For Cynthia Erivo, this has been “a whole year of working and creativity.” It started with the actress/singer’s Emmy Award-nominated portrayal of Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha series. Now the year is culminating with two career firsts: the Sept. 17 release of her debut solo album, Ch. 1 Vs. 1, and the Sept. 28 publication of her first children’s book, Remember to Dream, Ebere.
“I don’t know where I get my energy,” Erivo says with a laugh. “But it’s probably because I just love my work and the things I do.”
That creative emotion resonates throughout Ch. 1 Vs. 1 (pronounced Chapter One Verse One). Released through Verve/Universal Music Group, the engaging project weaves together multiple genres from alt R&B and soul to pop and gospel as Erivo explores love, loss, triumph and personal growth, among other themes. The Grammy-, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress-singer co-wrote all the album’s 12 tracks, collaborating with writer-producers such as Jamie Hartman (Lewis Capaldi, Jennifer Hudson), Sean Douglas (Lizzo, Demi Lovato), Harold Lilly (Beyoncé, Brandy) and Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar). Will Wells (Imagine Dragons, Quincy Jones) executive produced.
The self-empowering “Glowing Up” is the latest single, preceded by “The Good,” “Day Off” and “Alive.” These and other songs like the socially conscious-themed “Hero,” the achingly brilliant “I Might Be in Love With You” and the searing “You’re Not Here” showcase the depth of Erivo’s stirring, heartfelt vocals and her musical muse beyond the stage and screen.
Having recently wrapped production as the Blue Fairy in Disney’s remake of Pinocchio starring Tom Hanks, Erivo chatted with Billboard about her “new beginning” as a singer-songwriter, her “musical” brain and the importance of “dreaming big.”
What inspired the album’s title?
The beginning of a book is always chapter one. And this is another beginning for me because I haven’t done this before; a new frontier that I’m stepping into. But [the title] also allows for the continuation of that; to create more chapters, hopefully, if given the chance.
How did it feel to step into the studio and be you versus singing as someone else?
It’s been very exciting to record my own music. But I’ve been singing since I was five and had been recording for a while, so it felt like home. I started recording the album maybe about a year and a half ago. However, I started writing a long time ago while working all over the world. Some of these songs are seven years old. But because I felt like they fit on this album, I brought them back with the help of my great co-writers and producers. Other songs were written more recently. I always write inspired by my own life experiences or by people I’m thinking about from those experiences.
Do you play any instruments as well?
Someone said to me that I write like I play. But I don’t play any instruments. My brain is just very musical; I hear melodies in my head. In my work, I’ve been around a lot of musicians in bands and orchestras, so you learn a lot very quickly. And I know melody and harmony very well because I’ve done a lot of backing vocals. I also have a very eclectic taste in music. My mother and I listened to all sorts including rock and roll and R&B. Everything musically on this album is something I’ve listened to before — and something that I love.
What prompted your latest single, “Glowing Up”?
I wanted to write a song about celebrating the growth we experience after working really hard in our lives. And it doesn’t necessarily mean making more monetarily. It’s about having grown more in our souls and hearts. I’ve come a long way from where I was to where I am right now and wanted a song to mark that growth for me and others who’ve grown in their lives as well.
Then between recording and acting, you found time to write a children’s book.
Yes [laughs]. It’s about a young girl being taught to dream big and to dream specifically: like put all the details into the dreams that she has. It’s something that I’ve experienced and live by. Whenever I have a big dream, aspiration or aim that I want to get to, I try to think about all the things the dream entails so I can see it and believe it feels like reality. So then I can make it reality.