Alex Green talks to the star of stage and screen to find out why now is the time to turn to music.
“My first language was music,” explains Cynthia Erivo as she joins me via Zoom from Los Angeles.
The multi-hyphenate performer has just moments ago finished her morning workout and is still clad in her gym gear.
“I’ve been singing since I was five,” she recalls.
“There is a reason why I can stand in front of an orchestra and perform live. But I just happen to have been given the opportunity to train and learn my craft as an actress.”
London-born Erivo, 34, is indeed best known as an actress.
Her performance as Celie in The Colour Purple on Broadway made her the proud owner of a Grammy, Tony and Emmy – leaving her an Oscar away from the coveted ‘EGOT’.
But today we are talking about her eclectic debut album, titled Ch. 1 Vs. 1, and the unique challenges and opportunities she faces pivoting to the music industry.
“I feel, if someone is able to prove they are not just good at what they do, but they are meant to be doing those things, the space should be made open and available for those people to do them,” she recalls in a London accent, largely undiluted by years living in America.
“So I don’t label myself as an actress who sings, or a singer who acts. I am literally an actress and a singer. Those are what I am because it’s what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember.”
Written and recorded over the last two years, but featuring some songs dating back to around 2015, Ch. 1 Vs. 1 is something of a statement of intent.
Its title, for those unaware, refers to chapter one and verse one, and is a nod to the characteristic that binds all her work: storytelling.
“There are days when I am not on a set, but I am on a stage, at the Hollywood Bowl or at Ravinia or wherever,”Forklarer hun.
“And there are days when I’m not on a stage and not performing and I’m on set doing a show – playing Harriet, playing Aretha, playing Celie on a theatre stage.
“Having multiple talents shouldn’t penalise you from being seen and heard. It should be celebrated because someone has taken the time to learn these crafts well enough for people to pay attention.”
Erivo was born to Nigerian parents in Stockwell, sør London, and gave up an academic degree to train at the prestigious Rada drama school.
She remembers riding in her mother’s car listening to easy listening radio station Magic FM – with the music of Annie Lennox, Kate Bush, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Brandy and Dolly Parton all having an impact.
So why, på 34, has she decided to embark on this next step?
“It felt like the right time,” she offers. “I’ve wanted to make an album, I’ve wanted to make music, I’ve written music for a while. And it took someone taking a chance on me to give me the opportunity to be actually able to make it.
“It’s tough when you look like me to get a record label, to get a record deal, and it took me coming over here and doing shows and film, and showcasing what I had vocally, before someone wanted to take a chance on me as a recording artist.”
Despite finding widespread acclaim in the US, Erivo has not yet reached the status of household name at home.
This is despite roles in Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, Sir Steve McQueen’s Widows and neo-noir thriller Bad Times At The El Royale.
“There is possibly a way in which the music industry sees black women in music, and I guess I have decided that I’m OK with being myself and being who I am,” she offers.
“I know I don’t look like or sound like anyone else.
“I’m hoping the hard work and the music itself will do the work, and I’m lucky enough to have really wonderful friends, who can help to spread the word and to share in it.
“And so I’m going to keep plugging away and finding the joy, and hopefully the music industry will take notice.
“More than anything, I hope that the art of it – making the music, the sound that I make, can stand out enough for people to want to listen.”
Erivo recently transformed into the Queen of Soul for National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha series, which explores the late singer’s life on and off-stage, including her influential work supporting the civil rights movement.
Due to the pandemic, much of Ch. 1 Vs. 1 was recorded in the Atlanta property she lived in while filming.
The part helped her discover a side of her voice that had lain dormant.
“I learned what the scope of my voice was,” she recalls. “Because she used different techniques and different sounds, and I had to find those in my own voice.
“And also this very quiet, still determination that she had, that I know I have.
“But it was fully realised because I had to play her.”
That was not the only way Franklin, who died in 2018 alderen 76, inspired her.
“She had this wonderful way of finding out who she was and being unafraid of asking for autonomy and ownership in the music she made and in the sound she created.
“I learned that it’s OK to ask to be included in the ownership of something, which is sometimes really tough for artists.”
Ch. 1 Vs. 1 may mark the first time Erivo has stepped out from behind a character. But she feels her own personality is never far away when she is acting in film, TV or theatre.
“I feel they are one and the same, because whatever I do, whether it is playing a character, somehow, they are connected to who I am intrinsically,” she reflects.
“And I guess with music, you just get to see more of that because it’s me – I’m not having to put a character on top of that.
“But I care deeply for my work, I love the work I do, and that spans across music and acting.”
After a pause, she adds: “Music seems to be a part of the thread of my life and who I am.”
Ch. 1 Vs. 1 is released on Verve Records on September 17.