Leslie Odom, Jr.’s life is a bit of a whirlwind at the moment. The 2016 Tony Award winner just moved cross-country, he’s working on the Kenneth Branagh–helmed Murder on the Orient Express remake, and he’s expecting his first child with wife Nicolette Robinson. Somewhere between booking big movie roles and packing, Odom, Jr. found the time to record a holiday album, Simply Christmas. Here’s what he has to share with Playbill about the album, the season, and his other recent adventures.
So, why a holiday album?
Leslie Odom, Jr.: It sounded like a no-brainer. I figured we’d just get in the studio and I’d sing some Christmas songs. Why not? But it was actually really difficult. When I first got the masters back, I hated it. It just wasn’t finished, so we rerecorded it. I love the album now. It went from wanting to hang my head in shame to something that I’m really excited for people to hear.
The album sounds so personal, like you’re singing the song to one person. Did you think of them that way?
LOJ: When I sing on an album, I think of it as a one-on-one experience. Not to get cheesy, but I had just found out that Nicolette was pregnant, so I thought a lot about our kid. This had to sound like something that we would want to listen to around the holidays with our family.
Many of the songs on the album have been sung by iconic vocalists. Did you feel any pressure?
LOJ: That was the tricky part. I could get up at a party and sing any of these songs, and that’s how I approached the vocal booth. But then I listened to it and realized that nobody wants to listen to what I actually sound like at a Christmas party after some eggnog. It forced me to put the vocals under a microscope and strip away a lot of the falsity that comes with singing holiday music. There’s something about the music that can bend toward the dishonest. So it was a challenge trying to find out what “Merry Christmas Darling” meant to me. It was daunting.
What’s the difference between acting and being a recording artist, in terms of what you get out of it?
LOJ: If you have any kind of inclination toward being a control freak, it helps to have a side project. I found that I was increasingly frustrated as an actor. Projects were difficult for me because I felt like I wanted more control. If you’re coming to see me in concert, if you’re buying my album, I am singing and saying exactly what I want to say, in the way that I want to say it.
Do you have a favorite holiday memory?
LOJ: When I was five, I was still an only child and my parents went all out. I remember being exhausted by how many presents I was opening. That was the Christmas I got a tape recorder. It’s a full-circle moment, sitting here talking to you about my Christmas album. Because there would be no Christmas album if it wasn’t for that tape recorder. That was the beginning of my singing training, me recording myself singing, then going back and trying to fix it.
Are you a last-minute shopper or do you prepare?
LOJ: I never intend to be, but I am a last-minute shopper. That’s part of the fun. I think there’s part of me that enjoys that danger.
You now have an album of standards and a holiday album. Can we expect an album of originals?
LOJ: I want to experiment with originals, whether I’m writing them or someone else is. I got that experience with the Hamilton score. Those were songs that nobody else had ever sung before, and I got to see what that felt like, to create the version of “Dear Theodosia” that will last forever. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Where do you keep your Tony Award?
LOJ: Right now it’s in my book bag, wrapped in bubble wrap because we just moved. Eventually we plan to have a special place for it.