When Cynthia Erivo sings, her sound fills the room—as if her soul were flying through her voice. “You use the word fly and that’s kind of what it feels like,” the Tony Award-winning performer says. “It’s a weird moment where you’re inside the music and it feels like you’re inside the center of the sound and everything feels relaxed and everything sort of melts away.
“It’s like a weightlessness. It’s pure joy. It’s the place I go where absolutely anything is possible,” she adds. And it’s the place audiences will go during her PBS Stars in Concert special for Live From Lincoln Center May 10 (9PM).
Ahead of the concert airing, Erivo—who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Celie in Broadway’s 2015 revival of The Color Purple—shared the personal stories behind five of the songs in her secret set list. (She even gives us a glimpse at clips from two of those songs below.)
“I’m most drawn to the pieces that tell stories,” she says. “I’m lucky enough to be curious enough to see where my voice can be pushed and how I can use my voice. What that did was wake up a curiosity about different styles of music. It’s why I ended up singing Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston in the same set.”
But no matter the song, expect that weightlessness and jubilation. “I keep being told that when I sing I smile a lot and [people] being like, ‘I don’t know how you sing like that,’ but it’s because it feels so good.”
“I Just Had to Hear Your Voice” by Jud Friedman, Allan Rich
“Back home in London, I have a very close network of good, good friends of mine, who I consider family. And one of them seems to just have this really beautiful way of knowing exactly what my voice could and could not do. One day, we were talking about music and he said to me—his name is Ezra—‘Have you heard this song before?’ You couldn’t find the song anywhere, I actually had to get somebody to transcribe it for me. There’s something about the way Oleta [Adams] sings; her mastery of melody is really beautiful, she doesn't do many tricks with her voice. Its use of lyric and melody is really special. That song stuck. As for [who I think of] sometimes I want to hear my mom’s voice, sometimes I want to hear my sister’s, sometimes my other half, sometimes it’s friends, then sometimes I make it about the people I’m singing to. Because the last word in the song is ‘goodnight.’ Usually, I place it at the very end, so it is a sentiment of ‘I’m here because I want to be here and see you and be you and now I’m saying goodnight.”
“Johnny and Donna” by by William J. Lee, Kortney Pollard
“I feel like—aside from it being a story of two lovers who found themselves apart and trying to figure out how to make things work—I think it really is a story about how we as humans figure out a way to keep moving forward. When I sing it, I use it as a reminder to tell people—because I know there are going to be people in the audience who’ve come to the evening to forget some things or to laugh because they haven’t laughed in a while or to cry because they haven’t cried in a while. This song feels like a little space where people can be told that ‘Whatever you’ve are given, you are going to be OK.’ [And the lyric] ‘Whether you’re Johnny and Donna, or neither of the two, just try to make the best of what’s given to you’ and the refrain feels like a laugh. It’s the all-encompassing song about we as human beings and the world and how sometimes we’re fortunate and sometimes we’re not, but wherever we are in our journeys we will be OK.” Hear her sing a clip of it below.
“Why” by Annie Lenox
“When I first heard this song I want to say I was about 11 or 12 years old. It reminds me of this particular road. We had to drive through Monument to get back home—we were living in East London at that point and my school was in Southwest London. It was one of those lucky times when my mom finished work early, so she was able to pick us up from school. I remember thinking, looking around, ‘Monument looks really pretty from the car.’ She would play Magic FM, which would play all the songs from now to like 1950-something. They used to play Annie Lennox a lot and I just loved this song.
“I think I’m a glutton when it comes to love songs and break-up songs because I feel like they’re the truest part of human beings, like we can’t really lie about our broken hearts or love. The beautiful thing about it is how frank she is about where this particular couple are in the relationship. ‘How many times do I have to try to tell you / That I’m sorry for the things I’ve done / But when I start to try to tell you / That’s when you have to tell me / Hey...this kind of trouble’s only just begun.’ They’re going round in circles.” Hear her sing a clip of it below.
“God Only Knows” by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher
“This is just me on my own. Not only is it a beautiful song and a beautiful rendition, but because it reminds me of a really special day in my life where I got to stand in a beautiful gown with an amazing artist, John Legend, and sing it for the Grammys. That was my very first time being at the Grammys and I had won. It’s always going to remind me of that moment in my life. The arrangement that I have for the concert is slightly different, but it still lends itself toward that slowed, raw, stretched version. We had been asked to do it fore the In Memoriam and we wanted something that felt right, and the lyrics spoke so beautifully. There’s nothing to change in the lyrics, but in order for people to hear and understand the lyrics, you just have to stretch it out. A lot of the songs I’ll remake, it’s often just about stretching it out and giving people that space.”
“Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin
“This was the very first song that Ezra had told me about. He was like, ‘Hey Cynthia, I know you love Aretha, but I don’t know that you know this song.’ He has excellent taste, he’s one of the most impressive beings on the planet and he knows my voice and me implicitly, so I trust him very much. I do the original key. It’s just one of the those songs that is the epitome of what Aretha could do because she’s not only an incredible vocalist. Her capacity to tell stories...it’s almost second to none. You hear the technique without really hearing the technique. You hear the heart with it being completely genuine. So it’s the epitome of what I always want to be able to do. I always want to be able to tell stories fully. I always want people to know that I am willing to challenge myself to make good sound. I look to her as the example.”