Leslie Odom Jr. & Sam Ashworth on Writing 'Speak Now,' 2021 Oscar Front-Runner for Best Original Song

Leslie Odom Jr. in 'One Night In Miami.'
Patti Perret/Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Leslie Odom Jr. in 'One Night In Miami.'

Odom is nominated for a second Oscar for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in "One Night in Miami...."

“Speak Now” from the film One Night in Miami…. is generally considered the front-runner to win the Academy Award for best original song on Sunday, with Entertainment Tonight, Variety and Gold Derby all picking it to win. The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, both pick “Io Sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se).

This is the first Oscar nomination for both the song’s co-writers, Leslie Odom Jr. and Sam Ashworth. Odom is nominated for a second Oscar this year for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in the film. (That award is widely expected to go to Daniel Kaluuya for Judas and the Black Messiah.)

Billboard interviewed Odom and Ashworth on the song’s creation last month after the nominations were announced. The interviews were conducted separately but covered much of the same ground and so are combined here. Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Leslie, You’re the fourth person in four years to be nominated for acting and songwriting Oscars in the same year, following Mary J. Blige, Lady Gaga and Cynthia Erivo. That’s a nice little club to join.

Odom: Sure. I bet we see it more and more too. I think it’s a byproduct of the fact that there’s less boundaries in the industry than there used to be. It’s less confining. There really is an opportunity right now to bring all that you are to projects. It used to be that if you were a television star, you were a television star. If you made music, you only made music. It was a lot harder to just come and say "I’m a creative person and I’d like to be creative in these different areas."

Three of these four double nominees are Black. Apart from the fact that you’re all damn good, what do you think accounts for that?

Odom: There’s an opportunity right now for voices to be heard – there’s money being made, quite frankly, and the more successful these ventures are, I think we’ll see them more and more.

How did the songwriting process on this song begin?

Odom: Regina [King, the film’s director] and the producers [Jess Wu Calder, Keith Calder and Jody Klein] knew that they wanted the song to come from me. So they said, "Since it’s you, you’ve got to provide us with all of those options." They wanted four songs to choose from. They presented me with a list of songwriters, and Sam was on that list. I had written many songs with Sam. Not only has it been a fruitful relationship creatively, but we also just enjoy hanging out together.

Sam, were you aware you were in a competition?

Ashworth: I was. Even though I didn’t get to hear what they were doing, it certainly created even more motivation than I already had to do my absolute best to try to get this song.

How did you feel about the chance to have the closing song in this particular film?

Ashworth: I felt an enormous weight. There is so much conversation in the film. The script [by Kemp Powers] is just so rich. The weight was really about "Where do we even start? How do we narrow down some of these ideas into one three- or four-minute song?" The weight was the pressure to create something meaningful enough to match such a beautiful film and to help lift it up and not drag it down.

You started writing the song on your own then?

Ashworth: I spent a good three or four days writing and rewriting. I think by the time I played Leslie something, it was about the third iteration of the song. What I finally presented to him, I was proud of what I had, but I knew it was very far from being right. It really started coming together when we were able to talk through everything I had and talk through how he processed the film. When I was able to download his brain and his feelings from the project is really when the song started flushing out. After that, I spent another several days trying to put all that we talked about into lyrics and get it to a place where I was incredibly proud of it and didn’t want to change anything. That’s a really rare thing for a songwriter.

What did you keep and what did you toss from the earlier drafts?

Ashworth: What stuck in this version lyrically from the very first demo I presented to him was the "listen, listen, listen" at the beginning of every verse and the "speak now" in the chorus. After we worked together, we went through every verse and created more of a story. I hadn’t really had a solid direction on where to go. I just felt really confident that it needed a sense of urgency. It needed the direction to listen and it needed the direction to speak now. What I had in the verses before was a lot more poetry, not much that was really very tangible. I really needed Leslie’s point of view to create those more tangible lyrics. We spoke a lot about the legacy we leave our kids -- we’re both fathers – and who we want them to see us as and how we live by example for them.

Was there ever any thought about adding a hip-hop element, like "Glory" from Selma had, to make it more contemporary?

Ashworth: No, there wasn’t. When I was first approached by [music supervisor] Randall Poster, the only thing he said to me was it didn’t need to be period-sounding; it didn’t need to sound ’60s.

Leslie, did you also collaborate with the other songwriters who were competing for the slot?

Odom: I did. I was a co-writer on all songs. I came into the soundstage and played all four demos for Regina. There was another song that also made it to the next round. We went and developed those two songs a little further, and "Speak Now" is the one she chose.

What did you and Regina respond to in Sam’s "Speak Now" demo?

Odom: The melody was memorable and beautiful and a little haunting, so we just needed to investigate the lyric. We needed to make it something that was specific to this film and could live outside of the movie. That was the goal anyway.

I understand that they didn’t want it to be period-sounding. That would rule out something that sounded like something Sam Cooke might have recorded.

Odom: Definitely, we didn’t want it to sound like something Sam would record. We definitely wanted it to come from me. In the film, I had gotten as close to Sam as I could get. After my final day [shooting] in New Orleans, I went about the process of letting that go. I was happy we were recording the song three months after having filmed, because I would have been tempted to try to kind of do a Sam Cooke thing.

Leslie, if you win an Oscar, you’ll just need an Emmy to become an EGOT. Have you called your agent about lining up some TV work?

Odom: [Laughs] No, I have not. No way. I have gone farther than I ever intended to. When I was coming out of school, I really just wanted to make a living as an artist. I thought that was just the best thing in the world -- if I could pay my bills, put food on my table as an actor or singer in this business. The fact that I’ve been able to do that now for a couple of decades means the world.

Sam, your father, Charlie Peacock, is a Grammy winner [he won the 2011 award for best folk album for producing The Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow]. If "Speak Now" wins a Grammy next year for best song written for visual media, you’ll join a relatively short list of father-and-son Grammy winners.

Ashworth: Oh wow. My wife [Ruby Amanfu] and I were nominated in 2019 [for song of the year for co-writing H.E.R.’s “Hard Place”]. That was a huge moment to be able to share that with him. To bring one home would be a whole ’nother level, for sure.