A strong performance at the Grammys helped draw attention to the San Diego-based R&B singer who doesn't shy away from the word "retro."

andra day photo
Andra Day

The debate after the Grammys focused on Lady Gaga’s frenetic tribute to David Bowie, while singer Andra Day’s spot was received with less conflicted acclaim. She didn’t get Kendrick Lamar love, but when the singer nominated for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Album for Cheers to the Fall sang “Rise Up,” Linda Hays from E! Online declared her “a vision in white taking the stage solo at the top of the performance, as she was illuminated in spotlight and began belting her song while accompanied on piano.” She shared the spot with Ellie Goulding, and the pairing prompted Perez Hilton to write, “The twosome blended their individual hits ‘Love Me Like You’ and ‘Rise Up’ into a number that made it seem like it was one song. Well done! Does anyone want them to release an album together in the near future?? Umm, because we most certainly do!” Hilton went on to quote a tweet from Anna Kendrick: “Holy shit @elliegoulding @AndraDayMusic that changed me. Whoever thought to put those two voices together - well done.”

Day performs at the House of Blues tonight, and she’s thankful that the telecast’s producers gave an artist nominated for a debut album a spot that prominent. They put Day and Goulding on the small stage located out in the audience, and you might think that being isolated and surrounded by members of the music industry would be distracting and nerve-wracking, but it wasn’t for Day. The limited stage meant that all she had to do—and really, all she could do—was sing.

Even the spot’s mash up-like format suited Day. She segued from Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” in one video she posted on YouTube while trying to find her audience, and “He Can Only Hold Her” by Amy Winehouse and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill. 

The cover video strategy is one Justin Bieber used to get attention as an unsigned Canadian teenager, and it’s one a cappella group Pentatonic used to transition from a reality show competition winner (of NBC’s The Sing-Off) into an actual music career. Day began doing them in 2012 when she performed her version of Muse’s “Uprising,” and over the more than two years that she did them, Day gave people a chance to hear musically spare covers that bent rock, hip-hop and pop songs to her jazzy R&B style. Her choices were largely contemporary and included songs by Florence and the Machine, Jessie J, and Eminem as well as Lionel Richie.

Day singing Amy Winehouse seems natural in retrospect since her voice casually brings to mind that of Winehouse. Critic Steven J. Horowitz heard the connection so clearly that in his review of Cheers for the Fall for Billboard, he wrote, “At times, she so closely resembles Winehouse that it's hard to tell where Back to Black ends and Cheers to the Fall begins.” But, he continues, “she shouldn't be dismissed as a carbon copy -- the LP, inspired by an eight-year ­relationship's end, is too genuinely intentioned and rife with regret.”

Horowitz overstates the similarity, and what exists is more a case of shared influences despite coming from very different places—Winehouse from London, Day from San Diego. Both attended performing arts schools, and that is where Day first heard singers Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, while Winehouse grew up with jazz music in her house. The two also shared a love of hip-hop and R&B—the latter the music Day grew up with, thanks to her dad. But Day’s mother liked Journey and Fleetwood Mac, so Day grew up with that as well.

It’s tempting to draw connections between Day and Winehouse because in addition to the voice, both have distinctive, retro looks as well. Winehouse’s was more thrift shop chic, while Day’s is classic and sleek starting with a wrap around her hair. The YouTube covers series helped introduce viewers to her signature style as even in the Muse cover she appeared with her hair up, cat’s eye eyeliner, a leather jacket and cut-off shorts—a little bit Blue Note, a little bit drag strip. At the Grammys, Day was in a gown, and she often performs in classic, slinky dresses, and that came from the singers she loved as well as the rockabilly community in Southern California—women with strength, style, and femininity. 

Day has had a good last few weeks. In addition to her Grammy appearance, she performed at the White House as part of a tribute to Ray Charles that also included Usher, The Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Yolanda Adams, Demi Lovato and The Band Perry. It was her second time performing for the President and First Lady, and that night she sang a swinging “Let the Good Times Roll” with Anthony Hamilton. It’s an honor that suggests that Day has been a big deal in waiting. Stevie Wonder is part of her discovery story, and the band on Cheers to the Fall includes DJ Jazzy Jeff and members of Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings, and it was produced by hitmakers Questlove, Adrian Gurvitz, Raphael Saadiq and Fitz and the Tantrums’ songwriter and producer Chris Seefried. Day cut much of the album with Gurvitz first, then worked with the other producers to flesh it out and fine tune the songs. Saadiq and Seyfried were particularly inspired choices because both specialize in finding ways to sound retro while remaining contemporary. Saadiq particularly has a good ear for the sonic details that evoke a period or scene, even when little else in the song does.

Perhaps because New Orleans is a music community that frequently has to figure out how to be contemporary and classic at the same time, Day killed last summer in a Superlounge at the Essence Music Festival. At that point, Cheers to the Fall was still on Warner Brothers’ release schedule, so she had little music in circulation beyond the cover videos. Still, the size of the crowd testified that the YouTube strategy paid dividends, and the songs were so immediate that the audience responded as if she was singing the songs they’d loved for years. I left and immediately looked for “Forever Mine” and “City Burns” while driving home. The latter’s cinematic quality translated to the live show, and it’s a testament to the strength of the songs on the album that it doesn’t show on Cheers to the Fall until the second-to-last song, in front of the title track.

Day didn’t win a Grammy, but the appearance gave her exposure—often a clichéd, empty gain, but in Day’s case it manifested as Pandora reporting a 661 percent increase in streams of her music, well more than the boost received by Grammy performers Little Big Town, Lionel Richie and The Alabama Shakes. Now she’s on tour and following up, meeting America in person. 

“I love tons of jewelry, and glass and furs,” she told the San Diego Union-Tribune’s George Varga. “I like to say I was established in in 1950s, and got dragged through the (subsequent) decades! It’s also a part of the music and pop culture I studied.”