MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let me start with a question. Does this woman ever sleep? Cynthia Erivo has won a Grammy, a Tony and an Emmy for her acting and musical performances in "The Color Purple" on Broadway. She recently wrapped her portrayal of Aretha Franklin in National Geographic's "Genius: Aretha" series. Her first children's book is about to come out, and her debut solo album is out now. It's called "Ch. 1 Vs. 1"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOOD")
CYNTHIA ERIVO: (Singing) Gone is the way we used to smile, my dear.
MARTIN: Needless to say this, wasn't a Erivo's first time in a recording studio. But this time, she has co-written all of the songs on the album. And she is with us now to tell us more about her music. Cynthia Erivo, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
ERIVO: Thank you for having me. Hello.
MARTIN: Congratulations on everything. I have to be honest. I was double checking that this is really your first solo album. I found that hard to imagine.
MARTIN: You know, I just mentioned you played Aretha Franklin. You had this incredible role on Broadway in "The Color Purple." So how does it feel now to record your music your way, in your words?
ERIVO: If feels wonderful. It feels wonderful because, you know, there's nothing more that I love than being able to perform and interpret someone's words. And that's what I've been doing for such a long time. And I love it, I really do. And I appreciate the creativity that comes from that. But there is something very special about being able to sing your own words, to sing your own stories, which I haven't really been able to do for a long time. And to be able to share my story my way feels really special. It feels like an introduction to who I am in that - in the best way.
MARTIN: You know, something you said and an event in 2017 really struck me. It was a MAKERS event. And you were talking about how people sometimes forget that there is a person inside a role. You were specifically talking about one of your signature songs from "The Color Purple." And you were saying that you kind of - at that point, you said, I don't want to sing it anymore because people forget that at this point, you know, I've been, like, thrown around on stage for two hours and had people calling me ugly. And I was really moved by that.
MARTIN: Tell me a bit more about that. Is it that you lose yourself inside those walls, or is it that people forget that you have thoughts of your own?
ERIVO: It is a combination of both, you know. And sometimes people forget that the songs that you sing onstage aren't just party tricks. In order for me to sing that song in situ, I have to have gone through the worst of it throughout the show. And your body doesn't know that it's not happening for real. And so your body and mind starts emerge as one. And if you've done 200-odd shows, 300-odd shows and I think we did about 400-and-something shows in the end - the line between you and the character becomes very, very thin.
And so when someone asks, well, can you just sing that song again, I hope you can sing "I'm Here" again, for me, it isn't as easy as just sending someone out to sing a song. Sometimes it's quite difficult. And you have to remember that the person singing is human. And these characters that we play often stay with us. We have to kind of lose ourselves in those characters a little bit because that's the only way you can really tell the fullest truth. And you can disconnect after a while, but they never quite leave completely, I think.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for sharing that because I am imagining that a number of other artists have felt this way and have just not for whatever reason spoken about it.
MARTIN: But also playing Aretha, I wondered, did you channel anything from that experience into this album?
ERIVO: Well, yes. Funnily enough, I was recording it as I was filming. So they were sort of in tandem. I didn't plan it that way. It just happened to coincide. I started the album before the pandemic hit, but then we pushed that back. And I was lucky in that, when playing Aretha, I was sort of learning about really being intentional about how you sing something because that really was Aretha's superpower - being able to tell a story through song in the most intimate way.
And also, it was about learning the confidence to say yes or no to something. And we were just finishing up an episode where she had asked to be a producer on "Amazing Grace." And it reminded me that I could ask for the same. So I am actually a producer on my own album as well. So it meant a great deal to be able to channel that woman who gave me the permission, I guess, to ask for the things I was afraid to ask for and to really dive into the detail of work on this album.
MARTIN: So can I - would it be inappropriate for me to say, you go, girl? Excuse you. You go, girl.
ERIVO: Thank you. It would not be inappropriate at all.
ERIVO: Thank you.
MARTIN: In fact, you know, you talked about the pandemic, and you also talked about telling a story. So let me play a song from the album that I think a lot of people can relate to right now. It's called "Sweet Sarah."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SARAH")
ERIVO: (Singing) Forever it goes on and on. Feels like she won't make it. Sweet Sarah has been home so long. She's lost the will to move. I can't blame her. As the music plays, I can only feel the gloom. Oh, I only feel the gloom.
MARTIN: I am dying to ask you what you had in mind when you were writing this because I can tell you that so many people felt these - this way over the last year and a half. What was the inspiration for this?
ERIVO: It was that. So I realized that, you know, throughout the pandemic, people were writing songs about social injustice and social unrest and the pandemic and being separated. But as a whole, and my - I wanted to write something for the individual. I wanted to write about the singular person who is at home but is used to being around people and is used to being in spaces with lots of energies and being able to share with people, and now they're sort of confined to one space by themselves. And I wanted to speak to those people and anyone who felt like that. And there's
MARTIN: Another song that also feels very - feels like something that many people have felt, and that's "You're Not Here."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NOT HERE")
ERIVO: (Singing) When I run, I'm running to your arms. And when I sing, I'm singing to your heart. I feel you near in my moments of fear. But when I open up my eyes, I see it clear. It's only in my dreams that you are here. You're not here.
MARTIN: I'm reminded, as you said, that there's a person behind the performer. But this is a song that speaks very profoundly to something that many people experience. Would you mind sharing the inspiration for this one?
ERIVO: Yeah. I mean, what I have realized as I've been singing is that this song speaks to loss as a whole. For me, it was about - this is about my father and the relationship that we have, which is not the best of relationships to the point where, right now, it's almost nonexistent. And this was just - it was a little moment for me where I had to admit at that time that I was feeling hurt, but then I needed to sort of let go of that. And the best way for me to let it go was just to sing it, to write it, because then I got the chance to move on. But I've realized since then that it's a song about any kind of loss. If you've lost anyone, that that is the same feeling. It's a grief.
MARTIN: It seems in a way that many of your songs are letters to people who you don't personally know but who you know are out there.
MARTIN: How do you decide who you want to sing to? Is it just - do you get a feeling that there's a message that's needed?
ERIVO: Yeah, because - so, you know, a lot of the album is about those people that I probably have met or I know someone who will understand this song or who this song is for. "Sweet Sarah," randomly, I sent it to a friend whose name is Sarah. And I didn't realize - my brain didn't for some reason put two and two together. So when I sent it to her, she sends a message back and goes, how did you write this song? Did you realize this song was about me? And I didn't put two and two together until she had sent me that message. So by accident, I had written the song that, yes, it was for each individual that I had never met, but it really was for her as well. And I had a message from someone who said that my daughter who's 8 years old thinks that this song is for her.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Aw.
ERIVO: And I was just like, this is wonderful.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything. I do want to play one more. This one's called "Glowing Up."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLOWING UP")
ERIVO: (Singing) 'Cause diamonds don't shine till they been buried alive, oh. But I've been in the rough for long enough. Tonight, I'm glowing up.
MARTIN: So have you been in the rough long enough?
ERIVO: I think I have, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah (laughter).
ERIVO: And there'll be more growth. There's going to be more growing to do. There's going to be more roughs to be in and I'll come out new again, many times, I think. I think that's what the song is is just about evolving and growing. And, for me, I've just in the last few years as a person have learned and grown a lot. So that song is sort of like an homage and a celebration of how far I've come.
MARTIN: That was Cynthia Erivo talking to us about her debut solo album, "Ch. 1 Vs. 1" Cynthia Erivo, it's been truly a delight. Thank you so much for speaking with us. And congratulations on all that you've accomplished and all you are yet to do.
ERIVO: Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was lovely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.