Inspired by Andra Day, I’m going to start using the phrase, “Then I got a call from Stevie Wonder” as a catch-all term for an unexpected stroke of good fortune: “I was late for work, the car wouldn’t start, but then I got a call from Stevie Wonder.” That kind of thing.
Day’s phone ringing in 2010, and one of the greatest musicians of all time being on the other end of it, was the turning point in a career that up to then hadn’t been much of a career at all. Her manager at the time had filmed her singing outside a strip mall in Malibu, on the street with a microphone and amplifier. A few days later he got talking to a woman in a bakery and showed her the clip on his phone. The woman turned out to be Kai Millard Morris, Wonder’s wife since 2001 (they finalised their divorce last year). The next thing Day knew, a soul legend was on the line asking for her star sign.
“Foreknowledge is a wonderful thing,” Day, now 31, tells me. “I’d been warned he was going to call, otherwise I would have said, [sarcastically] ‘Hi “Stevie”, nice to meet you, this is Madonna, goodbye.’ He told me he loved my voice, said he wanted to write a song with me, he wanted to know what sign I was. I was living with my mother in a tiny one bedroom apartment in San Diego, I was not working, I had no income. I was at rock bottom. Kai is a wonderful woman. I owe her so much, I thank her all the time.”
Day (her first name is an unorthodox shortening of Cassandra) insists she isn’t tired of telling this story yet, which is now just one of many opportunities she has to name-drop now that her debut album, Cheers to the Fall, is out in the world. Released in the US last August, where it was nominated for Grammys for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance, it gets a belated proper UK outing this week. Since Wonder got the ball rolling with some introductions, she’s been produced by soul veteran Raphael Saadiq, had a video directed by Spike Lee and provided the soundtrack to an inspiring Beats headphones advert starring Serena Williams. She also appeared in Apple’s Christmas ad singing a cosy duet with Wonder in his house, but didn’t end up writing a song with the legend. His harmonica does pop up in sampled form at the end of her song City Burns.
She’s definitely moving in elevated circles now. When I ask about her two performances at the White House, she has to correct me: “I’ve been there three times, actually.” Last October, she was there with the First Lady, singing her empowering ballad Rise Up at the launch of a public awareness campaign for teenagers. Then there was the National Christmas Tree Lighting, alongside Fall Out Boy, Crosby Stills & Nash and Miss Piggy. And in February she was singing there again at a tribute concert for Ray Charles.
She took her parents to that one. “My mom actually had heart palpitations before we went in,” she says. “It was so surreal, having my parents hear the President and First Lady saying to me, ‘Good to see you again! We’re so proud of you, we’re loving watching your rise. We watched you on the Grammys and were like, that’s our girl!’”
Day manages to sound charming, not conceited, while telling me all this. Perched on the edge of her sofa, she’s hugely friendly and full of laughs from the off. She’s looking spectacular, fully retro in an orange headscarf, three red hairpins holding neat black curls, gigantic hoop earrings, numerous bangles giving her a jingly handshake, and a matching top and trousers that I need to ask her how to accurately describe. “It’s like a floral outerwear pyjama. I’m very fond of pyjamas. It’s sort of an ode to the boudoir.” She looks like she’s ready for a long stay in a private hospital.
“My style was established in the Forties and Fifties, then got dragged through the decades and picked up a couple more things on the way.” We talk about whether she would prefer to have lived in a different time. “It would have been so awesome to be born in the Thirties and be in your prime in the Fifties,” she says, then pauses. “Except for the whole being black thing, obviously!”
Yet she can operate effectively in this century too. She stoked interest from record labels by posting cover versions on YouTube, incuding hip hop tracks by Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. She still performs Lamar’s early song No Make-Up (Her Vice) in her live shows. “Hip hop is a part of what has raised me. I don’t like to limit myself. If it feels good, I’ll do it.”
While she can also engage in more modern, Mariah-style showboating, on her album her sound mostly looks backwards. Forever Mine is fantastic, its with chiming piano and swinging beats. Only Love swells to Bond theme proportions, while Not Today is a classsic torch song. “Jazz is the foundation. Everything I enjoy in music is built off Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.” She’s been touring over here supporting another soul throwback, Leon Bridges, but with that smoky voice and those thick slashes of black eye make-up, is most easily pegged as a safer Amy Winehouse. Her striking looks mean that you, like me, may also have mistaken her for Rihanna in that Apple advert.
With a sadness at its core, Cheers to the Fall is another breakup album in the vein of Winehouse’s Back to Black or Adele’s 21, but with a twist: in this case, Day was the one doing the dumping. “I’m not just singing about heartbreak I experienced, but heartbreak I inflicted on someone. I thought, should I really be saying all of this, all the details? But it is actually my story.” An eight-year relationship that began when she was 18 in San Diego ended when she had an affair with another man in New York.
“There’s a lot of music out there for people who are dealing with rejection but not much for people who have been the heartbreaker,” she says, then backtracks. “Not to say that we’re the victims, but people need to know that you don’t have to be the bad guy forever if you want to change.”
She and her ex are friends now, she says, and credits a strengthened relationship with God with helping her to move on from the situation. “Anybody who knows me knows I’m a very spiritual person. It’s the place from which I do everything,” she says. “It was hard facing myself first of all and realising what I had become, and then telling him the truth, talking to my family, but the freedom you experience after that is palpable. It is worth it.”
So now she can enjoy the fruits of her success without guilt. And one day, maybe she’ll be the one phoning an unknown singer out of the blue, asking about astrology and helping to make a brand new star.
Cheers to the Fall is out now on Warner Bros.