PHOTOS BY RANDALL SLAVIN WORDS BY TAMARA RAPPA
The Depth and The Rise of Multi Hyphenate Talent Andra Day
Listen to the extended interview on episode 79 of the Story + Rain Talks podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you listen.
Andra Day: Let me see what jewelry you've got on today, because you always got some poppin' jewelry. Those [earrings] are beautiful.
Tamara Rappa: Thanks. There's this little Mexican jewelry store in New York. It's been there for years. It's a hole in the wall on 2nd street, and it's been on my mind. I was like, I need to go back to that place and get some earrings. And the woman there is so sweet. I told her, the bigger the better. Anything that's big and statement, get it for me and I'll just buy it.
AD: That's me, too!
TR: Speaking of which, you wore a really good pair of earrings in the Billie Holiday movie.
AD: Oh yeah, the African head ones. So those were real. She actually used to wear those all the time, they were her favorite pair of earrings. She had a couple of pieces...her coat, her earrings, a pair of shoes, a pair of glasses that she loved---that she would wear all the time. I actually got those earrings before we even shot the film, and then wardrobe was able to find a few, too. I couldn't find the earrings at fIrst, I could only find collar pins, and I had them turned into earrings. Then I finally found a pair of the earrings. They're the same exact design and everything.
“When we got to set everyone came with all of their mechanisms and their tools, prepared to act, and Lee would be like, 'Cut it in half. Do nothing'. We thought, wait, are we terrible?”
TR: There were three or four pairs of glasses in the film that were amazing.
AD: [Costume Designer] Paolo [Nieddu] made a replica of these huge, dramatic cat eye glasses that are rhinestone encrusted. They seem like something you would see in fashion right now. She was so innovative with her style, that was one of my favorite things about her.
TR: I re-watched The United States Vs. Billie Holiday after meeting you on our shoot day, and I cried. There was something about connecting this real person I now know to the person on the screen, and your powerful performances, both acting and musical, that made what I had watched a profound experience. I'm sure you've heard that from a lot of people. After meeting you, Andra, and then watching the film again---it was profound.
AD: You went back and you watched it again, which is amazing, and now we've had a chance to speak. People have told me that it does have an effect; seeing the movie and then seeing me. Maybe it's just the difference in me, or maybe that, combined with her spirit, the parts of her that still linger in me, and how much I really, really do love her. We put in a lot. Not just myself, but Lee, everyone---we put all of ourselves into this film. I think anytime you encounter people who do that, even [you] on set, and how much you cared about all the details...it has an effect, to see how much people care about, or have poured into what it is that they're doing. Maybe that's the effect. For my cast mates it was a different story. I remember Natasha [Lyonne] telling me, 'I feel weird talking to you right now. I've never heard your natural voice, and now hearing it, it sounds weird'. And I felt the same thing with her, because we were hanging out as Billie and Tallulah. It felt different to know everyone outside of the movie, you know?
“We put in a lot. Not just myself, but Lee, everyone---we put all of ourselves into this film. I think anytime you encounter people who do that... it has an effect...to see how much people care about, or have poured into what it is that they're doing.”
TR: You've told the story that Lee Daniels really had to convince you to take the role. You were concerned about doing it justice. Did you dream of being a part of this kind of a piece of art as a kid? You grew up performing, you went to a performing arts school. Did you ever know, or dream, or hope, for something like both your role in this film and also the acclaim that it's garnered? You won a Golden Globe for your performance and you were nominated for your song, you were also nominated for an Oscar and a Critic's Choice Award. You recently won a BET Award for Best Actress, for this performance. Had you ever dreamt this up for yourself?
AD: First of all, Lee also had to be convinced. That's the funny part about us doing this movie together: we both had to walk out, really step out on faith. I believe God did that. Maybe it was one of those things that was sort of preordained from a while ago. He didn't want to use me either, and then once we were in it, and also when he saw the tape, he was like, okay. He really did want me to do it. And I was still a little hesitant. I thought, I can do one thing, but can I do a whole movie? It's a whole different beast. I was really doubting if it was possible, if I could do it, but I do think that I did dream it up. When I was young, wanting to be in entertainment but on the music side, I always wanted things to go well. I love the way you put it, because most people ask me, 'Did you dream of being an actor?' But the way that you put it: 'Did you dream of being a part of something this great?' That's a really good way to look at it, an authentic way to look at it. And yes. That's a yes. But did I always dream of being an actor? No. Wanting to be in entertainment and do music? Of course. Always dreaming of being a part of something great, whether it's in music, whether it's in movies, whether it's in fine arts, sculpting...being a part of something great is inspiring to me. First, it honors God, and it also honors and uplifts people. I think every artist has dreams and a desire to be a part of something great and impactful. That's a great, great way to frame that question. Thank you.
“Did I always dream of being an actor? No. Wanting to be in entertainment and do music? Of course. Always dreaming of being a part of something great, whether it's in music, whether it's in movies, whether it's in fine arts, sculpting...being a part of something great is inspiring to me. First, it honors God, and it also honors and uplifts people. ”
TR: You were early-influenced by singers like Billie and Ella, your stage name Andra 'Day' is even influenced by Billie. Where did the influence of these singers specifically come from?
AD: I'm glad you asked that. I love the way that you frame these questions! Because you're right, they're of a different ilk. I was inspired by the Whitneys and the Arethas, and although they're of the same lineage, they're of a different ilk. Connecting with the jazz singers, the great jazz singers of our time, specifically came from school. I listened to them, I heard them all the time, because they were always played, but I wasn't really made familiar until I went to performing arts school in San Diego, and my musical theater instructor, Bill Doyle, introduced me. I was asking about singers to study, and he told me to listen to Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. I totally forgot that that's who introduced me to Janis Joplin too! He told me, these singers have a way of not going out to the audience, they require the audience to come into the space of where they are. And he said I reminded him of that. He just explained that to me not too long ago. It was those two singers. And that started my love. I heard a song called 'Sugar' by Billie Holiday. [Andra begins singing]. I still love that song; it's the bubblier side of her. The other song I heard was the polar opposite, which is Strange Fruit. To me, both are very uplifting songs. But when I first heard Strange Fruit, it was haunting. I remember feeling bad for her. Whatever this woman is singing about, she's hurting and she needs help. That introduction helped me to eventually own my own voice, and then it introduced me to great jazz music. From Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae on down to Nina Simone, and the great musicians like Manchino and Bird and Mingus and Coltrane and Miles Davis. Also Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery,...all the great jazz guitar players. They're amazing musicians who opened me up to that whole other side, a really foundational part of music.
TR: Tell me about working with visionary director and writer, producer Lee Daniels. What do you think people would be surprised to know about him?
AD: It's interesting. I didn't have any preconceived ideas about him as a director, or even as a person. I didn't know that opinions of his work are split. I just knew that I loved whatever he made. I was kind of a fan, and that's really what incentivized me to take the meeting in the first place. It would be great to meet Lee. I think he's really amazing. He's been a pioneer in black art for a long, long time, and when no one was there or supporting it. I think the thing that people might be surprised to learn about him is just how collaborative he is. Lee can have a very specific vision when he walks in, and he can also walk in and really, really trust his actors. He and his sister, Leah Butler...their casting ability is un-fucking-believable. When we got to set everyone came with all of their mechanisms and their tools, prepared to act, and Lee would be like, 'Cut it in half. Do nothing'. We thought, wait, are we terrible? He cast Tyler James Williams as Lester Young because he saw that in him when he walked in, you know what I mean? He cast Tre as Jimmy. He saw our characters as soon as we walked in, apparently we walked in as these people to him. And so he's beautifully collaborative with his actors. He understands the spirit of what it is that he's doing, and of everything he works on. His vision can be very specific, or, he could say, 'Whatever it is, you guys plan it, I want to see it. Show me what you've planned, show me what you've thought of. What do you think about this person? What do you think about their mental state?' It was really, really beautiful to see someone who understands the power. Obviously he has all the genius on his own but for him to really tap and honor the power of actors and collaboration, is beautiful. Actually, it made it feel like a cookout!
TR: What is his perspective on fashion? Let's talk about Lee and fashion.
AD: Oh my God. Are you kidding? It was amazing. Between Lee, [Jahil] Fisher and Paolo... it was a Disneyland of fashion. Being able to play...what they created was something where...they just understood the spirit of who they were dealing with. Lee was so amazing. There were moments when [Lee] wanted to inject a tiny bit of almost, camp, into the fashion, but not too much. Not too much where it distracts from the movie. He's so good about balance and the fine line. Paolo and Fisher's instincts, the way they understand and know Lee, was beautiful to witness, as was the way they took the time to understand and to know me and collaborate with me on some of the looks and fashion, because they knew I'm a big fan of hers. They understood the spirit of who they were dealing with. I think there are a lot of people who deal with period styling (obviously, except for my sister, Ruth Carter, she's a gangster too), who work to just sort of catalog period fashion. They think, 'This is what women wore in the forties'. But we weren't just talking about women who were working in an office, or working at home. Billie was a global superstar. She had all the latest stuff. They were able to be very accurate about the period, and then take it beyond. Billie Holiday was wearing cowl neck sweaters in the forties, which really didn't become a thing until the seventies. You know what I mean? She was wearing really, really innovative fashion. They understood that, and injected it into the movie. They also put her in things that were really relatable. The fashion had to be on and hitting. And I can't even talk about it without shouting out Prada, whom Paolo worked with tirelessly. One of my favorite gowns was the one for the waltz at the end of the movie. It's this beautiful Prada feather gown, in a lavender-ash-purple color, it was just stunning. When wearing it, I could feel the craftsmanship. I've got to give so much credit to Paolo who put that together.
“When I first heard Strange Fruit, it was haunting. I remember feeling bad for her. Whatever this woman is singing about, she's hurting and she needs help. ”
TR: I love that you bring up that last scene of the film. As the credits are starting to roll, there is this very special ending to the film. It's you and Trevante who plays Jimmy Fletcher, you're seemingly recreating a waltz scene from the movie, and then you step out of character by referencing the Prada dress you're wearing.
AD: That was all Lee, that line was Lee. Lee said, 'Say something about Prada, and then say, they didn't even make Prada back then'. Oh my God, we were dying laughing. Post her passing, post her turning the page, we wanted convey the feeling of a happy ending. Maybe they did have a happy ending, ultimately? And this is them, dancing in a cloud of witnesses as they've passed on. It was brilliant. I thought it was emotional too, that she really gave all of herself in this performance, and kind of got her happy ending. And it's a humorous scene, because that's who Billie was, and that's also who our people are. For marginalized people, especially black people, people of color, humor is a huge, huge part of our communities. People will say 'gallows humor', but I don't think it's gallows humor, I think it's healing humor, and survival. That's a big part of how we get through. How could you laugh when you're being lynched? We have to; we can't survive sadness all the time, and laughter is a very healing, powerful gift, I believe, from God. And so I think that scene really embodied that. It was taking the tragedy and making it a beautiful, beautiful story of triumph. And I did choreograph that dance, by the way!
“I didn't have any preconceived ideas about him as a director, or even as a person. I didn't know that opinions of his work are split. I just knew that I loved whatever he made. I was kind of a fan, and that's really what incentivized me to take the meeting in the first place. It would be great to meet Lee. He's been a pioneer in black art for a long, long time.”
TR: You fall in love Billie and Jimmy as a couple. You're rooting for them.
AD: ...Because Suzan-Lori Parks' writing is incredible, Lee's directing is amazing, Trevante's acting is just ... that combination. I don't know anyone else who does internal nuance like Trevante. It was so much that he gave, and that I could pull from. Had he not done that, had I not had him...if any of those elements weren't there, I don't think it would have been the same. And I think you fall in love with them because their relationship is not easy, it's complex. Here's a black man trying to do what he believes is right, here's a black woman that's trying to do what she believes is right; they come from different backgrounds but also the same backgrounds, and they both understand they're being used. There's a frustration you have with them, there's empathy you have for them, it's a fight. That's what draws the two characters together, and then the audience, into the complexities of that type of love at the time.
“There were moments when [Lee] wanted to inject a tiny bit of, almost, camp, into the fashion, but not too much. Not too much where it distracts from the movie. He's so good about balance and the fine line.”
TR: You choreographed that waltz at the end. Was that something that you did on the fly, or was it practiced?
AD: We had one rehearsal together. Lee was on the fly about it, and was like 'We need a waltz'. Because I've danced for a long time, I said I can choreograph a waltz. It was easy too, because it wasn't supposed to be the perfect waltz, it was supposed to be, like, you know...
AD: Exactly. Real clunky. It's going to be clunky anyway, because Tre's so damn big! The gracefulness? We'll get as much as we can! Since he's a bigger dude, it kind of came off exactly the way Lee wanted it. I choreographed it, and I sent a general waltz video to Tre, just to kind of look at. It all happened in just a couple of days. We had rehearsal videos. We rehearsed and recorded it, and then sent it to Lee. Then I get was a call from him, dying with laughter. He was like, 'It's perfect. It's so perfect'. It was fun to do.
TR: You did many things to step into your role and be convincing as Billie Holiday, including taking up smoking and drinking, and you also starved yourself. What made you have the will to take it that far? What thoughts were you having as you made that decision to go all-in? Can you recall when you decided that this was what you were going to do?
AD: Yes. And to be clear, I would have grapes and nuts on set, to give me the sugar and the energy I would need. And I would eat something like eggs and avocado. I would eat a chunk of stuff, and then I would go a while without. In between, I knew I was going to be hungry but I was also fueling my body with good, clean things. If I really needed a hit of energy, then maybe I would have some type of junk, just to give myself junk energy. My motivation to do that has to do with two things for me as a person. My dad always says, in life, you're either in it or you're not. In general, that's just my practice. Also, there's a scripture that talks about 'Do all things as if unto the Lord and not for men'. I don't really ascribe to the idea that we are in competition with one another. We're all in a relationship: people at large, the world. There's a higher standard in me when I do things. I try to honor God and also be present. Her story deserved that. The idea that you could play Billie Holiday in a healthy way is probably true...I don't know. I think fear was a huge motivating factor. I didn't want to be terrible. I thought of the idea that this woman went through so much, and still had so much joy in the midst of it. And I thought I had to tap some of that in order to really get into her skin, into her mind. Also, I wanted to be there and tapped in and believable for Lee, for my costars, for Natasha, for [Dialect Coach] Tom Jones, for [Writer/Producer] Johann Hari, for all the people who poured into me, and be great. It was like, 'Alright, you here. Don't be shitty. Don't be terrible'. It was a combination of fear, of wanting to honor God, wanting to be present for Lee and everyone else there, and wanting to honor Billie's legacy. It deserved that level of dedication.
“One of my favorite gowns was the one for the waltz at the end of the movie. It's this beautiful Prada feather gown, in a lavender-ash-purple color, it was just stunning. When wearing it, I could feel the craftsmanship.”
TR: Did you find it difficult along the way, to do all of that, or were you channeling Billie at one point?
AD: Now looking back, I definitely believe I was channeling her. But in channeling her, we assume it's ease. If you're channeling her, there was a lot in her body that was happening. She was diagnosed with cirrhosis, amongst a host of other things. She was actually killed, honestly, but she was diagnosed with that, it was the thing that purportedly claimed her life. So even in channeling her, there was challenge. It was definitely troubling; there was not much sleep; emotionally, it was really hard. I had to go to some places that I really hadn't been, that, I believe I was healed from, to be honest. I had to pull them up again, revisit certain things. But there is also a lot of healing in that. I feel like I learned how to overcome a lot of things by playing her, by being even more authentic and really getting to the true intention behind a lot of things. I think that helps us in many ways.
TR: How long did it take before you felt physically healthy again? And what did you do to get yourself back?
AD: Technically I'm still dealing with the physical health of things. My vocal cords still need recovery. We're still working through it. With time it will...what will I say? I don't know if with time it will get back to what it was before, but with time it will be what it is supposed to be in this new season of my life, in this new chapter, if that makes sense. I've gained some weight, which is good, obviously. Mentally? My team's probably like, 'You need a break!' I think mentally I do still need a little bit of time to detox, before jumping into another character that Lee and I are talking about working on together...
“That's who Billie was, and that's also who our people are. For marginalized people, especially black people, people of color, humor is a huge, huge part of our communities. It's healing humor and survival. That's a big part of how we get through. How could you laugh when you're being lynched? We have to; we can't survive sadness all the time. And laughter is a very healing, powerful gift.”
TR: That's exciting.
AD: It's really, really exciting, and I can tell you, it's going to be something different for him. Obviously I've been acting for about ten minutes, so everything's new for me. But I just love working with him. I love, love, love working with him. I'm still scared, but I really enjoy it, and I've found a collaborative partner, spirit, brother, family member in him. Anyway, I'm still trying to detox some things, and a lot of things have also gone. Prayer was a huge thing for me, I don't think I would have been able to do it without my relationship with God, my spiritual grounding.
TR: That relates to one of my questions for you. Emotionally, being a part of a project like the The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, and what's come after it's release, and before in all the prep, and during, as you sang your heart out and acted out heavy material--- has it been difficult to shed this life-changing experience and move on? It's obviously taken you a while, right?
AD: Yes, definitely. We stopped officially filming in December 2019, but we were doing pickup scenes and ADR work all throughout 2020, and we didn't end that until, I think, November 2020. Then from there it was right into doing press and talking about it. I realize now, wow, maybe I didn't have as much time to detox this as I thought I would? I think a part of the challenge also is not wanting to. There are certain parts [of Billie Holiday] that I don't want to let go of. The other part of the challenge is accepting that there will be aspects of her that will not go away.
When I think about that, it actually makes it more beautiful because I think that, obviously God brought me into this for a reason, not just for a movie role, or to impact people---but to be impacted myself. I think we forget about that. We want to go in, serve, or experience something, and we forget the internal, the spirit that changes, as we do something. I finally got to the point where I realized this is just a part of who I am in this new season. This is a new season of my life, and I know that. I felt the paradigm shift. Of course, why would Billie Holiday not be a part of that? Why would our experience not be a part of that? My director, and the writers, Suzan-Lori Parks, Johann Hari, my acting coach, all of these people... are part of that and of these experiences. Accepting that made me think, not only do I accept it---I love it, and appreciate it.
TR: You talk about how you're attached to this character. It reminds me of something that you'd said in your Oprah interview. You said you enjoyed inhabiting Billie almost too much.
AD: Well, first of all cigarettes! I'm a kind of free spirit anyway, but there was a looseness to her that was like, whoa. That's a blessing, and in some ways it was really healing. It made me braver. And in some ways, I realized, for my life, it could be a kind of a toxic thing.
TR: You are an embracer of life, and with that comes an openness to being an embracer of all things. It can be a slippery slope, right?
AD: That is a great way... listen, your framing...you are something else, girl! I love it. It's exactly what you say, it can be a slippery slope. It has everything to do with balance. I think of another scripture that says, 'All things are permissible, but not all things are helpful'. It's having that sort of wisdom, that balance, and that discernment. That was something I realized. I thought, okay sis, there are certain aspects of Billie Holiday's life that are problematic for you in your life. Girl, this is a thing. You need to make sure you're paying attention to this.
TR: She was a lady of indulgence, that's for sure.
“I think fear was a huge motivating factor. I didn't want to be terrible. And I thought of the idea that this woman went through so much, and still had so much joy in the midst of it. I had to tap some of that in order to really get into her skin, into her mind.”
AD: The other thing I had to remember was that it wasn't always that it was bad for her. There were certain things that Billie Holiday needed to do at that time, as a woman fighting for what she was fighting for, that were necessary. There are a lot of things that remain the same today, that still need to change. There were things that were tough on her, especially the mental illness. There's a lot of that in my family, so I can't indulge in certain ways. There were things I realized she needed that I don't need.
TR: Speaking of balance, how did you recover from a day on set? What did you do after each day wrapped? Was there anything that you did to bring yourself back to self?
AD: Prayer for me is a big thing. Devotion, always. Something I try to do every morning is prayer, meditation, reading the Word, meditating on what I read, and understanding my role in the day and in my own life. I choose to present and in other people's lives, and honor God in those spaces. It's truly spiritually grounding. Another thing is that I worked out every day when we'd leave set. I'm either a night time or a morning. My costar Tre, would be like, 'These late night workouts of yours are crazy!' Sometimes we'd leave set at midnight and go to the gym to work out. They let us have Anytime Fitness. The first time I discovered it was in Montreal. They gave us a temporary membership, which was amazing. Sometimes we'd leave the set at four in the morning. I'd feel so bad. My friend who is my Creative Director assisted me on set, because she's like a sister. She was like, 'It's four in the morning. We're going home, right?' I was like, 'No girl, we've got to go to the gym'. I'd have to maintain certain things. Sometimes I had to build. Certain times, when they would put the prosthetic on me, I would still try to eat more. I'd eat a lot of salt or something to make myself bloat, and work out, just to be intentional with it. I needed that. I needed that blood flow. I wasn't sleeping, really. I was like, if I'm not going to be sleeping, at least I'm going to be working out. Interestingly enough, not sleeping really helped me to embody her character during certain days on set.
“There are certain parts [of Billie Holiday] that I don't want to let go of. The other part of the challenge is accepting that there will be aspects of her that will not go away.”
TR: Another thing that I remember from your Oprah interview is that you explained to her that you felt aligned. Are you feeling aligned, today? I wonder if it's an effort to feel aligned, given what people are surely wanting and needing and asking of you, these days.
AD: I do feel aligned. Well, some aspects feel aligned. If I'm being frank, there are also aspects of me that feel really out of whack right now. I'm trying to work it out, but it's an effort. Some things do, but the truth is, when we want to know something, or be better at something, or grow---we have to research. I reference another scripture, that says, 'Seek and ye shall find. Seek and these things will be added unto you.' In life, in general, seeking, whether it's how to do an interview, or how to be in a movie, or how to take care of the kids, how to be a parent, how to be a friend, how to research and build a company, how to understand the cosmos...the things you put your mind on are the things your body sort of becomes.
TR: The things you focus on are the things that flourish.
AD: Absolutely, those are the areas where you grow. We know that about other aspects of life, but we don't always apply that to spiritual grounding, mental health, or alignment. You take some time to build and to dive into things, and understand why you feel the way you feel about certain things, and how your perspective has changed. I think it takes work to be aligned and to be spiritually grounded.
“We want to go in, serve, or experience something, and we forget the internal, the spirit that changes, as we do something.”
TR: Another thing I've heard you talk about is a feeling of inadequacy. Do you think that the inadequacy mindset is indicative of the plight and also the essence of many creatives? It's kind of what drives creatives to keep pushing and challenging and, in turn, creating great work. That's what I was thinking about when I heard you talk about inadequacy.
AD: I love that. I feel like we've been taught to show up, and to do well, and to believe in ourselves. But I think what is almost more helpful, is to acknowledge when we're not doing great or believing in ourselves. That doesn't mean we stop encouraging, and putting up all the memes on Instagram to try to encourage people, because you never know who runs across it and needs to see that or hear that. A friend of mine, she's an amazing artist, her name is Esty. She and I were working together, writing the other day. She was talking about how nervous she was to be in the writing session. I was also talking about how nervous I was. I think we were both were surprised and not surprised. Then, the producer we were working with was saying the same thing. That's why I try to be honest when I walk into a space. I'll say I'm nervous, I'm uncomfortable, and I hope that it creates a place where everyone can say, alright, I feel kind of uncomfortable too. Oftentimes it's something we share, the commonality of walking into a space and feeling like we have to motivate ourselves by saying, 'I'm good, I got this', yet feeling that underlying sense of insecurity. I think we all walk around with a healthy dose of insecurity. If we were all a little more honest about that, we would create safer spaces to allow each other to fail before we fly. And that's not necessarily a fail. It's a step. I say the space to be free to fail is a really beautiful, healthy, creative place. And there are other things. We are women. We have been pitted against each other for a long time. The idea that we have to compete, and there's limited space for us, is such a fallacy.
“I'm a kind of free spirit anyway, but there was a looseness to her that was like, whoa.”
TR: Speaking of musical collaborators, I love your song Pearl Cadillac. What's it like working with Gary Clark Jr?
AD: Gary is amazing. We've been label mates for such a long time, and I'm such a fan of his music. We weren't physically in the studio together when we recorded it, but you don't necessarily need to catch the spirit of a person. Gary is an incredibly talented and intentional person. I haven't interacted with him too much, so I won't pretend that I know the depths of him. I don't. But from my interaction with him, I see he's an artist's-artist. He pays attention to what artists are putting out and pays attention to what he's putting out. He's intuitive, intentional, and so talented. It was amazing working with him. He's a giant, in my opinion.
“Some aspects feel aligned. If I'm being frank, there are also aspects of me that feel really out of whack right now. I'm trying to work it out, but it's an effort.”
TR: You were discovered by Stevie Wonder's wife while singing in a mall. But I'm curious about this: when did you discover the gift of your voice as a young girl?
AD: It was before being introduced to Billie Holiday. It was probably around the age of 6 years old, and I was singing Whitney Houston. It wasn't really even an 'aha' moment for my family. They were used to me singing, and I guess they just kind of new. They were more like, 'She better be able to sing!' We love music in my family. My sister just revealed to me that there was a moment when she was a little bit older and had moved to Monterey and didn't realize I could sing like that. At around 6, I believe, is when I discovered: I think I'm good at this.
TR: You've been compared to many other singers. Is it right or is it wrong to be compared? How do you feel about that?
AD: I understand the artist's perspective. The artist's perspective is that we are our own person. We are all different, no one is like us, though we might have similarities, and doppelgängers, or twins. But at the same time, it doesn't bother me. I don't know. Maybe it should, but it really doesn't bother me. A lot of things come down to intention. There are some people in the industry who are just trolling to be spiteful. You can feel that, and you know when they're doing it. But there are some people who love certain artists, and love you, and it's just a correlation in their mind, a familiarity. Sometimes things remind us of things. I understand the perspective of artists, but honestly, it does not bother me at all. I've been compared to a bunch.
“I feel like we've been taught to show up, and to do well, and to believe in ourselves. But I think what is almost more helpful, is to acknowledge when we're not doing great or believing in ourselves.”
TR: Your song, Rise Up, has come to be an anthem. What has been the proudest use of your song, or proudest feedback from fans?
AD: They're similar, and they're so different. It's hard for me to say the proudest. I think I'd probably say being adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement, that was huge for me, because I had no idea. I didn't know that that's what it would do, and that's what it would be. And the fact that I'm able to be a part of, in any way, uplifting my people to that degree, even if it's just to give them strength to keep doing the amazing work that they're doing---is a blessing. I know that that's a God thing, so I'm just grateful for that. The other part of it, is that it did lead me to the Obama's, which was amazing! Them using that song, that's a blessing too. There's the macro, and there's also the micro. The micro is that I've had multiple people tell me that their loved one was dying of cancer and it helped to get them through it, or that they were struggling with cancer or some other terminal illness, or dealing with mental illness, dealing with depression, dealing with anxiety. I've had multiple people on occasions tell me that, literally, it was their last moment. They were popping pills. That was their last moment on earth, and Rise Up came on, or they heard Rise Up, and it stopped them from killing themselves. You can't plan shit like that. Going into the studio writing it, I was not motivated to write a song and do an anthem. I was like, 'I don't want to be here'. So it was really a prayer. Alright God, do something here. People have been, like, bullet-in-the-chamber, pills-in-hand---that's how drastic it was. It helped them to cope with anxiety, or depression, or heal. I've had people tell me that, it seems unbelievable. When I think about what music was designed for, it's pretty amazing. I believe it was made for healing. It reminds me it's bigger than me.
“When you're creating, if you can create a really vivid picture that somebody can immerse themselves in, you've done something that ties to people's spirits, that ties to their heart. ”
TR: When it comes to ideas, how do you operate creatively? How do you get your best ideas, and where do you record them?
AD: I got to tell you, I think my best ideas ... people will probably be like, she always talks about prayer, but I am always talking about it. I think it comes from the spirit. It comes from prayer, and I think it also comes from people, and living. I'm not always good at it, but being present really helps people be creative, because you perceive things in detail. When you're creating, if you can create a really vivid picture that somebody can immerse themselves in, you've done something that ties to people's spirits, that ties to their heart. That's especially when people start to feel like, this song or movie or whatever, is singing to me, it's speaking my life. That's huge for me. Two of my favorite songs that I've written, are obviously Rise Up, it's amazing what it did, and also Tigress And Tweed for the movie. It's my favorite thing I've ever written, actually. That came pouring out from a prayer. There's something about making yourself available, being present and listening spiritually, and also listening and perceiving people. For me, I say the spirit, and I say people. Those are where things come from. People get inspiration. I think that's a spiritual thing. Then they produce amazing work. I think when you pay attention to those things, you get some good, original, stuff.
TR: What's up with music? What's on deck for you right now?
AD: My label is probably like, 'Yeah, Andra, what's on deck girl?! We did release Phone Dies, which I'm so happy about.
TR: I was just listening to it. I love it.
AD: Thank you, thank you so much. I wanted it to be fun, to be a vibe. It's [produced by] Anderson .Paak, so he brings that. That big ass smile you be seeing. When he performs, he's really like that; bro is really that person. I think he brought a really great energy to it. I had the lyric, the line, 'I'll let you feel these vibes until my phone dies'. I had it in my lyric dump on my phone for a couple years, actually. I'd just always wanted to say it. It's about connectivity, really. I wanted to talk about our state of connection, and our engagement with people. Are we really engaging? Are we in love with people, or are we in love with how they respond to our presentation of ourselves to them? Does it all go hand in hand? It's not a judgment, it's an observation, and a question. It's out now. We have a new single that's dropping soon, very, very soon. So I'm excited about that. Actually, Wale is featured on it. He's just so authentic. To me, he's one of the greatest of all time. He's so honest. He's one of those artists, to me, that writes whatever it is they really are; who writes about the space they're in at the moment. He's on the next single, so I'm excited about that. We'll release a date for the album soon. We're trying to get two projects out.
TR: Are you going to go on tour? Are you going to be performing anywhere?
AD: We are performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, so I'm really happy about that as well too. We're doing Austin City Limits as well. As a musician, those are staples to me. I always want to do those, no matter where I am in my career and in my life. We're also trying to put together a mini tour. We're working within the confines of COVID like everyone else is right now. Certain things we have to play by ear, some things we have to plan. We're taking our time to put something together that's special and immersive for people.
“I just have to know that at a certain point, one of those things has to be turned off in order for me to focus. Maybe I'll be able to multitask later, but for now I can only multitask to a certain degree. At a certain point, I have to say I'm either giving all of myself to this movie role, or I'm giving all of myself to this album. I don't want to give half of myself to both things. I'd rather let one of them wait, and give all of myself to one thing. ”
TR: Now that you've established yourself as an award winning actress, how do you balance music-Andra with actor-Andra? Is it difficult to have two camps, both in your music career, and your acting career? How do you balance and manage the politics, and all that that comes with?
AD: It's been a little challenging, just because it's all so new. That's part of the challenge. Understanding, oh wow, this is a whole different world. What do we do in this space? How do we balance these two? Anytime you're embodying characters and making yourself vulnerable, creating music is not necessarily easy, but in a sense, it feeds you, because it's such a joy. I had people ask me the other day, 'What are your hobbies? What do you like to do outside of work' I do what I love for work so it's hard to pinpoint other things. I love what I do. I create art. I create pieces and bodies of work for a living. That's my hobby. That's a blessing. I pray that for everyone. The way to balance, is that things coincide. Right now we're working on finishing the record and getting that out, and I'm also trying to prep for something that Lee and I are working on. Basically I just have to know that at a certain point, one of those things has to be turned off in order for me to focus. Maybe I'll be able to multitask later, but for now I can only multitask to a certain degree. At a certain point, I have to say I'm either giving all of myself to this movie role, or I'm giving all of myself to this album. I don't want to give half of myself to both things. I'd rather let one of them wait and give all of myself to one thing. My costar Tyler James Williams said to me the other day. 'You're a slow burn'. I'm, for sure, a slow burn. It might slow the process down, but it's okay. I think that's all right. You need all different types of people making art.
TR: Is it easier or harder to have a romantic relationship now? I read about Brad Pitt...
AD: The crazy part about the Brad Pitt thing is the fact that I have to give it energy, let me tell you something!
TR: So let's not give it energy, Andra!!
AD: I never met him. I'm going to give it energy by saying that. I've never met him. That's the wildest thing to me. I was actually going to post it on my Instagram, but I was like no. Since I'm a spiritual person, I feel like me and God know the truth. People who know me know the truth. I appreciate people wanting to talk about it. But I don't know. I'm not that kind of artist. And the truth is yeah, sometimes it's challenging to be in a relationship because you don't have the time. You're working. It goes back to what I was talking about. Once I'm in the mode of, we want to build a family, or we want to get married...For some people, that's what they want to do. I want to give energy and effort to that, in the same way I would have to if I'm working on a certain project. It takes more intention, it takes more planning. It takes understanding Also, the truth of the matter is that doing that movie was very, very different for me. It's why I've been asking my costars how they shed certain things. Going onto set, I was genuinely attracted to everyone I was supposed to be attracted to. Really. I've got to tell you. The way for me is prayer and also just being honest. 'This is where my head is at, this is where my heart is'. Working through those things, knowing that this is not how I always want it to be. Having to work through those things, and allow time and distance to do its thing. So yes, it's not easy. It's not an easy role, I think, for anyone to watch their person go through it. But when you communicate honestly and openly it doesn't necessarily mean it will be a walk in the park, but I think it at least makes things doable or feasible, you can deal with them and talk about them. So I think that's one thing I'm practicing, talking about everything, everything that I feel, and being authentic. I'm not single. I am seeing someone right now. And I am not dating Brad Pitt! My sister was cracking me up, because she was at the Oscars with me. She hit me, and she said, 'Girl, we met Brad Pitt that day?' I said, 'I guess so. I don't know. I guess, to the extent that I saw the man stand on stage and give a speech, the way everybody at home watching the Oscars did'. I don't know who this may disappoint, but it's not a real thing. I'm sorry, y'all.
“The truth of the matter is, doing that movie was very, very different for me. It's why I've been asking my co stars how they shed certain things. Going onto set, I was genuinely attracted to everyone I was supposed to be attracted to.”
TR: What have you learned most in these past five, big years?
AD: What have I learned most? I think the big thing I've learned most and practiced, is that fear is a liar, and to a degree that I don't think we fully, fully understand. I think we can say it, but we don't realize how much of fear ... even in terms of what we were just talking about... it's scary to talk about your feelings, or to work out schedules, romantically. It's also scary to be authentic. I don't mean scary to pursue things, to go and do things like Billie Holiday. It's scary to be genuinely honest about intentions, the deepest unctions and the deepest motivators in us, what we're really feeling, those things. That shit is really scary. Fear is a thief. It really steals the best moments, the best years. I've learned a lot about facing fears, not just in action but in intention, saying I'm not going to allow fear to put me in a box or allow me to hide. Fear is a very deep, nuanced thing. You don't realize how much of our life gets siphoned off, even in subtle ways.
TR: I love that, 'siphoned off.'
AD: Yes, it's subtle. We just think of it as, 'I'm terrified. I don't want to do it. I said no'. It's little things that cause us to function slightly different because of fear. So those are things that I realize, even in just talking with people, or interactions with people. I think, I'm not going to allow fear to dictate how I live, I'm still going to do it, and try to be conscious of it.
TR: What makes you happy these days?
AD: My niece and my nephew. I will always say God always makes me happy. My family makes me so, so, so happy. My niece and my nephew are my literal joy. I think God literally just placed them here to be like, here's your joy! ...just make sure you tap in with them, so you can have any kind of joy. My niece and my nephew make me so happy. My young cousin, she's almost like my kid-cousin. She lives here with me. I take care of her. She's 18. She's an honor roll student. I'm so fucking proud of her. That's baby girl. She's stunning, which actually gives me anxiety sometimes. She's flourishing. She's smart, she's sharp. My niece and my nephew. There's no other way to describe them except there might not be anything on the earth that makes me happier than seeing their faces. There is nothing. It's just God and my babies. That's what brings me so, so, so much joy.
"Everyone knows I'm obviously obsessed with Uggs. It makes me laugh when people say, 'It's a statement!'... A statement of pure laziness!"
"by Vice candles are incredible. My entire family has replaced all of their candles with ones by Vice. "
"I'm obsessed with Watchman Nee's books. He's a Chinese spiritual philosopher guide. There's something about understanding the combined wisdom of East and West."
"The Lijadu Sisters are twins from Nigeria. Their music is incredible."
"I was just put onto this worship album. As Chris Paul says, 'What you listening to? Gospel.' I'm obsessed with Maverick City Music right now as well."
"This is going to sound so childish, but the strategic dinosaur board game Extinction is so much fun. We had to adopt new things during the pandemic."
MORE OF ANDRA'S OBSESSIONS INCLUDE WAIST BEADS, PARTICULARLY FROM WAISTBEADERY, AND THE ARTIST MEREBA.
Listen to + watch the video for Phone Dies HERE. Watch The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu HERE.
Fashion credits: Etro Scarf Print Bikini Top and Chain Link Buckled Belt, Zara Jeans, Cartier Panthère De Cartier Ring
Stylist Wouri Vice reflects on collaborating with Andra Day since 2014: "Working with Andra is amazing. She's a true artist and visionary who really loves to play with clothes. It becomes a full circle moment for me during fittings, because she truly appreciates the work that is put into whatever we are doing. Her fearlessness pushes our boundaries, and makes creating fun."
JUNE 2021 COVER
THE MONTGOMERY GROUP
THE WALL GROUP
MOOSE ALI KHAN
ASSISTANTS: PHOTO: DYLAN GORDON, FASHION: ALEXIA SMITH