Optimistic! I have heard the word used many times throughout my life. Several years ago the Grammy Award-winning vocal and instrumental ensemble Sounds of Blackness used the word as the title of one of their hit songs. The chorus provides the formula for optimistic thinking, “you can win as long as you keep your head to the sky.” As we approach any endeavor, it is important to be realistic, but it might be more important to be optimistic. No one can achieve unless they first dare to dream. Such thinking is of utmost importance for the aspiring music artist. One major reason for difficulty is the fact that the starting line for any new musical artist is very crowded. There are thousands upon thousands of new musicians trying to get started on the road to success. Realistically, most will never leave that starting line. Therefore, in order to succeed it takes other assets, like talent, and a good team. Though optimistic thinking is very near the top of the list of needed tools.
Many times I have an opportunity to feature aspiring artists in Weekly Music Commentary. This week I have been provided another chance to present you readers a very good new singer. The difference this week is that this artist has received a good push on her way off that starting line. We will discuss her progress in detail in this post. For now, I would like to introduce a singer who appears on the way to becoming a household name. This week I am featuring the wonderful Andra Day.
Andra Day is a thirty year old singer/songwriter originally from San Diego, CA who is about to release her debut album Cheers to the Fallat the end of this month. 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. “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.”
Upon my introduction to Andra Day, I noticed what many before me also could readily see and hear; a modern day artist that had the feel of a singer from times past. Most that I spoke with about Andra Day used the word “refreshing” when speaking about her. Yes, there are the typical comparisons to others from Amy Winehouse to Adele, and Rihanna. However, Andra Day is certainly charting her own course musically. Although, her path toward stardom has been charted with help from notable industry heavyweights.
“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,” Andra 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. However, support came in a large way first through a chance encounter with Stevie Wonder’s wife Kai. Mrs. Wonder heard the Southern California native singing at a local store opening and shared her music with the author of Innervisions, then Stevie himself reached out. 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.
This would not be the end of the major support Andra Day would receive. 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.”
Of course Andra Day would need to film her first music video for the single “Forever Mine.” There are many professional directors available to provide a boost for an initial project. How about Spike Lee? Are you kidding me? 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.’”
There have been several others who noticed Andra Day and offered assistance. She’s performed around the world alongside artists like Questlove, 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.”
Even with all the high caliber help Andra Day has received to help launch her solo career, she must utilize talent and reach her audience with her own voice. She definitely wants to effectively speak to the masses through her music. “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.”
My advice to the young singer/songwriter is to keep looking ahead, for tomorrow is another day – Andra Day.