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BWW Interview: Academy Award-Nominated Songwriter Sam Ashworth Talks ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, Collaboration With Leslie Odom Jr.

The pair are Academy Award-nominated for their work on 'Speak Now' from ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI.

BWW Interview: Academy Award-Nominated Songwriter Sam Ashworth Talks ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, Collaboration With Leslie Odom Jr.

This morning, it was announced that Leslie Odom Jr. and Sam Ashworth were nominated for an Academy Award for their work on "Speak Now," the end credits song from "One Night in Miami."

BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak to Ashworth about his experience working with Odom to create the song for Regina King's film adaptation of Kemp Powers' play. Both songwriters feel that "Speak Now" is as timely and culturally relevant in 2021 as it was in 1964 - the year that the meeting between Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X took place.

Read the full interview with Ashworth below!


Tell me how you got involved with One Night In Miami.

The great music supervisor Randall Poster called me last July and asked if I would like to be involved in it and if I'd like to write the end credit song for it with Leslie Odom Jr. There wasn't a whole lot of direction. He just said that if I was interested, they would send me a screener and I could watch it and get inspired and see where it went from there. Of course I said yes, I want to be involved with this film.

So they sent me a screener, I think that night, and my wife (Ruby Amanfu) and I watched it and we were just blown away by the movie, just incredible film, and then the pressure and the nerves set in from there. I knew that this song was going to have to follow the great Sam Cooke song "A Change Is Gonna Come" because it's the final song that Leslie performs as Sam Cooke in the movie. This was the first time I've ever been asked to write for a film. This ask was very wide open, and it took a good amount of time to really just kind of figure out what the direction was.

I sat with my guitar and just messed around with different tempos and then went over to the piano and started trying to get some fresh inspiration there, as I'm not really a piano player, but as a songwriter, it's nice to pick out chords, and it gives me a new melodic inspiration that the guitar sometimes doesn't for me because I've been playing guitar for so long. So I got it started there, and then went back to the guitar and then really kind of finished out the melodies and had sort of colored in some words here and there. It just started coming out of the air I think after having watched the movie several times. And so I had just started saying, "Listen, listen, listen." And I didn't know where that went, or what it was, what it was going to end up meaning.

Leslie sent me a long email after I had sent it to him saying, "I love where this is going. This is really where I want it to go from here. But this is a great start." And so the next day we got on a FaceTime and just went through all the lyrics that I had written and right then and there, I just was scrapping verses, and was just trashing stuff - I knew that I needed the collaboration with Leslie to really make this song great and to really make it what it needed to be ultimately. So once we were able to connect, all the pieces really fell together. They really wanted this song to be in the voice of Leslie and not Sam Cooke so it was really important that the perspective came from Leslie through all of what he had experienced being immersed in the script while making the movie and becoming the character of Sam Cooke.

So after we had that session together, I spent a couple more days really just laboring over this song until I finally felt that sort of unexplainable feeling that a songwriter gets where you just, you know it's done. And you never really know when or how that feeling is gonna come, or what that missing puzzle piece is going to be that gives you that feeling. But the feeling finally came and I sent Leslie my final draft of the song. So yeah, after I sent him that he was thrilled. And I knew my work was done. And it's just been an amazing ride ever since.

That brings me to my next question. You've worked with Leslie before. Tell us in what capacity you've worked with him before?

Sometime in 2018, I was asked by my publisher, Walter Jones at Universal Music Publishing, he called and asked if I'd be interested in doing a writing camp for Leslie Odom Jr. and I had heard Leslie's name before, but I hadn't seen Hamilton. You know, it wasn't widely available for everyone to see at that point. But I was told that the camp was going to be sort of jazz, Big Band, pop, sort of thing and that was super intriguing to me. Once I dove into the couple of albums that he had already made, he had made a jazz standards album and made a Christmas album at that point, but hadn't made an album of original songs. So after diving into his music a bit and just hearing the beauty and the purity of his voice, I was just sold immediately-and sold on the idea of doing like, a jazz/Big Band thing, because I've been so immersed in R&B and pop and this was at a time where I just needed something fresh, I needed to do something really different. Having grown up in a house where jazz was always either being played by my father on the piano or recordings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I was really excited about that. The songwriting camp was at Skywalker Ranch, which added another whole level of excitement. Of course, I agreed to go, and went and just had such an incredible time and made a lot of great friends that I still talk to and work with a couple years later. We had a great, great time there, wrote a whole bunch of songs. And then about a month later, I was asked to go back to a second camp and finish the album. So that that just sort of you know, solidified the bond. Leslie and I just made great music together, music I'm really proud of. We just had a lot of time together and so ever since then, we just kept in touch and he's become a good friend. And that album ended up being an album called Mr., and that was his first album of original songs and, then later they did a reproduction of one of the songs that we wrote at that first Skywalker Ranch Camp, a song called "Cold." And then Sia ended up getting added to that song as sort of a duet, and it became a hot AC top 40 hit. So we've done some fun stuff together. So far, it's been a fruitful working relationship and, and he's just a wonderful guy, and I'm just happy to know him.

That's awesome. Okay, how was working on a song for a major motion picture different from your previous collaborations? I know you touched on that a little bit.

Oh, I could talk about that all day. I mean, every collaboration is very different from one another, because it's the business of people, you know, so it's like, I do what I do, and I try and stretch myself as far as I can go as a songwriter at all times. But you're either brought down or you're lifted up by the people you collaborate with, I think that's true in any business and especially in the business of [artistic] creating. The [collaborations] have all been pretty good since the pandemic, the Zoom situation. But collaborating, it can be very hard. But with the right people it's my favorite way to write. I started writing as a kid, I started writing on my own, I'd probably written maybe 20 to 30 songs or something before I ever collaborated with anyone. And now, I'm hard pressed to write songs on my own anymore. I've gotten so used to collaborating with people. So that's kind of like a muscle that I'm trying to exercise again, now doing more writing on my own. I had really crucial times with Leslie to help shape this song, lyrically and melodically. But the pressure and the weight of this made it very different from any other collaborating experience I've ever had.

Usually, we can just get in a room together in person, and talk, you know, spend an hour or so just getting to know each other if we had never met before. If it's with an artist, then I can really sort of figure out where they're at in their lives in that moment and what they want to talk about. Oftentimes if they're in the middle of working on an album, I'll say, "Well, what kind of vibe are you lacking, you know, like, Do you need something up tempo? Do you need a ballad?" More often than not, my role is sort of always changing as a collaborator. Sometimes if I'm writing with somebody who's already a really strong songwriter, then I might just say, "Hey, how can I help? Is there any way I can help you with anything you've already got started?" Sometimes it's like more of a song doctoring role. And sometimes, we're starting something from the ground up together. It's just always different. And my function and role in each collaboration is always changing. I like it that way. I mean, because I'm a producer as well. So I understand construction of songs and music, and but I'm also a lyricist. I never want to be overbearing, and I always just want to figure out what is the way that I can best serve whoever I'm working with in that particular scenario. So this writing for this movie, I think had a little bit of all of those pieces of what I do available for me to work in.

Have you ever had this buzzy have an award season? What does it mean to you to be considered for so many prestigious honors?

I'd never won an award before in my life for writing songs. The only award that I ever won was when I was in a band right after high school, and we did a battle of the bands. And I won Best vocalist and that was at a high school in Nashville. So that was a long time ago. But no, I'd never received these types of accolades for my writing, and this whole award season thing is very foreign to me. You know, in the music world, we pretty much have the one big one, we've got the Grammys and as, as a kid growing up, that was the ultimate goal.

This has just been really fun. It's like, opened my eyes up to a whole different universe and never in a million years would I have thought I would be nominated for a Golden Globe Award or, or Critics Choice-I mean, none of it even had crossed my mind before because, I don't really know why, but I just hadn't really considered the song part being available in that realm. So it's just been incredibly exciting. I mean, this is a very fun business, I'm finding out. Ever since we finished the song and I found out that it was officially going in the movie, it's just been like a nonstop ride ever since. That was such a huge victory to me. I didn't even think about awards, it was just the fact that I had had put so much time and effort and work and really exhausted myself to try and get this song to where it needed to be to ultimately get chosen to be in the film, that just felt like a victory to me enough. And I was very happy with that. And then yeah, and then these critics awards started popping up and we started winning them. And then we won the Music City Film Critics, and that was a huge deal for me, being a Nashvillian. I think that my work on this song is some of the best work I've ever done. Had I not felt the pressure that I did, because the movie was so incredible, I don't think that I would have pushed myself as hard as I did to find something really special. I like to be pushed, I like to be stretched, I like to find new things out about my abilities and capabilities, as a creator. And so working on this project really did that for me. Getting to win an award or get nominated for these prestigious awards - it's really hard to wrap my head around it, honestly. It's kind of shocking. And very exciting.

Take me through the process of writing "Speak Now". So if you could talk a little bit about how you worked with Leslie on on FaceTime? And then tell me, did your thoughts and feelings change as you were writing the song?

Yeah, yes, absolutely. My thoughts and feelings changed. And mostly because in the very beginning, I didn't really know what my thoughts and feelings were after watching the movie several times-there was too much to take away from it to try and think about. It'd be one thing if I was going to write an essay about it, but we had to write a three to five minute song at the most and encapsulate everything, so it really took time to narrow that down. I had the "listen" and the "speak" parts of the song-so the chorus being speak now-and in every verse, a "Listen."

That was what I knew for certain. I felt I felt very confident about the mix of listen and speak now. My thoughts and feelings changed as I was writing the verses because I had really filled in the verses with so much more poetry and, and much more ethereal lyrics. And there wasn't that much to grab onto other than "listen, listen, listen" and "speak now" in the chorus. I knew that there needed to be a real sense of urgency to it, I feel that if this had happened in any other time in any other year, I don't know that I would have felt that sense of urgency. So "can you hear the bells ringing out", that to me is like, when you hear church bells or clock bells there's a feeling something is happening and I need to listen. And so I was certain that it really needed to have a sense of urgency. Once Leslie and I had our session together, he was able to really tell me a lot. There was a line in one of the verses in the last, I think it's the last verse, but where he is talking about the legacy that he wanted to leave for his children. We were talking about how we both have kids, and we're both talking about how our lives are the example that we leave for our kids. The line "the children will grow on the seeds that we sow, they listen" - that's the only time in the song where another word is added to the "Listen, listen, listen." So it's like the children will grow on the seeds that we sow because they listen, they're watching us, and we have to be what we want to see in the world, we have to be that for them. So that the next generation comes up and has had a real example of what we dream and wish for, for the world.

We talked a lot about the influence of these four men that are in the film, and how their words and their lives and their example-how it's all still in the air, because of the greatness that they left behind. Jim Brown is still with us, but I'm talking about Malcolm X and Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali. The references to the messages of ghosts and the martyrs praying is this idea that the good work we want to do is being is being championed from the ethos. We can take that inspiration and infuse it into everything that we're doing, that example has been set for us, and we want to set the example for the next generation.

What has been the most meaningful part of this collaborative process for you?

The most meaningful part? I think that even though Leslie and I had written songs together before and had made an album together, this process definitely brought us closer for sure. For me, I'd say the most meaningful part of this has been the ability to create the song for such a meaningful project. The meaning has come from being able to be a part of something that was already incredibly meaningful. That has awakened something new in me that I that I had not felt in a long time. Ever since finishing this song, I've felt like a different songwriter. I've felt like I'm moving into a new phase of my craft. So it taught me a lot. I worked harder on this song than any song I've ever worked on in all my years of writing. There's a lot of meaning in that for me, because I'm always trying to figure out how I can be better. What do I really want to be doing? What do I really love to do in this business of music? Every year of my career has just been trying to drill down deeper towards what that is, what is the truest form of myself as a songwriter and music maker. And I think that this whole experience has been so meaningful because it helped me and pushed me to the next phase. I'm writing more on my own now. I'm writing just more in general and loving what I'm doing more than ever before. So I think the collaboration, the experience, the film, all of it has had a huge impact on me.

Okay, last question. Okay, what do you hope audiences and listeners take away from Speak Now in the context of the film and in the greater context of the world?

I think that all I can hope for, as a songwriter, and I believe that Leslie would feel the same-all we can hope for is that it will play some small part in making people think a little bit more, a little bit longer, listen a little bit more, and listen a little bit deeper. And to try and understand the differences that we have as people. It's human nature to just talk over each other, it's a bad habit that everyone falls into at some point. The power of being able to listen intently and deeply to one another to try and understand each other's situations, feelings, ideals, it's an incredibly powerful thing. It's really the only way for us to, to move forward as a culture. The idea of "speak now", the now is in there very intentionally because it needs to feel urgent. When you see systemic issues, racism, just so much tragedy out there-we can't wait. We don't live in a time where we can just be silent about these things, you know, whether that's sharing things on social media, if that's your way of speaking now then great. But we all have to do our part to shed light on how to make our world a better place and how to make it more livable for each other, for all races, for all orientations. I think that no song can change the world. But I want to be someone who at least tries to put good out there and at least tries to put truth out there. And I just hope that whoever hears this song can be lifted up by it or challenged by it, even in the tiniest way because that will have an impact on their lives.


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