Andra Day hadn’t really started her day when she got the news. Awakened by a slew of text messages and phone calls at 6 a.m., Day silenced her cellphone and pushed it off her nightstand. Her only concern was getting a few more minutes of sleep before delving into the hectic schedule that comes with being a singer on the rise. But she soon discovered that sleep would have to wait. The dreams she imagined with her eyes closed had become a reality. Her real life was about to enter a new day.
The nominations for the 58th Grammy Awards were announced at a time when things were coming full circle for Day and her career. Two weeks prior to the announcement, Day appeared alongside Stevie Wonder and covered the legend’s Christmas classic, “Someday at Christmas,” in an Apple commercial. And in the fall, Serena Williams and Beats by Dre chose her song “Rise Up” to be featured in Williams’ U.S. Open advertising campaign.
But it was the morning of Dec. 7, 2015, that made all of the nights in the studio, rigorous travel, and lack of sleep worthwhile. After hearing the news of her two Grammy nominations, Best R&B Album (Cheers to the Fall) and Best R&B Performance (“Rise Up”), she opened her eyes and began her day by giving thanks.
“I do devotion in the morning. I pray and I read the word,” Day said during her recent rolling out photo shoot in Midtown Atlanta as she recalled the moment she got news of the Grammy nominations. “I meditated on it and my first reaction was gratitude. You start to think, ‘How could I have gotten to this point to be nominated for a Grammy?’ You look back at all the steps and wonder how it could happen. I thought about the people who loved me and believed and dedicated themselves to this project.”
When listening to Day’s music, it’s almost as if she represents a new day by gravitating to the artistic expressions of the past. If you could imagine walking through New York during the height of the Harlem Renaissance and hearing Billie Holiday, visiting Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the 1950s to witness a young Aretha Franklin, and experiencing the soul-searching music of Etta James in Chicago during the 1960s, you can begin to understand what primarily inspires Day’s sound and style.
“I’m very obsessed with pop culture of the mid-century and it goes hand-in-hand with the music that I studied in school,” said Day, who studied jazz, classical music, and theater at San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. “We studied music like Lena Horne and Billie Holiday and I would see how they were dressed. I became a huge fan of Billie Holiday.”
When I was 20, I wanted to be famous and win a Grammy, and have people respect and love me.
On the evening of her photo shoot with rolling out at Studio 2B in Atlanta, Day remained true to embracing her love for all things vintage chic. Wearing a fuchsia Dries Van Noten jacket, a powder blue Sandros sweater, yellow Maj skirt, and shoes by Sophia Webster for her first photo look, Day’s presence was like witnessing the elegant beauty of a modern-day Carmen Jones or Lena Horne. A multicolored head wrap served as her signature piece. Head wraps have become a significant part of her brand. A few moments after shooting her first look, Day explained the significance of never leaving home without a head wrap.
“I really just don’t like combing my hair,” Day said jokingly when referring to her head wraps. “It’s very much a staple of the 1950s. The reason I like it is because I’m not the big, high-glamour girl. I actually like the sort of industrial, working-class woman like Rosie the Riveter, so I’m kind of like the sort of street style of the ‘50s.”
By going against the prototypical style and sounds of today’s mainstream pop artists, Day has found a way to carve her own lane and find success within that path. But it has also given her the room to explore topics that are viewed as taboo. When infidelity is expressed in today’s music, it’s often from the apologetic male’s perspective or a female who becomes fed up with the male’s antics. On the song “Gold,” Day shares how she cheated in a past relationship.
“ ‘Gold’ is a very real song,” Day admits. “I was in a relationship with someone for almost nine years and I was not good to them. It’s a story of heartbreak told from the other side, being the heartbreaker. I lied to him and cheated on him. I just remember seeing the impact that it had on him and I remember feeling like I was trapped in a box. I’m always hiding. I’m always walking on eggshells and trying to make sure he doesn’t find out. I ended up leaving this relationship for this other one and then when I look[ed] back, I realized, God, this person was honest. He was extremely honest and I got into a relationship that ended up breaking my heart. And I realized I was looking for the wrong things. It was a very real story. So, in the song where it says, ‘You looked for a ring to fit while I played wifey with a kid,’ that is 100 percent true.”
Day’s ability to reveal true emotions through song is what got the attention of legendary artists such as Raphael Saadiq, Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder. Years before collaborating with Wonder on Apple’s Christmas ad, Wonder’s ex-wife, Kai Millard Morris, discovered Day in a video singing at a mall in Malibu, California.
How could I have gotten to this point to be nominated for a Grammy?’ You look back at all the steps and wonder how it could happen. I thought about the people who loved me and believed and dedicated themselves to this project.
“It was in 2012 and they had me sing with a little mic and amp and it was a terrible video clip,” Day recalls. “[Wonder’s ex-wife] listened to it and she liked my voice so she played it for Stevie, who liked it as well. And so, he orchestrated a call with the guy I was working with at the time and I was in a really small crappy apartment with my mother in South San Diego. He called to talk about writing songs and he talked about astrology a lot. And it was just an incredible experience. I always tell people it just felt like this huge presence, like a meteor just invaded my apartment. It didn’t work out at that time, but just by grace, they held on to my information. About a year and a half later, they reached out to me to say that they were still interested and he introduced me to the producer who I did the album with. That’s how that whole thing progressed.”
Wonder knew that Day would see the day when her music would be recognized by the masses. Being Grammy-nominated is the certifiable stamp of approval that most musicians aim to achieve.
“I’m excited to be up on the Grammy stage,” Day admits. “I’m excited to be sharing the stage with Ellie Goulding. I’m excited to be up there with my band and family because my band just happens to be the band that played on the album, so they’ve been with me for four years and they’re really family. I’m very excited to share the night with them and my mother and father.”
Grammy night remains important for Day, but she’s looking for her music to impact generations to come.
“When I was 20, I wanted to be famous and win a Grammy, and have people respect and love me,” Day says. “But now, it’s more important that my music have an impact and encourage people to be vulnerable and to be free. I want to encourage people to know that they are all endowed with a purpose that is so much greater and bigger than anything we could ever plan ourselves. I always ask people, ‘What’s your five-year plan?’ I don’t have one because had I planned this five years ago, it would’ve been too small. I really believe that music is a healing entity. I met a woman named Lisa at the airport in Atlanta awhile ago. She told me, ‘I was battling cancer and your song [“Rise Up”] really helped me get through chemotherapy and I am in remission now.’ Grammy or no Grammy, that’s changing someone’s life and encouraging. We have that power in what we do. It’s a gift.”