The Grammys can launch a new artist, and one stood out when it came to album sales after last month’s awards show. Andra Day didn’t win in either of her nominated R&B categories, for her album Cheers to the Fall or her performance of her song “Rise Up.” But she sang that hit in a mashup with Ellie Goulding that night, prompting a reported 429 percent spike in sales of her stellar debut.

“The whole experience was a joyous one,” the budding retro-soul star says of the Grammys, praising Goulding as “a light on the inside and out” in their duet of oddly matched songs but kindred spirit. “Everything just kind of felt like a win already.”

While she’s not yet a household name, Day is no stranger to television exposure. She spent the holidays crooning “Someday at Christmas” in an Apple ad with Stevie Wonder and his children. And she’s sung “Rise Up”—an anthem of personal empowerment capped with emotive cooing—everywhere from talk shows and CNN’s Heroes ceremony to the White House and Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

“What makes [that song] so adaptable, and what inspired me, is just the simplicity of the message,” Day says from an airport terminal in Washington DC. “There’s a lot going on, in the political and the racial climate and with gender and sexuality, and sometimes people need a simple message for them to persevere. … No matter what you’re going through, whether you’re battling cancer or you’re struggling to get up in the morning, you just need someone to nudge you.”

The 31-year-old Day, born Cassandra Monique Batie, remembers mornings when it seemed like she was making little progress on a career path that began with singing in church at a young age and attending a performing arts school.

“Overnight success,” she muses with a laugh. “It took me 14 years to get there!” Eventually, Wonder heard a recording through his then-wife and called the tiny San Diego apartment that Day shared with her mother. “It was like a meteor hit my house,” Day says. “I was thinking, ‘Why is he laughing like he’s just normal!’ ”

Wonder introduced her to Adrian Gurvitz, who co-wrote many songs on Cheers to the Fall and shared production duties with multi-instrumentalist Raphael Saadiq. Cameos included Wonder on harmonica and the Roots’ Questlove on drums. It’s all tied together by Day’s brassy, dynamic vocals and autobiographical lyrics, some of which reflect an 8-year relationship in which she was unfaithful.

“I was just moved to tell the truth—and tell the ugly parts too, not just talk about the heartache that I experienced but the heartache I inflicted on someone else,” she says. “There’s always redemption if you want to grow.”

With the music, Day adds, “I like things that are kind of bombastic and anthemic and [was] trying to take that and match it with the coolness of hip-hop and the complexity of jazz… I wanted it to be cool, but I also wanted it to be big.”

She follows similar impulses in her wardrobe, favoring do-rags, hoop earrings and furs, evoking her main musical influence, Billie Holiday, as well as Amy Winehouse. “We’re cut from the same cloth,” Day says of Winehouse, citing their rockabilly fashion sensibilities. “She loved jazz, and we have a similar timbre to our voices.”

Among other key influences, Day names Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, followed by newer jazz/soul singers Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill. But when it comes to her fashion icons, Day singles out Lucille Ball. “I loved not just the way she dressed but her character, her charisma and her boldness,” says Day, who managed to make both the best- and worst-dressed lists at the Grammys. “You’re not doing anything unless you end up on both.”

Just don’t expect to catch Day, who plays the Sinclair on March 20, acting the diva. “I never felt like it’s a competition,” says the singer, who’s generous and down-to-earth with both her band and audiences. “It’s a misconception that there’s not enough for everyone.” Even at the Grammys.


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