Andra Day is banking the sort of big moments that signify a singer is on the brink of a major breakthrough.
She released her much-acclaimed debut, “Cheers to the Fall,” in the summer of 2015 via Buskin Records. Since then, she’s collaborated with pop vocalist Ellie Goulding in one of the 2016 Grammy Awards telecast’s musical highlights. And taped a Ray Charles tribute for PBS at the White House, during which she learned the president and first lady are fans.
She performed alongside New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty at the Governors Ball in Los Angeles after walking the red carpet at last Sunday’s Academy Awards. And sang a duet with Stevie Wonder in an Apple commercial.
She also scored two Grammy nominations, appeared in a major promotional campaign for designer Marc Jacobs and shared a bill with Elton John and Katy Perry at a Hillary Clinton rally.
As busy as she’s been, has Day given herself time to be awestruck?
“You continue to move forward, day after day,” she said over the phone from Los Angeles this week. “But you do. You take a second to stop and just be grateful, and think of everything it’s taken to get here.”
That said, hearing a list of recent milestones recited back to her — including President Barack Obama initiating a standing ovation in her honor — “still feels like you’re talking to someone else.”
On Monday she’ll headline the House of Blues in New Orleans with her four-piece band, joined by opening act Desi Valentine; show time is 7:30 p.m., tickets are $20. This summer, she’s booked for the massive Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee and the Sasquatch festival in her native Pacific Northwest. More major announcements are forthcoming.
At age 31, Day has toiled for more than a decade to finally arrive.
Born in Washington state, she grew up in San Diego. She has cited the arts program in her school as an early incubator of her music aspirations. She sang in church and in videos posted on YouTube.
That’s how Stevie Wonder’s now ex-wife found her, and turned him on to Day. He eventually put her in touch with veteran songwriter and producer Adrian Gurvitz, who produced “Cheers to the Fall” with R&B bassist Raphael Saadiq.
Spike Lee directed the video for the album’s first single, “Forever Mine.” Day subsequently spent two months last year opening for Lenny Kravitz.
“You get the question all the time: ‘What demographic do you want to cater to? What lane do you want to be in?’ Every artist has the same answer: None,” she said. “We just want to make music for anybody who wants to absorb it. Lenny Kravitz is the epitome of that. His audience is from all walks of life. He crosses genres and generations. For all of us, that’s what we aspire to do. That’s on top of him being a wonderful, humble and supremely talented person.”
Day turned plenty of heads with “Cheers to the Fall,” which earned a pair of Grammy nominations. The single “Rise Up” — especially the acoustic version, with its Adele-like shading — demonstrated that hers is a voice worthy of vinyl. It merits the sonic range and warmth of a vinyl album.
Like Janelle Monae and Jill Scott, Day weaves together many strands in her R&B, including soul, gospel, doo-wop and, especially, jazz. Her visual presentation, like Monae’s, is highly stylized and striking. She often wears a head scarf and hoop earrings; in non-formal settings, she is prone to retro rockabilly attire. But she can also rock a formal gown, as at the Oscars, or a full-length white fur, as at the Grammys.
Along with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, she counts TV comedienne Lucille Ball as an inspiration — and not just because of their shared affection for head scarves.
“It was her style, it was the show, but also her character,” Day said. “She set precedents. She was extremely bold. She was the first to show a pregnancy on her TV show, and the birth of her child, and her interracial marriage with Ricky Ricardo. She made so many statements, and was so charismatic and funny. She was a very, very brave woman, a pioneer. Everything about her inspires me. And she was the queen of self-deprecation.”
Day, too, is modest about her achievements. She mentions that she has met President Obama twice, and Michelle Obama three times, but adds the disclaimer that “it’s weird to even say this.”
She may be moving among presidents and the pop world’s A-listers, but is well aware there is no guarantee she’ll become one of the latter herself. She must build on her beachhead. “People tell me, ‘Oh, you were on the Grammys. You made it.’ Oh, no. The work starts today.”
With her career’s momentum still building, she’s not worried about writing her next album. “I’m a big believer in taking time to live and to experience things. As a writer, I’m a storyteller. So I have to experience, or witness other people’s experiences, and internalize them.
“If I have an idea, I’ll jot it down. But I’m not in a rush. I’m enjoying this chapter of my life.”
As well she should. You only arrive once.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.