put out a record? I want to hear it!" And he starts listening to it in his office, and 25 seconds in, he says, "This is really good. This is really good." It goes to the next track. "Yeah, yeah, this is good. I like this!"

He loved our record. And he said, "Just so you know, I know you think you put it out, and your mom has heard it and a couple of friends. In my business, it didn't happen. Nobody's heard it. So what I'd like to do first is, let's make this album better. Is there anything you wish you could have done if you had more time or more money?" And of course, the answer was yes. I was describing to him the kind of music that I wanted to make — because when we raised our money on Kickstarter, we said we wanted to make the album that Nat King Cole would make today.

That's a good pitch!

It got us our money, thank goodness. But a lot of times in the music industry, that kind of can sound corny. It's like, "Are you going to be wearing top hats and tails? What is this thing going to be?" And what Steve liked is that, in his words, he said, "You've managed to keep it cool. You've managed to keep this thing current, and modern, which is what we wanted to do."

One of the songs you chose is "Nobody Knows You (When You're Down and Out)." But here you are in a moment when a lot of people know you. Does it feel funny singing this song now?

Oh no, I couldn't wait to sing that song. You know, we're doing songs that are trunk songs: They're songs that we all have memories of hearing another singer sing. In the developmental process, we never know if we're going to find a version of the song that feels authentic to us, but we were in that case.

What makes me so excited about singing it and incorporating it into our repertoire now is, you really tell the best stories, you really are able to shine a light in the healthiest way on something, once you're on the other side of it. What goes up must come down; I'm not going to be in Hamilton forever. Everything I work on won't have this kind of success. And so to remember applying for the hotel clerk, and to hold that up at the same time as a moment like this, feels right. I am able to understand both sides of the coin now, in a way that I've never been able to at any other time.

Walk me back to when you were a kid. Was there a specific moment when it dawned on you, "Wow, I can sing"?

I think it was, my parents got me a karaoke machine when I was about 9 years old. Even before that, they got me a tape recorder that I used to walk around my life with. And there was something about recording and then hearing myself back. We never had a video camera — you know, Lin, Lin-Manuel, grew up with a video camera.

This is your costar in Hamilton, the creator of the show.

That's right. He grew up making movies of himself, so I think he had a different vision of himself and his art. I grew up listening. I grew up pressing "record" and then pressing "play."

And did you like the way you sounded? Because nobody likes the way they sound when they listen back to themselves.

Oh, I still don't! But I'm able to analyze it. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours; I put the 10,000 hours in on that karaoke machine. That is where I learned, "I want my voice to sound like something, and so I'm going to keep working on it until it sounds like I intend for it to sound" — and not just something that, when I open my mouth, I don't know what's going to come out.

I read you used to sing in church, too. This was back at Canaan Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

Yes. The pastor would — I had to get used to not being shy, because he would point me out. If he was inspired, if he looked in my eyes and he found a place in the sermon where it would make sense, he would call me up to sing something. And so I got used to singing on the spot.

I guess that gets you over stage fright pretty young.

It does, yeah. And nothing, nothing makes me more nervous than singing in church.

Really? It's worse than Broadway?

Oh, much worse! Because people's souls are on the line! You feel like you are really being called upon to deliver some sort of message, some sort of food for people.

You've mentioned that this album is self-titled because it expresses who you are right now. Who is that you're trying to capture? Who are you?

It's kind of answered through the music. My favorite thing now, about the thing being out, is that we can stop our silly little pitch about, "It's the album that Nat King Cole would make today." It was like trying to explain what Hamilton was for two years! It didn't make any sense to people until they could see it — and then they're like, "Ah, this is what it is." Because something doesn't exist until it exists. It's the same thing I was saying about all of the ways that we're trying to fit into people's shoes, before somebody just says yes to your own shoes.

And what is it you are hoping people will hear on this record? What is it you're hoping they're going to get about you?

I realized in this project that I am focused on empathy. I want to sing to the moment that you're in. If it's a loving moment, if it's a regretful moment, if it's a moment of despair, a moment of great joy, I want to make music that speaks to where you are. There's a little bit of acting in that — there's a little bit of performance in that, even in the studio. You sit in it with them. You sit next to them. And you're offering somebody something at a time when they need it.

This Sunday night is the biggest night on Broadway, The Tony Awards. You're nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Musical — and you're up against your Hamilton costar, Lin Manuel Miranda. How does that feel?

I mean, I wouldn't have it any other way. At least half of my performance I get from looking into Lin's eyes every night.

I saw you describe this as the greatest role you will ever have. And I thought, on the one hand, that's great; on the other hand, you're 34 years old!

I know. Well, I think I usually say it's possibly the greatest role that I will have ever had. And I say that not for pity — I'm not sad by that. I'm going to work on music; I'm just as jazzed about the album as I am about Hamilton.

What I meant by that was, I think if you can stop at a moment like this and appreciate that this is quite possibly as good as it will get, that's okay! You appreciate it, you enjoy it, you relish every single moment, because we all know how rare this is. None of us are so cocky or crazy that we're like, "Oh, you know, see you at the next Hamilton. See you at the next thing we create that's a cultural phenomenon." It just may never happen again, and that is okay.

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