What do you get when you combine classic jazz vocals and a soulful presence with an edgy, rockabilly style? The answer is Andra Day, a retro-inspired singer/songwriter whose music puts a refreshing twist on a blend of musical genres from reggae to rock.
It's no coincidence that Day's hit single is titled Rise Up. The songstress has quickly risen to the top of the music scene with the release of her first album, Cheers to the Fall. I had the chance to sit down with the award-winning artist after she gave a goose bump-inducing Backstage with Citi performance here in New York. Day got candid when it came to the voices that inspire her, what her hit song is really about, and the connection she has with her fans (or, as she refers to them, her family).
I try to be grateful for everything, present in every moment, and just keep working.
Christine Detris: You attended a school for the performing arts. As a child, what inspired you to pursue this path?
Andra Day: I went to a performing arts school in San Diego and studied musical theatre as well as classical jazz vocal performance. I also just listened to — and educated myself on — many jazz and soul records.
Growing up, was your room filled with posters and memorabilia?
Not really. We were pretty broke when I was growing up. My parents worked hard and were able to get a loan for a house. We got it but it was old, so they wanted to remodel. But because we didn't have money, my dad did everything himself, and the process took a little over seven years. So for a long time, I didn't have a room to put posters in.
You have a distinct aesthetic. What inspires your look?
I definitely take influence from Old Hollywood beauty, people like Lena Horn, Dorothy Dandridge, and Lucille Ball. I'm also inspired by the rockabilly culture, which is kind of a big thing here in Southern California. I fell in love with it because it's such a stand-out look — the bold lips and curls tied with a headscarf. I'd see women dressed like that at car shows my father would take me to, and I was always drawn to it.
What musical genres have influenced your own music?
So many genres inspire me. Jazz is a big one; voices like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan really drive the performance part. But I also love the soul of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. I love hip hop and everything about it. I like rock, pop, and reggae as well.
The music you've covered reflects so many different styles. How do you choose the songs and artists?
My sister and I — she's a musician — we jam all the time. We always play around and add twists to popular and unconventional songs. A lot of the stuff just stems from jam sessions in her room. She'll be on the guitar or the keyboard, and we'll just start singing and doing stuff
Has there been a pivotal moment in your career where you've thought, "I've finally made it."
Not really. I honestly try not to think that way. I try to be grateful for everything, present in every moment, and just keep working. There is always a lot to be done one step at a time. I never want to get complacent.
Your career has taken off, but do you ever find yourself still feeling starstruck?
I didn't really get star struck before all of this happened. There are a few people who I was — and would be — absolutely excited to meet because they have inspired me not just as an artist but on so many different levels. Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott are a few.
Now that you have millions of your own fans, which fan moments have impacted you the most?
On the last headlining tour in Chicago, I met a fan who had been in cancer remission but had just found out that the cancer returned. She was devastated. She told me that she listened to Rise Up every time she went to and from chemotherapy.
Her friend had reached out to us and told us how touched she was by the song and what she was going through, so we invited her out to the Chicago show with her family and brought her backstage to meet everybody. We prayed for her and encouraged her. I also invited her on stage and dedicated Rise Up to her. The audience sang along to her.
It was such an incredible moment and an amazing experience to realize how much you can impact people's lives in a loving way. It was also wonderful to see the dedication of her friends. It was an opportunity for everyone in the audience to reflect and find that thing that they were struggling with in their lives and be uplifted as a team. That is what the song is all about in the first place.
How do you use social media to connect with your fans?
I first used it through YouTube. We put up a few covers to gauge how people would react to my voice, and they responded really well. I also use other social platforms to just connect with fans — I call them my family — on a more personal level. People reach out to tell me about their struggles and how the music has affected them.
What do you hope your fans can achieve from listening to your music?
I desire for the music to inspire people to — in humility and vulnerability — pursue who they were truly created to be, without fear of criticism or failure. Also, to experience the love and purpose of God that I've experienced so much in my own life.
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Click here to watch the full Backstage with Citi interview and performance.