For Andra Day, singing and writing songs is how she finds freedom and redemption… especially after admitting that she was the villain in her first break-up.
“On Cheers To The Fall, I’m talking about an eight-year relationship I was in with a great guy but I cheated on him and broke his heart,” she says matter-of-factly. “Then I got my heart broken. It was hard to live with the guilt but that’s how I learned my lesson.”
There are innumerable songs about heartbreak from the perspective of a person’s whose heart has been broken but not so much from the person doing the damage. But through writing songs, reading books, and prayer, Andra realized that she had a purpose, to save herself.
“I had to learn how destructive being selfish was and the real meaning of forgiveness,” she says. “Other people who’ve done what I’ve done need to know that your worst action isn’t the end, there is hope.”
For this woman with a throwback voice in a modern era, it’s her truth that may set you free.
Growing up in sun-drenched Southern California was wonderful, says Andra, but not without its share of characters.
“I grew up in Southeast San Diego and there were artists and gangs, but it’s also one of those places where everybody knows everybody,” the singer-songwriter says. “It’s a strong family environment and you’re raised by your family and your peers so my community comes through my music.”
As a kid, she sang in the church choir and studied, dance, theater and music at the School of Creative and Performing Arts. By 16 years old, Andra knew she wanted to sing professionally.
“When I graduated from SCPA, I did pop and R&B stuff, but then I started to lean back to my jazz and soul roots,” she admits. “I began pulling from things I loved as a kid, not just musically but stylistically too. It was a cocktail of inspiration.”
Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Etta James, Lauryn Hill and Janis Joplin were the women whose voices spoke to Andra and her own raspy, full-bodied alto. Specifically, listening to the High Priestess of Soul, the young singer felt Simone had poured her very being into records like “Mississippi Goddam.” She aimed to make her own work mixture of light and darkness, just as those who preceded her.
“When I started this album, I prayed about it—before I write anything, I pray about it—and was instructed to tell the whole truth and not sugarcoat it,” Andra says. “I’ve been hurt but I’ve also made mistakes. I’ve been selfish and I want to share the ugliness that most people tuck away. I’m working to be just completely open in my music.”
But Day also wants her listeners to be gentle with themselves and others.
“I want to inspire people to tell the truth with any and everything that they do, whether personal, political or spiritual,” she explains. “But also to be merciful to others who are doing the same thing. We all have our own vices we’d rather hide, so I’d like to inspire people to do more self-examination and forgive one another.”
Andra learned early that sharing her voice could only bring great things, especially after she, at 30-years young, had a chance encounter with Stevie Wonder’s wife Kai. Mrs. Wonder heard the SoCal native singing at a local store opening and shared her music with the author of Innervisions, then Stevie himself reached out.
“It was surreal,” Andra recalls.
Wonder put her in touch with songwriter-producer Adrian Gurvitz, who has worked with Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Nicks and contributed to the chart-topping The Bodyguard soundtrack. Nine months later, Andra joined Gurvitz and his partner Jeffrey Evans’ label, Buskin Records, in 2011 and got to work.
Now, after building a following on YouTube with left-of-center covers of artists like Eminem and Muse, as well as recording tracks with Ziggy Marley and the Dap-Kings, Andra is gearing up to release her debut album Cheers To The Fall via Buskin and Warner Bros. Records on this fall. On the way to release, heavy-weight soul man Raphael Saadiq joined her in the studio to sharpen the nearly 40 songs she and Gurvitz had created together.
“When I first met Raphael, I was intimidated because I grew up listening to his music,” she says. The feeling didn’t last long: “He got me to experiment but he was also very nurturing with the songs I’d created and [had] become so close to,” Andra muses.. “He really made me feel like family.”
Highlights from Cheers To The Fall include the lush “Only Love” which sees Andra ruminating over the nature of love and how it can “break your heart like poisonous darts.” Meanwhile, on the starkly personal “Gold,” she laments picking the wrong guy and “playing wifey to a kid” over double drums and a fuzzy chorus. “City Burns” is similarly honest, showcasing Andra’s powerful songwriting as well as her jazz influences. Then there’s “Rise Up”, a true fighter’s anthem. It’s a pep talk on wax, backed by a stirring piano arrangement.
The title track “Cheers To The Fall” is a bit autobiographical, as she sings that giving up is way harder than not trying, a testament to how far the SCPA student has come. “Cheers to the Fall is based on a true story. It’s a biography told in the form of soul music. The themes within the story are truth, fearlessness, vulnerability, forgiveness and love.”
The singer-songwriter’s first single is called “Forever Mine,” and Spike Lee jumped on board to direct its music video after the two crossed paths at the Sundance Film Festival during the winter of 2015.
Andra describes “Forever Mine” as a love song written to God about her spiritual relationship, which strengthened throughout the ending of her eight-year relationship with her first love. But it’s also an head-nodding, finger-snapping doo-wop song with a vintage, cinematic feel.
Enter Spike Lee. Andra recalls meeting the director before she took the stage in Park City. “We had a little friendly banter before I went on,” she says, “but right before I was about to perform he yelled out, ‘You better represent!’ I started sweating buckets, but I kept it real smooth so he wouldn't be able to tell. When I came off stage he asked who was doing the first video, I said no one and he basically said, ‘I am.’"
“‘The video’s concept is [about] me in the box installation at Hollywood’s Standard Hotel,” she explains. “The box represents my sanctuary. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is pray, confess and be still, so that box [is] that space where all of my creativity,comes to me. Then I see people and life through that space.”
Andra adds, From Spike, I’ve learned that simplicity is a very powerful thing. You don't need much to convey a message.”
Lee wasn’t the only early adopter to Andra’s talent. She’s performed around the world alongside artists like ?uestlove, Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige, and garnered the attention of diehard music fan Ellen DeGeneres. Andra’s also contributed to the soundtrack for the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, singing “Mississippi Goddam” alongside rapper J. Cole’s rhymes on the track. GAP included the singer-songwriter in their 2014 international #SummerLove campaign thanks to her signature rockabilly style. The look has been an integral piece of her creative genetics since her teenage years.
“In school, we studied jazz as well as a lot of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s and I was drawn to that era’s style,” she says, referencing her ever-present scarf and red lipstick. “There was also a teacher at SCPA named Mrs. Stewart who had this cool style I loved.. I realized [rockabilly] was a subculture here in Southern California and I just loved how highly stylized the style icons all were, like Billie Holiday and Lena Horne, Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball.”
With a vintage flair and a voice for the ages, Andra Day is ready to take her place in the pantheon of soulful vocalists and deliver her truth to the world