It likely is surprising to some that an Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award-winner wants to start from scratch, that someone with two Oscar nominations to their name wants to shed, or further expand upon, that which audiences have come to know about them. After all, society puts so much stock into these accolades as tangible proof of a person’s talent and excellence, and the manifestation of a creative’s wildest dreams coming true.
But a new dawn, a reintroduction, is exactly what Cynthia Erivo wants. Her chosen medium? A debut solo album aptly titled Ch. 1, Vs. 1.
“In storytelling, chapter one and verse one is the way you always begin, and because I believe I'm a storyteller, that's what I wanted to do with my music,” she says. “That's what this is about, just starting [and revealing] the human parts of me that you don't often get to see.”
By way of a 12-track journey into her mental and emotional landscape—one marked by heartbreak and sadness, but also triumph and growth—Ch. 1, Vs. 1 is a record of what writer Akwaeke Emezi calls “the unfolding of a self,” of what it means to do away with the pretense and masks we often wear as a means of survival. It’s eclectic, but not in the nice-nasty way “eclectic” is often used to convey displeasure. Rather, it’s the perfect soundtrack to a still-unfolding talent ready to be seen in her fullness, beyond the stage and screen and high fashion red carpet gowns and extravagant nail art. “Just as me, Cynthia,” she says.
The London-born actress and singer burst onto the U.S. scene in the 2015 Broadway revival of the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Color Purple. As the lead, Celie, a role she reprised after a 2013 limited run of the production internationally, Erivo captivated audiences and garnered standing ovations night after night. Her performance won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, with the production taking home the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical the same night. She and the show’s cast also won a Daytime Emmy for a performance on The Today Show and the 2017 Grammy for Best Musical Theater album.
Segueing into Hollywood, music remained integral to Erivo’s work. She made her film debut in 2018’s neo-noir thriller Bad Times at the El Royale in a role that highlighted her acting and vocal abilities. That same year, she also starred in Steve McQueen’s Viola Davis-fronted heist flick Widows. Both roles were critically acclaimed and cemented Erivo as one to watch. A year later, she portrayed the title role in Harriet, Kasi Lemmons’s biographical film about American icon Harriet Tubman for which she earned Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award nominations for best actress. Erivo also earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nods for the original song she co-wrote for the film, “Stand Up.” Most recently, Erivo embodied the late legendary songstress Aretha Franklin in the third season of National Geographic’s anthology series Genius: Aretha.
To date, most of what audiences likely expect from Erivo has an element of theatricality or cinematality to it. But with Ch. 1, Vs. 1, the 34-year-old wanted to do something different, something more reflective of her personal listening habits.
“I sort of let it go, let the stuff that I had already done and had been a part of go, because I knew people would be expecting something that sounded like a musical album,” she says.
Considering her influences run the gamut—from Miriam Makeba and Annie Lennox to Destiny’s Child and Sam Cooke, from Dusty Springfield, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to Elton John, Brandy and Monica—she wanted her debut album to similarly reflect an amalgamation of the sounds she grew up on.
“My mom would play music in the house all the time,” she reflects. “It usually was Christian music, but then randomly she'd play Diana Ross and this [Euro-Caribbean] band called Boney M. who did like funk and disco. She loved this Nigerian artist, Sir Shina Peters, and Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’” Then on the way to school, the car radio was tuned to a station that played everything from Mike + The Mechanics and Donnie Hatahway to Teddy Pendergrass and George Michael. One of Erivo’s aunties hipped her to Toni Braxton, SWV, Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown and TLC’s records.
“So I was hearing everything all the time, and it never left me,” she continues. “It sort of came together and made one strange sound that comes from me. I was singing whatever I could sing wherever I could sing it—talent shows, open mic nights.”
Having her own record was always a goal—she wrote her first song at 16—but it didn’t seem possible until she came to America. “It’s a strange place, the U.K., because there isn't very much room for Black female singers,” she says. “It's a very weird thing that happens where the girls that do the best are the white girls that sound like Black girls. So, you're watching all these white girls go do what you do, but no one is giving you a chance to do it. Moving here opened the doors for me to be able to just be and create and write and do what I wanted to.”
Ch. 1, Vs. 1 is the result. A showcase of both Erivo’s vocal stylings as well as her pen—she co-wrote every song—the album is perfectly suited for this moment in culture forever marked by a global pandemic and ongoing racial reckonings. With the bulk of the tracks written and recorded over the last two years, Erivo saw it as “a duty to tell people something.”
“I don't know how to separate writing a song from telling a story because I think each song is a story,” she says. “They're a snapshot of my life and there is an opportunity in music to make people understand the artist even more. I think that's a really special gift to have and I just refuse to waste it. Otherwise, what's the point? [It’ll be] empty words, and empty words can be forgotten. I don't want my songs to be forgotten.”
Executive produced by Will Wells, the album is a galvanizing mix of reverential, socially-inspired soul (“What In The World,” “Hero,” Sweet Sarah”), heady alt R&B and pop (“Day Off,” “I Might Be In Love With You,” “Alive”) and vulnerable, gospel-tinged ballads (“A Window,” “Glowing Up,” “You’re Not Here”). It features co-writing and production support from Jamie Hartman, Sean Douglas, Kaveh Rasteghar, Shakka Phillip, Harold Lilly and Jack Splash among others.
Then there is “The Good,” written by Jesse Shatkin, Claire Rose Autran as well as Douglas, Wells and Erivo, which serves as Ch. 1, Vs. 1’s lead single. About remembering the positive memories of a failed relationship, the catchy, smooth pop track’s Mollie Mills-directed music video is an “offering as transparent and as truthful as possible.”
Ch. 1, Vs. 1, then, is more than just a long-awaited foray into a project not tied to a film or musical. It is a sonic declaration of identity and humanity. It is a sweeping reintroduction dripping in authenticity and truth.
“It would be a wasted opportunity to not express all that I am,” Erivo adds. “This is probably one of the first times I'll get to just be myself, and be myself fully.”
But it surely won’t be the last.
TRACK BY TRACK
What In The World
Written during a peak moment in socio-political discord—a Donald Trump presidency that emboldened white supremacy, U.K.’s Brexit that divided the country—Erivo says this track serves as a wake-up call of sorts. Soaring yet sobering, it recalls a genre of protest, or movement, songs characteristic of every major social tipping point.
“It was like a lament to make people aware of what's happening, to look around,” she says. “Like at what point are we going to realize that we all as people have to take responsibility for what's happening on the planet so that we can live. Otherwise, if it goes to nothing, falls away, what are we going to do?”
“Sometimes we run away from who we've been and what we've been through, thinking that's the best way to move forward,” says Erivo about the inspiration for “Alive.” “But we have to stand flat-footed and look at those experiences, and [learn the lessons they were meant to teach].”
About “the courage and fear of facing your past,” the vulnerable track was co-written with Sean Douglas.
A soul-stirring call to action, “Hero” was written by Erivo and Kaveh Rasteghar before the murder of George Floyd. But in the still-unfolding aftermath of his death, this song takes on new meaning.
“I wrote it because I felt helpless at the start of the pandemic,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to be of some help, but I didn't know how. After witnessing George Floyd dying and screaming ‘I can't breathe’ that many times, the song transformed into something even more powerful.”
She hopes the vividity of her lyrics “paint a picture and truly captures what the world has been through during this last year.”
“I think we widely recognize visual learners, but many of us take for granted that we're auditory learners as well,” she continues. “Sometimes people don't comprehend what’s going on until they hear a song about it.”
A heart-pounding pop-soul anthem, or “joyful breakup song,” “The Good” is about the positive memories that can help heal a loss.
“I love a ballad and I love a mid-tempo, that's the thing I'm really good at,” she says. “But I said, ‘I need something that is up tempo but still feels like me.’”
After a conversation with her partner who shared how a friend remarked following the loss of her father, “I just want to remember the good,” Erivo was attracted to the idea of moving through the grief that comes with loss by “looking back and only remembering the good things.”
The oldest song on the record—first written seven years ago—”Day Off” imagines “what would it be like if I asked someone to stop working, take a minute with me and let’s just do something,” Erivo says.
She recalls her mind wandering throughout this then-hypothetical experience while at a friend’s house years ago. “Now, I know what that means. I know that feeling when you're with someone, you're both going and going, but you don't take a minute to just stop and take the whole day and spend it with them.’”
“I remember I was exhausted in the midst of running around doing the Harriet of it all,” Erivo recalls. “I just felt this overwhelming sense of being on my own. It doesn't matter how many people are around you, there are moments where you just feel by yourself.”
The unguarded “A Window” grew out of that sense of being lonely. “I call it ‘A Window,’ because that's what I saw when I was writing it, a window [out], looking for someone to help.”
I Might Be In Love With You
Sitting in a small rehearsal room in New York, with co-writer Kaveh Rastegar on guitar, the first lyrics that popped into Erivo’s mind spoke of that special moment in a budding relationship.
“I don’t know why, but ‘I’m becoming so aware I might lose myself in you’ was in my head,” she says. “It was just something I had felt before, that bit before you actually tell someone, ‘I love you.’”
A melancholic yet heartened approach to the pandemic or protest song, Erivo wanted a track that, instead of speaking to a collective, was about a singular “individual who felt alone, whose energy comes from being with other people and being out and sharing the sunlight, and now all of a sudden, we have to be behind closed doors.”
“I just wanted to write about that one person because I realize that the songs about the whole are very powerful, but sometimes they leave a person who is feeling alone feeling even more alone,” she continues. “I wanted something for one person, and that one person could be a hundred, a thousand one persons, but I wanted it to feel like it was for that person specifically.”
“About seeing a person that you might not know and understanding that they need you, that they need someone to lean on,” Erivo says, “Tears” is inspired by a true story.
One night while at dinner with a friend, Erivo saw a young man from afar who looked upset or troubled. “And because I'm me, I can't see someone like that and be like, ‘whatever,’” she says. When she went to check on him, he disclosed that he’d just come out to his table of coworkers, hoping it’d be a minor point in conversation that everyone would move past. But they didn’t and he felt uncomfortable, ducking into a corridor in the restaurant to gather himself. Erivo supported him in that moment, providing enough encouragement so he could return to his table.
“‘Tears’ is about those moments when you spot people that are in need and not being afraid of leaning into that,” she says.
You’re Not Here
When Erivo was 16, her father disowned her in the middle of a school day. The last time she saw him was almost 10 years ago, at 25 years old, at a cousin’s wedding. Now 34, “You’re Not Here” is an emotional, sonic letter to her dad about the hurt and pain of not having him around.
“This is me admitting that there are things that he’s missed and I'm sad that he’s missed them,” she says. “And there are things that he’s going to miss and I'm sad that he’s going to miss them. There is a part of me that wishes I could have my dad in my life. But there's also a part of me that's actually very comfortable because I've written this, knowing that he's not going to be a part of my life at all.”
“I wanted to write a song that felt triumphant,” Erivo says, “because I've done so much growing in these last few years and I've experienced so many wonderful things. I wanted to celebrate that.”
Taking the quote about diamonds coming from pressurized coal as inspiration, the jubilant slow-burn acknowledges how one’s hard work always pays off.
“I want anyone who hears this song to also be reminded to celebrate their growth and where they are because if they're alive and they're breathing and they've made it that day, and they've decided to make it to another day, that's an achievement,” she says.
“A thank you to the woman who raised me when she had no one else to do it,” “Mama” is Erivo’s gratitude in the form of a song.
“She's hidden in the background a lot, but she's been nothing but supportive and encouraging this entire time,” Erivo says. “The best way I can thank her is by putting her in a song because she's the one person that celebrated my music this entire time. I want her to hear that she's been celebrating me and that all the work she's put in has been noticed.”
ABOUT “THE GOOD” VIDEO
Directed by Mollie Mills, the music video for “The Good” is as cinematic as it is important for its representation of Black queer love on screen. Featuring Erivo as a woman remembering the positive memories of her failed relationship, the video captures the subtleties and nuances of love between two Black women with a care and intimacy often absent from such portrayals.
“I wanted to normalize seeing Black women in a relationship on screen, because often it's really fetishistic,” Erivo says. It was important to have “something that felt full of heart” and told the story of a relationship that had meaning to the couple but just didn’t work out. “Not that it was antagonistic or toxic, but that it just was these two gorgeous women that existed together at one time and now they don't.”
The video champions the sensuality of Black women who love other Black women, highlighting in an empowering way the mundanity of queer relationships, “like watching TV, hugging in the kitchen, sleeping and lying down together, all of those things,” Erivo says. ““I wanted that for us, because I just haven't seen it.”