Andra Day Q&A: Golden Globes, ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ David Bowie, Diana Ross and Beyond

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

The career trajectory of Andra Day since 2005 has been astonishing. 

Day broke onto the R&B and pop music scenes with her monster 2015 song “Rise Up,” after being mentored early in her career by Stevie Wonder. She’s performed at the Oscars, duetting with Common on “Stand Up For Something” from Marshall in 2018, and along the way she’s become a force in the music community and outspoken on social justice causes, while “Rise Up” has racked up over a billion streams. 

And now she’s a Golden Globe winner — and also earned a nomination for Actress in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards — for her portrayal of jazz legend in the Lee Daniels film The United States v. Billie Holiday, which is currently streaming on Hulu

It’s an amazing portrayal. The musical performances are, not surprisingly, fantastic. But it’s the story — of how the U.S. government hounded Holiday, destroying her career, and her life, in the process — that feels fresh and so perfectly in tune with this moment.

Andra Day spoke with Rock Cellar about honoring David Bowie, her love of Holiday and Diana Ross, and her initial reluctance about portraying the legendary singer, which gave way to the part becoming a mission of sorts, a means of honoring a forgotten piece of music and civil rights history, and as an allegory for these tumultuous times.

Rock Cellar: How are you? The Golden Globes, huh? How are you surviving your press junket week? 

Andra Day: Thanks for asking. Yeah, I’m grateful. It’s amazing. I’ve got a great team. I’m happy. But yeah. It gets a little bit overwhelming. 

Rock Cellar: Just to start off, I loved the version of “Under Pressure” that you did for the recent David Bowie birthday show with Mike Garson and the Bowie alums. I thought that was phenomenal.

Andra Day: Oh, thank you. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Judith Hill on that one, she came up with that piano riff that I thought was so, so, so beautiful. 

Rock Cellar: I loved the people who reinvented the songs. I thought that was the way to go. It was really special. 

Andra Day: We’re definitely not going to be able to do him justice, just doing what he did. But Judith is really brilliant. That’s my sister. I love her to death, and I love working with her. She’s family and she’s musically just a force.

Rock Cellar: You’ve had an incredibly blessed trajectory. “Rise Up,” the Stevie Wonder connection, and the Marshall soundtrack. But I’ve got to ask you, to portray Billie Holiday in your first feature film — and in the starring role — that had to be an incredibly daunting transition. I have to imagine you had to be a little bit intimidated.

Andra Day: Yeah. I mean, I was incredibly intimidated. Intimidation actually is probably an understatement, because it’s my first role period. For Marshall, I literally walked on set, recorded a song, and left. But that’s what I do. That’s my job.

For The United States v. Billie Holiday, daunting is definitely an understatement. I was terrified. In fact, I was very clear in the beginning that I was not going to do it. Why would I? Because I thought there was too much risk of it being embarrassing.

I’m a huge fan. You know what I mean? I was like, “That’s what’s going to happen!” So, I was very much opposed to it. And also, as a fan of Billie Holiday’s, I assumed in the beginning that this was going to be a remake of Lady Sings the Blues, and as a fan of Billie’s, and knowing her real story — later on in her life, the real story about the government going after her, and all of the trials she faced — I didn’t want to retell that story, because Diana Ross was perfect. So was Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. I could not get that out of my head.

Plus, as a Billie fan, I was like, “I don’t want to continue to just tell a story based on the parts they were forced to keep out in 1972.”

Rock Cellar: So what made the difference?

Andra Day: Well, with prayer, I realized that I think I was intended — that I was supposed to do this — and was called to do it in an act of great faith. And then meeting Lee Daniels, the director, sealed it. He’s a brilliant, brilliant director, and just a brilliant creative, and so intuitive and tender and intentional and great. I mean, really, really, really. And he had a need to tell this story. I think he had felt frustrated and almost slighted that the government was able to successfully keep this part of Billie Holiday’s life from him.

It was like a need to vindicate her legacy, and as a fan, it was incentivizing for me to know that after this movie, the world would be able to see her as the great godmother of civil rights, which is what she was, because she reinvigorated the movement. 

Andra Day in 'The United States vs. Billie Holliday' (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Andra Day in ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Rock Cellar: I’ve got to imagine, as a young artist, and an activist, and somebody who doesn’t shrink from speaking her mind, the allegory for our times had to be really powerful to you. It had to speak to you.

Andra Day: Of course, absolutely. This story absolutely speaks to this time, and that’s why this movie is so important. I want this generation to be able to say thank you to Billie Holiday, and to see that there are so many stories of marginalized people that have been forgotten, and whose narratives have intentionally been suppressed, done away with, or changed, to limit the scope of their struggle, their contribution, and their triumph.

And so, this generation needs to know that in order for us to truly, truly move forward.

Rock Cellar: So even though we know these stories, in many ways we don’t.

Andra Day: Exactly! We actually have to top the top off these stories. And not because we’re telling the same old stories, because we’ve never been told so many of these stories before, and certainly in the detail that we’re now getting them. So in reality, we’ve never heard them. And we were intended to never know them!

So taking control of the narrative war, the narrative really starts there. That’s definitely tied to today, for that reason alone I was on board.

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