Cynthia Erivo talks Black representation in U.K. pop, her debut album and one song that drove her to tears

Cynthia Erivo (Photo: Terrell Mullin)

Cynthia Erivo (Photo: Terrell Mullin)

British singer-songwriter and actress Cynthia Erivo has already achieved more than most artists could ever imagine. At age 34, she’s just one letter away from an EGOT (having already won an Emmy, Grammy, and Tony), and she has also been twice-nominated at the Oscars and Golden Globes. This past weekend, she made her headlining debut at the world-famous Hollywood Bowl. But surprisingly, the Color Purple/Harriet/Genius: Aretha Franklin star of stage and screen has never released an LP of original material — until now. Her debut album, Ch. 1 Vs. 1 , comes out Sept. 17, and she says it wasn’t until U.S. record label Verve Records signed her that she even had such an opportunity.

“It’s been a long time coming. There’s songs on there that around seven years old; there’s songs on that are three years old; there are some songs I wrote last year,” Erivo tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “I’ve been writing music for a long time, but I haven’t really been given this space to create an album.”

Erivo, who was born to Nigerian parents in South London, explains that when she was growing up in the U.K. listening to the radio station Magic FM, she was influenced by everyone from Brandy, Mary J. Blige, and Faith Evans, to Lalah Hathaway and Lauryn Hill, to Annie Lennox, Duran Duran, and even Mike & the Mechanics. But it never seemed like there was much room for Black female singers in the existing British pop market.

“There were Black voices, women who would create music, but often that wasn’t attractive [in the music industry],” Erivo recalls. “What was attractive was — and she’s amazing — but like, a Joss Stone. That was more interesting to hear, like a white girl who sounded like a Black woman who had soul. And often that was the case. We weren’t as interesting as the other. And it’s sad, because I feel like there could have been space for all of us, really. And we’re still trying to catch up. There isn’t a lot to look at when it comes to music from Black artists in the U.K., especially for artists who are making R&B and soul. There are very few, and when they come, they go quickly. … It would probably take an hour go into it, lots of theories as to why this is, but it is what it is. There are artists like myself who aren’t as lucky to get recognition for the work that they do. But they deserve it.”

Now that Erivo has finally been given the chance to sing about her own experiences, rather than in character, Ch. 1 Vs. 1, on which she co-wrote every song, is an extremely personal and vulnerable body of work. There’s “The Good,” which “puts the spotlight on Black female love”; the Black Lives Matter anthem “Hero,” which was written four years ago and, sadly, is just as relevant in 2021; and “Alive,” the album’s “super-sexy and sensual” the latest single. But one track resonated with Erivo so deeply that it was difficult for her to even sing it in the studio without breaking into tears.

“‘You’re Not Here’ is probably the most intense; I could barely get through recording it, and you’ll hear at the end of it that I’m crying,” Erivo confesses. “I struggled to get through it, and I struggled to listen to it again after I recorded it. So, I think that’s one of the most intense songs for me.”

“You’re Not Here” is about Erivo’s father, who disowned Erivo and her younger sister at a London Underground station when Cynthia was 16 years old. “That one was specifically about my father and the relationship that we have — or will not have. It just was a story that I hadn’t really found the words to express until writing the song. And so when I got around to it, I wanted to be as honest as I possibly could about where I was with that relationship, how I felt in it,” says Erivo. “Us single-parent kids, or kids who know their fathers and whose fathers who have left, we often sort of resign ourselves to: ‘I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.’ But actually, I think most of us really do care, and it does matter. And we just don’t have the words to explain or describe or express it. I wanted this song to be for all the kids who felt like they’d been left alone, and to let them know that it’s OK to admit that feelings are real, because that’s really the only way you can actually let go. And for me, it actually made it really a lot easier to let go of what was, just because I was able to express it.”

The last time Erivo saw her father was almost a decade ago, when she was 25 years old, at a cousin’s wedding, and she has no idea if he’ll ever hear “You’re Not Here.” But that’s not the point. “Strangely enough, I didn’t think about whether or not he would hear it or not — because I didn’t write it for him,” she stresses. “I really did write it for myself. If he does hear it and it has a reaction, then wonderful, but I’m not looking to restart our relationship. I’m not looking to begin again.”

Conversely, Erivo’s album also includes a thank-you song dedicated to her mother, “Mama,” which her mother hasn’t heard yet; Erivo plans to play it for her mom in person once she visits in London in a couple months. “I think I’ll just go to the house, sit down and play the song, and wait for the reaction,” she says with a sweet smile.

Ch. 1 Vs. 1 comes shortly after Erivo’s latest Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s anthology series Genius: Aretha, and along with her other above-mentioned influences, that “Aretha energy” is in the mix, as she was recording much of the album while shooting that series. Interestingly, Genius: Aretha also coincides with the release of the Franklin biopic Respect starring Erivo’s former The Color Purple Broadway co-star, Jennifer Hudson; while Erivo says a laugh that she and Hudson didn’t trade “Aretha tips” when they approached the role, she adds, “I have wished her well and sent congratulations, because I think it’s just really exciting that there are two projects about Aretha out at the same time. I think that rarely do we get to celebrate the icons in this way, and to have both a movie and a series out all at once, it’s kind of wonderful. And I hope [Franklin is] smiling down on us all.” 

Erivo also is very open to doing some sort of Franklin-themed performance with Hudson at a future awards show or event: “I would be very game for that! I would love to do something like that happily, yeah! That would be really cool. That’s a good idea.”

Hudson obviously got her start on American Idol, and Erivo has been a guest mentor on that show twice. So, she bristles when talent shows like Idol or The Voice criticize contestants for being “too Broadway” or “too theatrical,” especially as she makes her transition to the pop market. “I think people make the assumption that you can’t make the transition from Broadway, which is untrue, because the fact is, you’ve had to learn your craft really well in order to get to Broadway in the first place,” she points out. “That comment comes from people who have never been on Broadway, ever, and actually don’t know very much about the craft, full stop. And it drives me nuts. … I feel like it’s a bit of a cop-out, because it’s not really a critique to me. And I think sometimes it belittles the work that people on Broadway do. Eight shows a week is not a joke. … It’s a really, really tough job that requires you to be brilliant.”

Erivo isn’t against returning to Broadway or the West End for the right role someday, but for now she is focusing on the launch of Ch. 1 Vs. 1 as well as her latest big-screen endeavor, a remake of The Rose, for which she will not just be the lead actress but also the co-producer. Original The Rose star Bette Midler — who gave Erivo her blessing — was nominated for a Best Actress for the original 1979 musical drama about a self-destructive singing star, and Erivo’s new version just may be the project that puts the “O” in her pending EGOT status. 

“From your lips to God’s ears,” Erivo chuckles.

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The above interview is taken from Cynthia Erivo’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.

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