Who is Andra Day? Some might say “the Black Amy Winehouse,” or “the next Eartha Kitt.” The San Diego-born singer/songwriter—with her wry vocals, the silk bandana in her hair and her wide hoop earrings—may reach back to a forgone time when doo-wop, jazz and blues moved the musical needle. But she’s her own artist with both feet planted firmly in the present.
Day’s debut album, Cheers to the Fall, is a testament to her magnetism, not to mention to her infamous YouTube channel chockfull of unique covers of Lionel Richie, Jessie J, Florence + the Machine, and even the Notorious B.I.G.! Her hefty voice drew the attention of Stevie Wonder, Cheers to the Fall co-producer Raphael Saadiq, members of The Roots (Questlove and keyboardist James Poyser play on selected tracks), and even Spike Lee (director of “Forever Mine” music video).
Despite the star-studded affair, it’s Day’s songwriting that makes the album stand out. Within a bed of liquid, melancholic melodies, somber piano lines and redemptive strings, her willingness to expose personal tales of infidelity (“Gold”), yearning (“Forever Mine”) and addiction (“Gin and Juice”) speaks to her bravery and ability to connect with the people.
EBONY: When did you realize that you had this unique voice?
Andra Day: I think it was over a period of time, actually. I knew that I could sing when I was young. I would listen to a lot of jazz; I’m a big jazz fan. When I first got to high school and studied musical theater, I could sing. But I added certain things to my voice, and I realized after graduating high school that this is the kind of voice I had. It’s not very nimble but it’s heavy.
EBONY: Who were some of those jazz artists that influenced you?
AD: Billie Holiday is pretty much number one. Nina Simone is another one. Dinah Washington, I loved her versatility. I remember hearing their voices for the first time and thinking how completely in contrast they were to these big powerhouse Delta singers that would use their inner voice that would croak through the speakers. I just remembered that they reached out and grabbed me.
EBONY: Billie, Nina and Dinah were jazz singers with blues tendencies, and Cheers to the Fall has a blues undercurrent.
AD: That’s why I loved Dinah Washington. She sung jazz but they called her the Queen of the Blues. She had the control and sophistication of jazz in her note selection and how to attack a song or certain lines, but then attacked it with a painful force of blues behind it. That’s why I admired her so much, because of that versatility.
EBONY: It’s said that Stevie Wonder’s wife discovered you at a performance and told him about you. Do you remember that performance?
AD: Yeah, I do. Actually, that was in front of a strip mall in Malibu. It was a very low key, tiny performance with only a handful of people there. Somebody recorded it and she’d heard a clip of the recording that she liked. She played it for Stevie and he said, “get her on the phone.”
EBONY: Stevie actually spoke with you?
AD: Yes! That was a really surreal moment. I was living in this tiny, tiny studio apartment with my mom at the time and he reached out and talked about how he wanted to record a song together. My mom asked who is it, I said, “I’m on the phone with Stevie Wonder,” and she said “You are a liar and a half!” [laughs] It was amazing. It didn’t work out at the time, but he held onto my information, and a year later they reached out to me to see if I was available to work, and I was. That’s when Stevie brought to me up to L.A. to meet with the producer of my album, Adrian Gurvitz. It actually worked out very well.
EBONY: Your YouTube channel has some eclectic songs, from Lionel Richie to Eminem. Tell me about the song selection process and how it helped build your audience.
AD: We’d basically finished the album at that point . You get out of something what you put into it, so we sat down and decided, “let’s do some YouTube covers to engage the audience, to see how they felt about me as a singer.” Some people would suggest songs to me, like “Big Poppa” and Eminem [“Lose Yourself”]. I love hip-hop and everybody knows that. It was all really about picking songs that weren’t necessarily in my lane, but that I could make into something in my lane, putting my stamp on it as an artist.”
EBONY: How did Raphael Saadiq get involved with the project, and how was it collaborating with him?
AD: It was amazing. He came into the project later. Actually I was a little reluctant, because I was really loving where things were fitting. So people said, “you want to try this person? that person?” and I said no. Then my day-to-day manager said, “How about Raphael Saadiq?” I said, “There’s no way we could get Raphael Saadiq, but I’d love to get his spin on some of these songs and do some other stuff with him.” In my mind, it was like, “What if we get the president?” and I’m like, “Whatever.” But they sent him the music and he loved it and said, “I want to work with her.” So we got in the studio. As far as creating music goes, it was so organic, easy and natural. He was so nurturing and we’d start writing songs together.
EBONY: One of those songs is “Gin and Juice,” which you said once was inspired by a scripture: Romans 7:19. How does religion play a role in your artistry?
AD: It’s more than just a role; it really is who I am. It’s a means and the end. I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities and so many amazing things throughout this process. But all the while, I remember that the reason that I’m here and the reason that I do music and tell these stories is that people come to know the love the God that I know.
It’s to talk about the things we all deal with, the addictions that we struggle with, be it substance, alcohol or sex. We don’t have to be ashamed to talk about these things because they’re all very real. “Gin and Juice” is one of those things. For me at the time, it was a sexual thing, that thing that holds onto you that you don’t want to engage in, but for some reason I continue to go back to the same thing even though I feel like it’s hurting me.
EBONY: You wrote all the songs on Cheers to the Fall. How did you develop your writing?
AD: Early on, it was an arduous process for me. When I was young, I hadn’t experienced a ton of life and I didn’t quite see the value in it. It wasn’t until this album cycle that I really sat down and really prayed about what am I going to write about, what am I going to tell. That’s when I realized that I’m a storyteller, because I was really telling the story of my life over the past 13 years. I said I’m going to be completely frank, honest and tell it in clever ways. Songwriting, in the past couple years, I truly, truly enjoy it, but I realize that I have to experience something in order to tell its story.
EBONY: Tell me about your wardrobe. It ties together very well with your musical style.
AD: It’s a definitely a mirror to the style of music, and I’m kind of obsessed with anything from mid 20th century—not just in music, but it’s cinema and everything from 1950s and 1960s pop culture that I love. When I was young, I’d see rockabilly sub-culture in Southern California. And I see women dress like that all the time, because my father would take me to car shows where they’d have all these classic cars, and leaning on the front of the car would be women in victory roles with her hair tied up in a bandana. I just remember them looking amazing. So since I was 21, it grew. And then I started adding my own style to it. I like a lot of chunky jewelry from the 1970s. I was established in the 1950s and I dragged through the decades, picked up a couple things and I was dropped here. [laughs]
EBONY: Do you think it’s limiting your reach when you’re referred to as a “retro” or “throwback”?
AD: I don’t think any artist likes the idea of boxes, but it’s never bothered me. I just feel like we make music that hopefully transcends and people can identify with it. I love it, to be honest. It’s those actual classic records that I listen to, so I love when people say that, and I don’t think it’s limiting at all. If you just go in and try to make good music, classic music, then whatever labels people put on it, it’s their interpretation.
See Andra Day at this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade next Thursday.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.