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It’s hard to know where to start with Cynthia Erivo’s CV; the 34 year-old Londoner already has a Wikipedia page for her awards and nominations alone. Having shone on Broadway in the musical of The Color Purple, she garnered an Oscar nomination for playing the runaway slave Harriet Tubman in Harriet, and more recently an Emmy nomination for playing the Queen of Soul, Aretha.
She is in fact just the ‘O’, the Oscar, short of an EGOT, having already hoovered up an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony, and next month she is releasing an album of her own songs. Little wonder then that Oprah Winfrey, no less, has been in touch to say: hey - maybe she should slow down?
“I will never forget getting that email,” chuckles Erivo, on a Zoom call from her home in LA. To my slight surprise, her camera is off, which is a shame as the striking British-Nigerian star has gained plaudits for her red-carpet daring, favouring oomphy colourful creations by Schiaparelli, Valentino or Versace. Today, though, I just get a calm, clear, RADA-trained voice, as though this is what she wants to emphasise. It also feels, let’s be real, like a bit of a power move.
On which note - Oprah. The grande dame had noticed that Erivo was on the lists of an awful lot of things that Winfrey was also invited to - galas, performances, and so on. The missive began regally: “My dear”, and told Erivo that “you should know that you should be able to say no, sometimes.” For Erivo, an incessant grafter, this was a hard thing to process, but it’s all positive. “I’m glad it meant that she was paying attention to what was going on in my life, which meant that she cared. So that’s cool. It’s cool when Oprah Winfrey cares about you.”
And it sits arguably in stark contrast to the UK, which has been much slower, oddly, to celebrate Erivo’s talents than the USA. An early cameo in her mate Michaela Coel’s show Chewing Gum is one of Erivo’s few British-only projects, before she moved to New York in 2015 to star in The Color Purple, and her star went firmly on the ascendant. Is she closer to getting her dues here now? “I think we’ve got some ways to go,” she says with jolly but firm understatement. “We’re getting there. We’ll get there!”
Perhaps one argument the Brits might advance for neglecting Erivo is because they don’t know the ‘real’ her yet; this new album, titled Ch.1 Vs. 1, could change that. She freely admits that after the certain weight of playing so many key figures in African-American history (a little controversial to some since she is British, after all, but that’s in the past now), it was a “lovely thing to be able to do this... It’s nice for people to see the human behind all of those roles. It’s nice to sing MY songs, MY words.”
The album is certainly peppered with autobiographical clues, whether it’s You’re Not Here, a gutting ballad which details Erivo’s non-existent relationship with her absent father, or Mama, which conversely celebrates the mother who raised Erivo and her sister in Stockwell pretty much single-handedly. Erivo does, to be clear, still consider herself a Londoner - “this accent’s not really going anywhere” - and talks warmly of the south London she grew up in; the library she always went to, and Larkhall Park in Lambeth. But the city also offers less friendly memories. It was in a London Tube station that, aged 16, her father met her to give her a Travelcard - and told her and her sister he wanted no more part in their lives.
“He had had enough, I guess,” she says flatly. “He just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore… It was very unceremonious.” Erivo wrote You’re Not Here in order to move on. “When we’re hurt, we have to do that thing where we’re like, ‘oh, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, I’ll be fine’. We avoid the conversation at all costs, and try to normalise the hurt. And I was doing that for a really long time, until I got to this song where I was just like: I need to write something that’s really honest, that allows me the space to move on, to move past it.”
You’re Not Here is already a fan favourite; days before we speak, Erivo had just done a big show at LA’s Hollywood Bowl, accompanied by the LA Philharmonic, and she saw how many people related to it. “That feels wonderful. That that’s the song that they took away from it the most feels really good. It means I did something right.”
Elsewhere on the album, much attention has also gone to Hero, which strikes an eerie chord about a crying child saying “I can’t breathe”, and being held as he takes his “last gasp of air”. In fact, Erivo wrote those words years before the murder of George Floyd, and is as struck as anyone else by their prescience. She had been inspired by previous violence against black people, and by the consistent stress of the Trump years, but had never imagined something so specific. “It’s just really surreal,” she muses. “I just had an image and I wrote it down… I didn’t know that that would be what we were actually seeing.”
Others, though, were more taken by her video for another song, The Good, which shows the ebbs and flows of two young black women’s romantic relationship. Ummm... is it autobiographical? “It’s not necessarily autobiographical,” she replies, then adds, “but I am queer”. I am slightly surprised to hear her say it as I’ve not really read it anywhere before, although the internet is ablaze with rumours that she is - or has recently been - in a relationship with Master of None star Lena Waithe. Has she always identified as queer, and been at ease with that?
“Yeah, but it’s just.. I have never felt like I necessarily needed to come out - just because no-one ever really asked,” she says with an audible shrug. “People make assumptions… No-one’s ever really assumed that I’m straight!” It’s “strange” she admits. “I don’t think anyone thinks of me as a person that has relationships that aren’t platonic!” she laughs. “So I’ve never needed to even really discuss anything about my sexuality at all.” So, is she in love? “Am I in love?” she replies, suddenly extra-coy. “Maybe…” I keep reading rumours on the internet, I tell her. “Yeah?,” she replies lightly. Are they true? “I don’t know - rumours can or cannot be true!” We are getting to know the real Erivo, bit by little bit.
Ch.1 Vs. 1 by Cynthia Erivo is released on Verve on September 17