Superstar singer and performer, Leslie Odom Jr., has a favorite Christmas memory. At 10-years-old, the eventual co-lead of the Broadway show, Hamilton, was gifted a double-deck karaoke machine from his parents. He’d already shown interest in music. He’d found his father’s record collection in crates in the basement, and Odom Jr. began listening to it all. His folks saw his interest and wanted to help promote it, so they invested in a portable “Singalodeon.” That investment changed Odom Jr.’s life, helping him to develop the skills and interest that would one day make him a household name. From those early days singing to a Marvin Gaye record or writing his own songs and recording them on the Singalodean, Odom Jr. has developed into an acclaimed recording artist and his next release, The Christmas Album, is out November 6th.
“I couldn’t have known when I opened it,” Odom Jr. says. “You know, Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours. I think I put in at least half of those 10,000 on that Singalodeon.”
If 10,000 hours is the measure of an expert, as Gladwell has essentially theorized, Odom Jr. is likely well past that mark in multiple fields several times over today. Yet, even the most nimble-footed – proverbially or actually – has to adjust to a life-thrown curve ball every once in a while and Odom Jr., like the majority of artists today, has had to pivot because of the health pandemic spurred by COVID-19. Last year, the Tony- and Grammy-Award winner released a solo record of original music, Mr, and the tour for the record was almost immediately derailed due to the virus. So, Odom hunkered down and thought about his next move. And while he’s released a holiday-themed album in the past, the idea seemed like a strong one again.
“We went back to our lists of favorites,” he says. “We added a few we wouldn’t have felt comfortable to attempt. Back then we didn’t have the resources, the budget we have now after Mr.”
Odom Jr.’s creative instincts have been honed over decades. At 13-years old, the young talent was gifted scholarships to study singing, music, theater and dance. In him, they saw his seemingly endless amounts of energy and the need to find a place to put it. But they also saw skill. And Odom Jr. enjoyed his creative life. He made like-minded friends. He wasn’t thinking of an eventual career in entertainment, but it was a deep passion. Then, he saw the show, Rent. And he knew the feeling he had to chase from then on. That dynamic production, that force mixed with empathy.
“I say this half-joking,” Odom Jr. says, “but I never intended to be in entertainment or TV or movies. I just wanted to be in RENT. That’s all I really wanted.”
As a student, Odom Jr. didn’t shy away from branching out. Though music and singing was the seed by which his creativity sprouted, he wanted to learn it all. He wanted to be a triple- or quadruple- or quintuple-threat.
“I was in these different worlds,” he says. “In acting classes training with actors, people who just wanted to be actors. When I was singing, I would pit myself against other singers. With dancers, I was working with people who went on to be dancers and work with choreographers and Beyoncé. I was very rarely the top student but once I found my way to theater, I had comfort in all the disciplines.”
Odom Jr.’s The Christmas Album sparkles. But it’s also unique. One gets the sense it’s the album the singer would want to hear on Christmas morning – perhaps has he gives someone their own karaoke machine. Standouts include the touching, almost mystical version of the twilight-sounding, “O Holy Night.” On that rendition, Odom’s gift for vocal precision is most evident. His original song, “Heaven & Earth,” which concludes the album, is a hit. The song climaxes with astonishing sonic force. Another poignant track is “Little Drummer Boy,” which features South Africa’s talented Mzansi Youth Choir.
Given the constraints that COVID put on all artists, including Odom Jr., the release of The Christmas Album is an achievement. It’s yet another high water mark for a career that has spanned the years since Odom Jr. was a child. But thinking about the journey to 2020, which the singer rarely does, heartens him, cements the purpose that he ignited on the Singalodeon.
“Every now and again,” Odom Jr. says, “a moment like the Tony Awards or the Emmy nomination I just got – in those moments, I do allow myself the joy, the sweetness in the present moment. That goes back to The Christmas Album. Any joy or shred of goodness that life offers you these days, hold onto it with both hands.”
In the end, making music provides structure for Odom Jr. For someone blessed with so much talent and energy, finding ways to focus or harness those emotive, creative explosions can be the important thing. Music, for the award-winner, is that set of stipulations that allows him to shine, be inspired and, in turn, inspire others along the way towards bigger things.
“I love the framework,” he says. “I love that there are clear boundaries. Sometimes the best things you can give a creative are rules, boundaries. Let me know how far I can go to the left, how far I can go to the right and everywhere in between. It’s not always the prettiest voice that moves me. It’s the most evocative, the most honest. Music is a playground and I love watching my peers jump around.”