If you’re currently starring in Broadway smash Hamilton, in your free time do you: A. take some much-needed rest or B. create a solo album of even more music?
For Leslie Odom Jr., who is currently wowing audiences eight times a week in his Tony-nominated leading role as Aaron Burr in the musical mega-hit, you get to work in the studio, stat.
“It’s been nearly 15 years in the making,” Odom tells Billboard about his debut album, which drops June 10 on S-Curve Records. “I’ve realized along the way that a lot of things that I do as a performer are about waiting for somebody to write something for me or develop something for me, but music, music was the thing that I don’t have to wait for anybody’s permission to do…Once I realized that, the album came out the fast track and I got really clear about what I would want to parlay an opportunity like this into.”
It’s not a surprise that Hamilton has begun to open many doors for its talented stars, but Odom says that the most exciting part is being able to work on projects they’ve been passionate about all along.
“As you can see with my music, as you can see with Daveed [Diggs’] music, these are things that we’ve been doing our whole lives,” Odom says. “These are things that we’ve been dedicated to for years and years, that nobody cared about. And so what [Hamilton] does is that it allows us to get some things to the forefront, it allows us to make some art now that people are hopefully going to care about. That’s all you want as artist. So the fact that the fans love the show in the way that they do and that love has extended to each of us and that love extends to the outside projects that we do, it doesn’t get any better.”
With fan eagerness behind him, Odom recently hit the studio, but quickly found that the planned solo album was going to turn out differently than he anticipated.
“[Producer Joseph Abate] has a developmental process that I’ve grown to love, but it’s very uncomfortable,” Odom explains about the creation of his album. “I sort of learned that all of the best things, all of the marrow, the most truth, the honesty, it’s all of the things that you want most are on the other side of discomfort, and so I brought a list of songs to Joseph, like, ‘These are the songs that I would have always wanted to record if I was gonna record a product,’ and Joseph said, ‘Okay, great, let’s set that aside for a second, and now I want you to sing songs that you never sang before in your life.’”
Playing in that discomfort brought about unique arrangements of classic tunes like “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)” (exclusive listen below) and “Cheer Up Charlie,” among other jazz standards that make up the 10-song, self-titled album.
“When you make this kind of music, you really don’t know if [it will]… go out and find an audience,” Odom says thoughtfully. “But a friend of mine taught me something a long time ago, he said, ‘Man if I make something in the studio that blesses one person, if it encourages one person, I did my job.’ I certainly hope that we reach as many people as we can, but the goal really in the studio is smaller than that. Our immediate goal is to talk and touch one person at a time, and then I believe that that intention sets you up for the greater impact.”
Odom plans to tour with the record, but in the meantime, he’s got his hands full being in the eye of the hurricane with Hamilton mania (Odom told Billboard he will “probably extend” his current contract with the show for a little while longer). It’s a once-in-a-lifetime zeitgeist hit that he, naturally, still seems to be adjusting to.
“I’m still not at the point where it’s been a phenomenon longer than it was just this little project that nobody knew about that I was turning down work to be a part of,” Odom says. “I hoped that people would like it and love it as much as I do, but it’s far exceeded my expectations. And it did almost [right away] — in front of its first audience. The response from the audience [has] been like nothing I’ve ever seen or could’ve anticipated.”
That effusive reaction means everyone from Beyonce to Reese Witherspoon to the Obamas has been a vocal fan (Odom called out the cast’s March concert at the White House as a personal highlight of the whirlwind year). And their upcoming highly anticipated Tonys performance and likely award domination will only raise the show’s profile even higher.
“This is a once in a lifetime thing, and I treat it like that,” Odom says about all the Tonys hoopla leading up the June 12 ceremony, where Hamilton is nominated for a record 16 awards. “To get even realer with you for a second, as a black actor, as a performer of color, I don’t know how many more roles like Aaron Burr are gonna come along for me. You know, this is a role that didn’t exist five minutes ago. This is a part that didn’t exist for me when I graduated from college, a part like this hadn’t been invented. And so, is it gonna take 15, 20 more years for a part like this? I’ll just say about Tony night and everything leading up to Tony night, I am relishing in it [and] I have the presence of mind to take it all in and to be grateful for it.”
More with Leslie Odom Jr. can be found in an upcoming issue of Billboard.