Get Familiar: Andra Day Is A Big Voice In Bloom
As the summer months draw to a close, temperatures slowly transition from upper 80s down into the high 60s. Tree leaves tint, brown and fall from their branches into heaps on the floor. This change of scenery signals the ushering in of autumn and the time for Andra Day’s debut album, Cheers to the Fall, to flourish. The 14-track album—which features production from Adrian Gurvitz, Raphael Saadiq, and ?uestlove—is audio documentation of the Warner Bros. singer’s years before this shining moment. In the extremely honest LP, Day frees all the stories stored on her heart, including the time she was the reason for a relationship gone awry.
Cheers to the Fall, out today (Aug. 28), is definitely a body of work that sticks out like a sore thumb alongside some of the major music releases of 2015, and that’s a great thing. It signifies timelessness, embodying all the things to love about nostalgia when it comes to vintage-style music. As evidenced by standout tracks “Only Love,” “Not Today,” “Rise Up” and the single “Forever Mine,” her sound stems directly from blues, jazz and soul. The project attracts ears familiar with the power and melancholy texture of Amy Winehouse’s voice mixed with the grandiose nature of a Broadway showgirl.
And the beauty of it all is that Day is still a talent slowly by surely being discovered by the masses. Her growth is clear as her last name. This summer alone, Day has been spending her time getting the nation familiar with her pipes at Essence Music Festival, the Special Olympics, Cannes Lions, Life Is Beautiful Festival and the BET Experience. Now, she’s embarking on her first national tour opening up for 11 shows on Lenny Kravitz’s Strut Tour, which goes on until mid-September.
The blossoming singer sat down with VIBE to talk about her approach to the project, feeling blessed by her influential supporters and where she sees herself and her career in a few years.
VIBE: Tell us about your entry point into music. How did you get into it and who introduced you to it? Do you have a musical background in your family?
Andra Day: My family wasn’t in the music business, but they loved music. My father loved music. He loved Motown and R&B, and my mother loved Journey and Fleetwood Mac, so they were always listening to it and playing it. Then, I went to a performing arts school when I was young and that’s when I really got into jazz, Billie Holiday and those sorts of voices. When I attended that school, I was about 11 years old.
How would you describe your sound or the type of music that you’re attracted to making?
If I had to put a label on it, I would call it soul music. I like big voices like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, so listening to those records when I was in school really attracted my ear. But when I got older, people were like we have to do pop music or R&B. But my voice didn’t really fit, so it was like, why can’t I do certain things? I questioned if I was good at this. Then I found my pocket. So I try not to box it in too much, but this first album is a mix of a lot of different things. Jazz is really the core of it.
Which is a welcome change to the scope of music right now. What was the first show that you ever did that let you know that this is the profession for you? Was it during school for school or separate?
Definitely during school, but probably even way earlier. Originally, I started doing music while I was young, but I was a dancer for a very long time, too.
What kind of dance?
I started in ballet, tap and jazz. So I thought, maybe I’ll be a dancer and go to Julliard. But really performing on that stage let me know that I wanted to be a performer in some capacity. Then doing shows when I went to a school called School for Creative and Performing Arts in San Diego, doing shows there and on the side like Babes in Arms and Gypsy. Doing that really solidified for me that I want to be a performer.
Do you not get stage fright anymore, or have you ever?
I still do. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but I still get it at random times. I’ll get stage fright maybe before I go on stage, but then sometimes I’ll get it as I’m already three or four songs into the set. I’m like, why? I should be fully comfortable on this stage! But it’s fleeting; it goes away quickly.
Tell us about Cheers to the Fall.
The album is a lot about not being seized up by fear. For me, telling the truth is one of those things. I always think how people can jump out of airplanes and climb mountains, but being vulnerable and telling the whole truth while allowing yourself to be judged or criticized is one of the scariest things to do. That’s something I had to do because I wasn’t living right. I was in a relationship and I was unfaithful to him and being very reckless with his emotions. It was kind of going through that, feeling guilty, getting my heart broken and understanding the weight of this which was really heavy. Having to take that storm, face it, and look at it to say, dang, this is who I was. Growing from it was a scary thing, but the freedom that I experienced on the other side of that is something I’ll never go back from. No matter the criticism or the backlash. So it’s really about truth, vulnerability and fearlessness.
It’s kind of cool how you said the opposite situation of what a lot of people experience.
Yeah, I tell people it’s heartbreak told from the other side of the story. The funny thing is that I prayed about what I was going to write before I even started this album. I felt God was just telling me to tell the truth, but the whole thing. Don’t shy away from even the shameful stuff because there are people out there experiencing this and feel like there is no redemption or moving on from that guilt for them.
Who have you worked with for this album? Not just on the singing side, but production and guidance.
There’s a few cool features on the album, but they are very subtle. I didn’t want it to be full of all these names. It’s a story, not a biography, and I want it to be told that way. Adrian Gurvitz was one of the producers I worked on with it and Raphael Saadiq as well, which was amazing. Questlove is on it. Jazzy Jeff is on it. There are very random features on it, but people that I love. Stevie Wonder is on a record as well, too, but subtle.
Did you reach out to them, did they reach out to you, or was it a mutual circumstance?
A little bit of both. For some of them, it was us reaching out. James Poyser from The Roots is on the record as well, and he wanted to work on a few records with me. So, that’s how it came about. I loved working with him. I wasn’t actually in the studio when Questlove was drumming; Poyser and him put that together. Then, with Stevie, he and his wife discovered me. He brought me to the producer that I worked on the project with. He introduced me to him, we worked on the album, and then he had his harmonica. There’s a harmonica feature on one of the songs. With Raphael, it was wanting to reshape the album and refocus some of the music. They asked me, ‘Who do you love, who do you admire, or who would you love to work with?’ He was the person that I brought up, and he was willing to do it. He was like, ‘I just like your voice, I want to work with you.’ What we came up with was great. I’m really excited about it.
Have you gotten any other major cosigns from other artists that have just said that they like what you’re doing?
Being asked that question, I think back like, wow, it really is a blessing. You don’t expect these things. The first music video for “Forever Mine” was directed by Spike Lee. We were at Sundance just having a friendly banter backstage, and he’s like, ‘You better kill it when you get on stage!’ And I’m already so nervous because I’m in the lineup with Erykah Badu, Common—crazy. When I came offstage, he liked it and he asked me, ‘Who’s directing the first video?’ and I’m like, ‘Maybe you!’ So, he directed the first video that we did at the Standard hotel. Michael Ealy is another one who’s a big supporter. We worked together for the 24 Hour Plays show that we did together. Aloe Blacc is a huge supporter. Friend, really. Oh, Erykah Badu, she called me the B-word—it was great. In a good way. Someone told me when I was on stage singing that she was like, “That’s that b**ch.” So, I’m like I will hang on to that! So, Erykah, Quest, and Patti LaBelle. I couldn’t believe meeting her, but it’s been really cool.
Taking a step back to the video, what was the concept of “Forever Mine?”
First, I was completely opposed to doing it in “Da Box” because he said, “Meet us at The Standard [Hotel] we have an idea to go into this box and do it there.” When I walked in, I’m like, this is objectification of women! This is crazy! But then we talked about it and he asked me, “What can it mean to you?” And we came to the conclusion that “Da Box” is actually my sanctuary, and it represented going through all of those experiences in life and finding my faith in a relationship with God. Every morning I wake up and I do devotion time. I pray, read the word and then creative stuff happens here. Problem solving and all of that comes into that space. So “Da Box” actually represents my sanctuary and that time. I might look trapped in a box, but I’m actually more free in that box than anyone on the outside looking in, or in any other space in my life. That is when I’m the most candid, the most honest, the most open and the most free. My role in the short film is a box girl; I’m the employee.
And what about the exchange with the guy at the bar?
He’s really like a patron. He had me sit down and speak with one of the employees there and she said she had people come in on her shift regularly and just sit there and watch her the whole time. When she leaves, they get up and leave. He was portraying that. It was an analysis of people, and also my perspective on those things.
Any dream collaborations?
Now, the whole Stevie Wonder thing or Questlove thing would have been a dream. Still, to do more work together would be amazing. Lauryn Hill would be amazing. Also, there’s two new girls I really love. Laura Mvula, she is incredible. Then, Alessia Cara. She’s really good. I heard a song that from her that someone played for me, and the lyrics were just amazing. It spelled out everything that I was thinking in that moment. It was really good. And I would love to do something with Nas.
What were the last three songs or the last three albums you’ve listened to?
I’ve listened to a lot of gospel lately. So, I listened to Tye Tribbett’s “Better.” Israel Houghton’s “Moving Forward” is another one. The last one is Alessia Cara’s “Here.” I don’t know if that’s an album yet. I believe she only has a single right now.
Where do you see yourself in the next two years and then the next five years?
In the next two years, I’m hoping to be touring and hopefully a successful one. I just want the music to be growing, knowing that people are enjoying the message, and that it’s reaching people. I’m very much a proponent of taking time to live and to experience before just diving into the next project, so the next 2-3 years will be touring, building a fanbase. Then, taking a break to live and experience before diving into the next thing I give you guys. In the next five years, I hope to be starting work on my second album. And then just getting more involved in the organizations I work with as well. Then, doing God’s work.
Lastly, for the people that don’t know you yet, why should they listen to you now?
[Because of] the themes of the album both musically and lyrically: truth, vulnerability and fearlessness. Lyrically, I say it’s an autobiography told in the form of 13 soul music songs and then there’s a story that’s hopefully healing and encouraging for people. Musically, I try not to box things in. I try to just play around this spectrum of influences: soul, jazz, and hip-hop. That melds together nicely with the producers I worked with.