Andra Day rises up to music stardom
How dizzying have the last six months been for fast-rising singer and songwriter Andra Day, who delivered a standout performance during the 2016 Grammy Awards telecast last week?
“There’s been a lot to process and absorb!” said the 2003 San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts graduate, who performs a homecoming concert Tuesday at Observatory North Park.
Indeed, many music-biz veterans would be envious about the events that followed the Aug. 28 release of her 2015 Warner Bros. debut album, the vintage-soul-, jazz-, blues-, doo-wop- and gospel-fueled “Cheers to the Fall.”
In August and September, the smoky-voiced Day did her first national tour, opening for Lenny Kravitz.
In October, she performed her inspirational song “Rise Up” at the White House. Her appearance accompanied first lady Michelle Obama announcing “Better Make Room,” a public awareness campaign for teenagers to embrace education.
In November, Day sang the gospel-drenched “Rise Up” again, this time as a duet with the vocally outclassed Nick Jonas, on the A&E TV special “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America.” She held her own alongside headliners Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys and John Legend.
In November and December, Day co-starred in an Apple TV commercial with Stevie Wonder, singing his lilting 1967 ballad “Someday at Christmas.” Wonder, who was instrumental in encouraging Day early in her career, plays harmonica on a song on her album.
Andra Day, with special guest
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Observatory North Park, 2891 University Ave., North Park
Tickets: $20 (attendees under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian)
On Dec. 7, barely a month after her sold-out San Diego show at the Casbah, Day earned two Grammy Award nominations: Best R&B Performance (for “Rise Up”); and Best R&B Album (for “Cheers to the Fall”).
“It’s all been really exciting, but I’m just continuing to put one foot in front of the other,” she said Friday from New York, where she was shooting an eight-page photo spread for InStyle magazine.
Day didn’t win a Grammy. But she sang “Rise Up” with such élan and passion that she stood out in a big way at the Grammys. After the telecast, online streams of her music on Pandora jumped by 661 percent, surpassing the concurrent Pandora surges for 2016 Grammy performers Lionel Richie, Alabama Shakes, Little Big Town and Bonnie Raitt.
“There was a moment during the Grammys when my father clasped my hand and said: ‘This is crazy!’ And it was!” Day, 31, said. “I thought of all my years of working at this, trying to do this, making music, growing and trying to establish myself. And I thought about my parents’ support, and how they went with me to every singing, acting and modeling audition I did.
“When you’re getting ready to go onstage at the Grammys, well, I’m a very spiritual person. And being there made me feel like there was a (divine) plan.”
Day, whose 2016 winter tour kicks off Monday in San Francisco, will have more to reflect on soon.
On Wednesday, she performed at the White House with Usher, Demi Lovato, The Band Perry and an all-star lineup to film “Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House.” It debuts Friday on PBS.
Next Wednesday, Day performs at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, with Elton John and Katy Perry, at Hillary Clinton’s “I’m With Her” concert.
This spring, Day will be one of the faces of fashion designer Marc Jacobs’ spring collection marketing campaign. Then comes more touring, including summer dates at such major music festivals as Bonnaroo and Sasquatch.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Day said.
Born in Washington state, Cassandra Monique “Andra” Batie (Day is her stage name) moved to San Diego when she was 3.
“I always loved music and was drawn to it and affected by it,” Day said. “But it wasn’t until I got to San Diego that I started exploring music more. The elementary school I went to, Valencia Park, was focused on the arts.”
She honed her vocal chops singing gospel music at First United Methodist Church in Chula Vista. Day began studying dance at age 5, and continued doing so for two decades. She also dabbled in musical theater, a pursuit unrelated to the first concert she attended here as a teenager, by NSYNC, at the invitation of a friend.
Day’s musical epiphany came at 12 when she was introduced to the work of such iconic jazz singers as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
“Hearing those voices ... I was like: ‘Wow! I want to do stuff like this, stuff with that impact,’” recalled Day, whose best songs about heartbreak and resilience evoke Holiday and Nina Simone.
“When I graduated at 18, I heard from people who said: ‘You gotta do straight-ahead pop and R&B to make it.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m young, I’ll try it out.’ But my voice didn’t quite fit in those places. So I started to incorporate what I loved - jazz, blues, soul - at the core of the music I make.”
She got her first break six years ago, when Stevie Wonder’s then-wife, Kai Millard Morris, saw a YouTube video of Day singing at a strip mall. Impressed, Morris had Wonder listen to the video. He then phoned her to suggest they collaborate.
“I was living with my mom in a tiny apartment in Chula Vista, near Third and H Street behind the 7-Eleven,” Day recalled. “It was crazy to be on the phone with Stevie Wonder. I felt like a meteor hit our apartment!”
Wonder turned out to be too busy to team up then. But, 18 months later, he introduced her to veteran producer Adrian Gurvitz, who ended up collaborating on much of Day’s debut album. She got an album deal with Warner Bros., in part, because of the buzz from the memorable unplugged music performances she filmed in her sister’s San Diego bedroom and posted on Facebook.
Gurvitz proved to be an instantly compatible collaborator for Day. As a guitarist in England in the 1960s, he and his brother, Paul, led the band Gun. In the 70’s, the Gurvitz brothers co-led a band with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker.
Adrian Gurvitz moved to the U.S. in the 1980s and has since worked with artists as varied as Wonder, former Journey singer Steve Perry, Youssou N’Dour, CeCe Wynans, Eddie Money and Pixie Lott. He also wrote the song “Even if My Heart Would Break,” which was recorded by Aaron Neville and Kenny G, and was featured on “The Bodyguard,” one of the best-selling film soundtrack albums of all time.
“Working with Adrian was really incredible, because he was already a rock star by the time he was 19,” Day said. “And he played with everybody - Ginger Baker, Buddy Miles, Jimi Hendrix - so he comes from this legendary world of music. To have have that depth in the recording studio, when we were creating my album, have us a collaborative energy that was really invaluable.”
Day laughed when asked if singing with Wonder on “Someday at Christmas” was intimidating, exciting, or a combination of the two?
“Working with him on the Apple commercial was just amazing!” she said. “You would think it would be more intimidating. You know what? I was intimidated going into it, but he has a way of making you feel comfortable. He’ll do things to sort of relax everyone in the room.”
Day’s music is not jazz, in any conventional sense. But her vocal phrasing is clearly inspired by the singing of Holiday, Nina Simone and other enduring greats, including the trumpet playing of Miles Davis in his ballad work. As her own popularity grows, she is eager to encourage young fans and aspiring musicians to embrace the artists who influenced her.
“One hundred percent,” Day said.
“I was a dancer for long time. And you always hear that ballet is the core of dance, and that - once you have that down - you can do everything else. For me, jazz is like that for music. I always tell people to absorb the music of (pianist Thelonious) Monk, (bassist Charles) Mingus, (saxophonists) Charlie Parker and (John) Coltrane, and all of those legends.
“I also tell them to not be so rigid. Because, people forget that it was through experimentation that we got from big-band music to bebop with Monk and Parker.”
Day’s fashion sense also harkens back to an earlier era.
She favors large hoop earrings, head scarves, retro-chic dresses or rockabilly-inspired ensembles. The gardenia she sometimes wears in in her hair onstage is a direct homage to Holiday.
“That’s always an homage to Billie,” she affirmed. I didn’t have a flower in my hair at the Grammys, but I did have a star-burst. Star-bursts were a big thing in the 1950s. People then were very into other galaxies, so there’s a lot of that ‘Jetson-esque’ nostalgia for me from that time.
“For the Grammys, I was a little more elegant. But, usually, it’s more rockabilly. The rockabilly subculture in Southern California is a big one. So my look is sort of rockabilly, with different eras mixed in. I love tons of jewelry, and glass and furs. I like to say I was established in in 1950s, and got dragged through the (subsequent) decades! It’s also a part of the music and pop culture I studied.
“Lucille Ball is one of my biggest inspirations, not just style-wise, but for her character as a woman and being such a pioneer, and for talking about pretty taboo issues on her TV show. And I’d also go to classic car shows with my father in San Diego, and see women dressed up as ‘50s pinups, with bouffant hair, and I was drawn to that the art and entertainment of that era, and the subculture.”
And now? What comes next for this rising star?
“I’m retiring after one album!” Day quipped, then grew more serious.
“I’ll be doing this for however long I’m supposed to. I definitely want to come out with a few more albums. I eventually want to get into artist development, and help other artists grow and develop, and achieve their goals and dreams. I love what I do. But, eventually, I’d like to take a back seat to someone else’s success and someone else’’ passion.”
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