24 hours with Andra Day: Afrobeat and the Nixon Tapes
By Alexis Soloski
Singer-songwriter Andra Day was 11 when she first heard Billie Holiday’s voice. “I heard ‘Sugar’ and I heard ‘Strange Fruit.’ It changed my idea of what a great singer was,” she said. When she began performing, she chose a stage name — her given name is Cassandra Monique Batie — that paid homage to Holiday’s sobriquet, the Lady Day. And a few years ago, when she learned Lee Daniels would soon direct a Holiday biopic, Day, who had never acted professionally before, knew that she had to audition.
“The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which debuted on Hulu last month, shows how government agents worked to suppress “Strange Fruit” and how Holiday defied them. In the film, Day, swathed in opulent Prada gowns, sings song after song, which required transforming her shot-silk voice into Holiday’s raspier one.
“Her voice is a scroll,” Day said, speaking from the Los Angeles home she shares with her mother and two cousins. “And her whole experience is written on it. Every time she slammed heroin, every time she did a speedball, every time she stood up against the government, every time she was hit or she dragged a cigarette, everything’s written there.”
To achieve that graveled tone, Day smoked and drank. She spoke louder than normal and quit hot tea and scarves. “It was definitely a transformation emotionally, spiritually and physically,” she said.
She stayed in that voice throughout the 2019 shoot out of sheer desperation, she said. As a first-time actor, she didn’t feel she could risk coming back to herself and then struggling toward the character again. Then she stayed in it longer for pickup scenes and dialogue recording. Even now, she’s still recovering, working with an ear, nose and throat specialist to rehab her voice.
Hard work and the vocal cord hemorrhaging brought her a pair of Golden Globes nominations, for Actress in a Drama Motion Picture and Original Song, “Tigress & Tweed.” “I woke up to a call from my manager, who told me that we were nominated twice, and I just cried,” she said. (At the online ceremony Sunday, she won for her performance. And cried again.)
In between press events for the film and the occasional Zoom concert, Day took time to describe a day’s worth of activities, from morning devotion to late-night YouTube playlists. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
I try not to do anything — have any conversation, engage with any social media — before I pray. My faith is a huge part of me. I start out with gratitude. I also ask God to take anything that’s causing confusion. Then I’ll go through the list of prayer requests. I end with thanks as well. I read scripture from the New King James Version Bible, and I meditate on it and how it should be applied in my life.
The night before the Golden Globes (nominations), I came into prayer with this feeling of guilt, of shame, of unworthiness. I started bawling because a scripture I had read earlier was unlocked for me. It reminded me to stop worrying, and stop being paranoid, to just open your eyes and realize you are already loved.
Exercise, I love it so much. I try to get something in whether it’s cardio or weights or just engaging my muscles. Today it was stretching and then high intensity interval training stuff. I lost about almost 40 pounds for the role. People would ask me, are you going to keep it off? I was like, “Hell, no. I love eating.” But I like the way it feels on my body. My joints definitely feel healthier. It’s also for clarity, for peace of mind. And it’s nice to be able to fit a sample size. Yummy Prada.
I arranged headshots for my young cousins who are just starting out in acting. They’re very, very talented. They’ve been taking classes with Tasha Smith, who was my acting coach for the film. I believe so heavily in the work that she does. I’m trying to run away from the role and she’s like, “This is yours.” I did their makeup for the shoot. They were so excited.
I listened to a playlist with Tiwa Savage, Rema, Chronixx, Burna Boy and Wizkid on it. I listen to everything. People think I’m just this encyclopedia of jazz music, but I listen to so much. It puts me in such a great place. I can get lost in it. I also am big into Malian music. I love Tinariwen. I love Oumou Sangaré. And all these great island artists, like Rihanna.
I went to my music director’s studio, Music Evolutions, in Sherman Oaks, for two virtual performances. There was one for the Apollo. Then there was a corporate gig. I would always tell my audience, this performance does not work without my contribution and your contribution. So it’s kind of rough when you’re just looking down the barrel of the camera. I just try to remember that they’re there, and that it does matter.
At home, I met with the creative director Myriam Santos to look for visual inspiration for the music video for “Tigress & Tweed” — the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Party. Then I watched “All American” with my cousin. It’s a soap opera, high school-type drama. Obviously my 18-year-old cousin is very much into it.
I was on the treadmill, listening to “Spiritual Authority” by Watchman Nee. It’s an amazing book. Anything written by human hands you have to take with a grain of salt, but I love the premise of spiritual authority as a place of servanthood and of humility. It’s been feeding me really heavily in this season.
I have ADD. When I’m reading or listening for too long, my mind will stop absorbing the information. So, I jump between books. I moved over to “Assata,” the autobiography of Assata Shakur, with a foreword Angela Davis. It’s revelatory. She was a brilliant woman, and what she had to endure from the police and the overarching white society of the time was unbearable. I think it’s important to know those things. So, we can say, “OK, here’s the truth. Now we know how to move forward.”
I’ve started working on a screenplay. As research, I listened to the Nixon tapes. My drummer put me onto them. They’re horrible. They really are. But also comical. God bless, men, right? Sometimes they just say (stuff) that is so stupid, with full confidence. I shouldn’t, but I find them hilarious.
I say the Lord’s Prayer before I go to sleep and I listen to calming music, because I can’t have complete silence. That would stress me the hell out. I don’t sleep. I’m working on it, though. I go to YouTube and look up, like, “calming music.” I’ll click on whatever.