‘When a Crooner Dies’: Leslie Odom Jr. On His New Album and Writing His Own Story
Leslie Odom Jr.'s latest album, 'When a Crooner Dies,' is a collection of highly crafted and polished, smoochy, pop-leaning original ballads. Photo: Johnny Marlow
Calling Leslie Odom Jr. a triple threat is a bit like calling Taylor Swift quite popular. Though technically correct, the description doesn’t quite capture the scope of the Grammy, Tony, and Emmy Award–winning — and twice Oscar-nominated — actor, singer-songwriter, and author’s towering versatility and talent.
Currently on big screens in the horror The Exorcist: Believer while concurrently on Broadway in a production of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, Odom, 42, continues padding a resume that already includes a key role in the smash musical Hamilton — for which he won the aforementioned Grammy and Tony Awards — as well as starring roles in last year’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and One Night in Miami… from 2020, where Odom played legendary soul singer Sam Cooke.
Oh, and let’s not forget Odom’s self-empowerment book Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning from 2018, in which the actor shared stories from his life to inspire others. With his wife Nicolette Robinson, he also issued the children’s book I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know earlier this year.
Odom’s star power also extends to the small screen, with appearances in Apple TV+’s Central Park and Hamilton on Disney+ as well as a starring role in The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to HBO’s classic series The Sopranos.
Now though, Odom is on the phone from New York discussing When a Crooner Dies (out Nov. 17), his fifth and latest album. It’s a collection of highly crafted and polished, smoochy, pop-leaning ballads, originals all, spotlighting Odom’s silky croon and songwriting talents, abetted by co-writing heavyweights including Theron Feemster and Coleridge Tillman.
As a stand-alone work, When a Crooner Dies is excellent, its choruses and melodies enormously sticky. Yet placed in the context of Odom’s overall CV, it’s proof positive that the American entertainer has the golden touch whatever the medium. Oh, and he’s also very nice. Evidently, to quote the great Rod Stewart, some guys really do have all the luck.
KIM HUGHES: With all these projects on the go, how did you carve out time to make this album?
LESLIE ODOM JR.: In November of last year, I realized it was time to make a new album. I got my band back together, set aside the songs we had written to that point, and wrote some new stuff. Music was such a balm for me, having gone through a difficult time.
KH: Was there one song on the album that seemed to write itself versus one that was especially difficult to nail down? Did those kinds of extremes exist?
LOJR: There are times when the song that arrives on the album is the song I heard [in my head] but there are times when it’s hard to get others to hear what I hear. A song will go through multiple iterations, where I’m speaking in metaphors and colours and childhood memories and referencing other songs. It’s all of those things. Ultimately, the album tells you what it wants to be and that’s true of each song.
KH: I imagine singing in a studio for an album bears no resemblance to singing on a Broadway stage. How would you characterize or contrast the necessary techniques?
LOJR: The only Grammy that’s on my shelf is from a cast album [for Best Musical Theatre Album, Hamilton, in 2016]. And my favourite cast albums are the ones in which the performance really captures what happened on stage. I didn’t go to a lot of Broadway shows as a kid; my first exposure to musicals was through cast albums. And the best ones made me feel like I was in the theatre. That’s what we did with the Hamilton cast album: we did the show in the studio.
On this record, the worlds are converging for me. I’m not as concerned about capturing a pristine vocal. With previous albums, I’ve been known to do upwards of 100 takes. Insane. Just picking myself apart. Not this time. In fact, the vocal on I Surrender is the demo. I am allowing myself to come through as a storyteller and a human being which is sometimes imperfect. But if I can capture the truth of the sentiment in a song, then that’s the vocal. I don’t need to record it 100 times. And whether you’re on a Broadway stage or in a studio, it’s a vulnerable place to be when that spotlight comes on. But you just have to have a little courage and reveal.
KH: Where do you expect to find this album filed in bricks-and-mortar record stores?
LOJR: Ha! What a good question! My hope would be to find it in that little section titled ‘staff picks,’ like you used to see in Blockbuster video rental stores. Your trusted local record store owner suggests you listen to this album. I have been categorized differently than how I saw myself in the past. Now, I’m just making the album I want to hear, that I need to hear. I trust the record stores and streaming services to put me where they’d like to put me.
KH: The album title When a Crooner Dies is quite provocative. Is there a story behind that?
LOJR: It has quite a lot of meaning to me. When I think about the albums that were most meaningful to me growing up, I didn’t have the luxury of being in conversation with the artist that made them, so I interpreted them as I interpreted them, and they became special to me for very personal reasons. I wrote my own story. At this point, I’m much more interested in the stories other people are going to write around my songs. I know what my story is, and maybe one day I’ll share it.
KH: Are you planning to tour the album?
LOJR: Definitely. I look back to the early days of 2020 and the kind of tour I wanted to do for the album Mr. (from 2019) and… well, we lived through something [with Covid-19]. There’s a collective trauma that I am still unpacking. But the people that interest me most these days are the people who allowed that experience to change them for the better. There was a time when it seemed like we might never be able to gather again. So yes, you better believe we’re going to tour. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it’s going to be honest and humble and it’s going to grow directly out of my desire to share and connect with the people who find their way to this music. I don’t have any dreams bigger than that.
When a Crooner Dies is available Nov. 17.
* This interview has been edited and condensed.