The first words that play over the end credits of Regina King’s One Night in Miami — listen, listen, listen — make for an apt closing to a film that lets viewers in on conversations between four iconic men over the course of an evening, as they discuss race, politics and entertainment in the 1960s. Sung by Tony Award-winner Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Sam Cooke in the movie, “Speak Now” was written by Odom Jr and Sam Ashworth, in the hope it would allow the film’s message to linger with those who see it.
Ashworth had written with Odom Jr previously, on the first album the Hamilton alum released of original songs, 2019’s Mr. Their working relationship had already been established, with sessions that started at Skywalker Ranch and developed in studio, long before they came together for “Speak Now.” It has garnered much awards buzz, including Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award nominations, and has been shortlisted for the Oscars. “There was a lot of trust there already,” Ashworth tells American Songwriter. “He already knew what I could do, musically, and the places that I could go. And I had a strong sense of what he liked.”
The Nashville-based songwriter, who broke into songwriting at 17 with the track “I Won’t Stay Long” for Sixpence None the Richer, had been asked by music supervisor Randall Poster to take a shot at the track that would play over the end of King’s directorial feature debut. As a musician who’s released four solo projects, sung background vocals and played in sessions for the likes of Norah Jones, and collaborated with his fellow singer-songwriter wife, Ruby Amanfu, Ashworth had a range that made him more than up for the task. Still, he knew preparation would be key.
“The nerves were immediate because the movie was so powerful,” says Ashworth, about watching a screener of the film for the first time. The song was to come after Sam Cooke, Odom Jr, sings “A Change is Gonna Come.” A daunting task, Ashworth realized, but one he wanted to take on and so he began asking himself what the role of the song would be. “Are we answering [A Change is Gonna Come]? Is it an extension of that song?” he says. “Out of a movie with so much rich conversation and so many topics, how do we dwindle that all down into a three-and-a-half/four-minute song?”
It took a few days before he was able to feel ready to lock himself in his Nashville studio and work on it. “There was just so much to say,” says Ashworth. He started by letting the final scenes of the movie play onscreen, while he played with his guitar. “When I write, I’ve got to get my head around the framing of the house, and to me, that’s tempo. What is the vibe, tempo-wise?” It’s a method that has served him well. Ashworth earned his first Grammy nomination producing for Michael W Smith and more recently, a Song of the Year nod for co-writing H.E.R’s “Hard Place.”
Ashworth moved from guitar, the instrument he’s most familiar with, to piano, playing with the melody and words that first came to him. “I’m not a piano player, I don’t play for people in public,” he says. “But it inspires different things. I’ve been playing guitar for a long time so it’s easy to get into a habit there.” ‘Listen’ was the word that swirled around his head for a while, before the chorus came. “I wrote the verses but knew the lyrics weren’t right,” he adds.
He got onto a FaceTime call with Odom Jr. “With him having spent so much time becoming Sam Cooke in the movie, and living inside of that script, I knew that he held the answers to what we needed. That it wouldn’t be what it needed to be, without a heavy stamp from him,” says Ashworth.
Ashworth and Odom Jr spent some time talking about how much to lean into Sam Cooke’s style. One of the other songs that’s mentioned in the film is Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” so there were discussions about the influence of that. “A lot of the lines came out of that conversation, him talking about what kind of legacy he wants to leave his children,” says Ashworth. “There’s the line in the final verse, For the children will grow on the seeds that we sow, They listen, they listen, that was one of those that came from what he was wanting to say.”
To finish the track, Ashworth immersed himself in the task completely. “Which is kind of an unusual thing, because I usually am able to compartmentalize a little bit better when I’m working on pop music,” he says. But he was driven by the song’s message. “What sort of drives me nuts most of the time is the lack of listening,” he says. “I don’t think enough people listen, and I, for one, know that I’m guilty of that as well. And so, a lot of times when I write, it’s because I need to hear things as well.”
“We’re in such a great awakening of a time right now, and, and I want that time to continue as long as possible. I want this to keep growing — where we’re listening to each other and when we’re seeing wrong, we’re calling it out and not being silent and not just standing in the shadows and going ‘Well, that’s not my problem,’” It’s a message he and Odom Jr share through the song. “We’ve got to speak to up, and at the same time, we need to listen intently to each other. Or else nothing’s ever going to change.”