Still relatively new to the music business, American singer/songwriter and actress Andra Day’s star illuminates, thanks to her new role as Billie Holiday in the new biopic and accompanying 13 track album, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”
Discovered by Stevie Wonder’s wife in 2010, performing in a strip mall, Day, a San Diego native, signed a developmental artist contract with Buskin Records a year later. Her debut album, “Cheers to Fall,” (2015) was met with acclaim, peaking at #48 on the US Billboard 200 with help from the monster single, “Rise Up,”(two times platinum).
Scheduled for a Feb. 26 streaming release in the United States by Hulu, Day’s turn as Billie Holiday (1915-1959) is especially empowering. The focus of the documentary, “Holiday,” was an innovative Jazz and Swing singer, who was targeted during her lifetime by the government, in an effort to racialize the war on drugs. It ultimately aimed to stop her from singing the controversial song “Strange Fruit,” based on a poem about lynching.
Vocally similar to Amy Winehouse who sang with powerful, gritty tones and with flashes of Adele’s pop instincts, Day’s ability to match Holiday’s higher ranges sustains. The yearning album opener, “All of Me,” makes up for the legendary feeling lost on these re-recordings. Holiday’s original tapes still resonate a soulful potency in part because of the crackling, aged production of the masters.
Day’s take of “Strange fruit” follows, casting a somber atmosphere. Graphic, evocative poetry like “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees” resonates with a country still reconciling with its racist history.
Not just an album of faithful covers, Day’s “Tigress and Tweed,” thanks to updated Hip-Hop grooves with vintage-sounding piano fills and back-up singers (a la Raphael Saadiq’s production queues), plays out as if Holiday recorded her track in the 21st century.
“The Devil and I Got Up to Dance a Slow Dance” another original, this time by Charlie Wilson (The Gap Band feat. Sebastian Kole), is the only track that doesn’t feature Day. Wilson’s deep vocal timbre, along with complementary hymn-like Gospel back-up singers, indues a staggering presence on the record.
Other songs like the brooding, anti-social “Solitude,” lively compositions like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (a jazz standard) and “Them There Eyes” illustrates her unique ability to keep up with Holiday through an array of emotions rooted in Blues and Jazz.