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Cynthia Erivo is vulnerable, yet powerful on ‘Ch. 1 Vs. 1’

September 29, 2021 GMT
Actress-singer Cynthia Erivo is poses during a portrait session to promote her debut solo album "Ch. 1. Vs. 1" on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)
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Actress-singer Cynthia Erivo is poses during a portrait session to promote her debut solo album "Ch. 1. Vs. 1" on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)
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Actress-singer Cynthia Erivo is poses during a portrait session to promote her debut solo album "Ch. 1. Vs. 1" on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — While the height of the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of the world to a standstill, it also spread a blanket of loneliness in its path by isolating family members and friends. And despite international fame and accolades, Cynthia Erivo was not exempt.

“I did feel really lonely. I remember I was in L.A. on my own… I had loads of people around me, but I felt like I was doing my life solo, and it was going really fast at that time,” said the Oscar nominee. “I was sort of like in the middle of what felt like a storm. And I felt like I was just by myself and I just didn’t know how to really handle it completely.”

Erivo retreated to her comfort zone of writing, penning the lyrics, “Where do the lonely hearts go when the silence falls and the storm comes in?” She memorialized those emotions into what would become “A Window,” a song from her debut album of original music, “Ch. 1. Vs. 1.”

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“A lot of these songs are really personal. So, I’m ready to share something about me and my life and who I am,” explained Erivo. “It’s like another part of my life I get to sort of see come to fruition. I’ve been wanting to do an album for a very long time.”

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Released earlier this month, the “Ch. 1 Vs. 1” creation began with nearly 40 potential songs before settling on the final 12 tracks, with the majority recorded across the past two years. It features a compilation of R&B, pop, and inspirational tunes as Erivo delves into heartbreak, love, family and social consciousness.

Assisted by production from creatives like Harold Lilly (Beyoncé, Brandy) and Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar), the 34-year-old co-wrote on every song, delivering a project with no guest artists.

“I think I asked one or two people if they would come on and do features and they didn’t want to, so I just did it on my own,” said Erivo. “I think this was an experience that I had to go through, making something of my own, for myself.”

“Glowing Up,” is a powerful track with gospel undertones, showcasing Erivo’s compelling chops as she sings “diamonds can’t sparkle, ’til they find light they can follow.” Her pop ballad “I Might Be in Love with You” shows a reluctant songstress hesitant to reveal her romantic feelings, while the vibey, alt-R&B track “Day Off” could be the culmination of those intimate feelings being reciprocated.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a specific genre (for the album), but that is really aligned with Cynthia,” said executive producer Will Wells, whose credits include Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand and DJ Premier. “The common thread is her — it’s her, and it’s her voice on this album, and it’s her heart.”

While the project introduces a more personal — and at times vulnerable — side of Erivo, she’s most fragile on “You’re Not Here,” a track that reveals her broken relationship with her dad.

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“I had been not totally honest with myself about how I was feeling about that subject, about my father. And I wanted the song to be totally honest just for once, really. Because I think that that’s how I was able to sort of move on and let it go. Because up until then, I was sort of pretending that it was fine,” said Erivo.

During the emotional recording session, Erivo shed tears which can be heard at the end, reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life.”

But there’s fun, too; the upbeat, soulful song “The Good,” which serves as the album’s lead single, takes a glass-half-full approach to remembering the good times after a breakup. It’s accompanied by a beautifully filmed music video of Erivo with a female partner.

The Emmy- and Tony-winner said she wanted to showcase a positive and more accurate portrayal of Black female queer love.

“I’m not going to answer about my sexuality just because it’s private. I just felt like it was important to make this… about a community that never gets space. And to do it in a really delicate and intimate and thoughtful way,” said Erivo. “Often, it’s oversexualized. It’s like fantasy for some people and sometimes fetishized, and I wanted something that felt more real.”

Erivo’s debut album is yet another career milestone for the Londoner, fresh off an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the iconic Queen of Soul in “Genius: Aretha.” Although it’s her debut, she’s no stranger to music: Erivo took home a best musical theater album Grammy for her starring role in “The Color Purple,” and last year, she collaborated with producer Peter CottonTale and Chance the Rapper for “Together,” the first song to ever appear on Google’s homepage.

Wells, who vocal produced nine of the tracks without ever being in the same room with Erivo due to the pandemic, says her fingerprints are all over.

“From reworking the song to then making the record to then checking in with each other during the mix, to even the mastering process, she was deeply involved,” said Wells. “She’s not the kind of artist where she takes a song, sings somebody else’s music and lyrics and then doesn’t think about it again. She cares about every step, and that’s what’s been so gratifying about this.”

Erivo released her first children’s book, “Remember to Dream, Ebere,” on Tuesday and has a slew of film projects in the works, including the role of the Blue Fairy in Disney’s live-action adaption of “Pinocchio” starring Tom Hanks.

But in this moment, Erivo’s focus is this album, surely with more chapters to be written.

“I think the real success of this would be if people listen to this music and see a little bit of themselves in it and are able to have a conversation they haven’t been able to have before,” said Erivo. “If people can keep connecting to the words and the lyrics and the music in this, then I will feel really, really accomplished.”

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Follow Gary Gerard Hamilton on all social media using the handle (at)garyghamilton.