‘The biggest dream is never too big. I feel like I’m living proof of that’

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Cynthia Erivo is still on a high. It's five days after a performance at the Hollywood Bowl when we speak, and the sense of occasion of singing at such a famous, "bucket list" venue, coupled with the emotion of seeing thousands of people coming together to hear live music – her music – after so much time away, means she will never forget it.

"I don't know if I could even find the words to really, truly describe what I experienced," she says. "Having 7,000 people being brave enough to come out and listen… being in front of that amount of people, seeing people react the way they did. I still can't believe it happened."

Now, the actress and singer is "looking forward to continuing that, getting back to audiences and performing live, because it's definitely the lifeblood for me".

At 34, British star Erivo is already an Emmy winner, a Grammy winner and a Tony winner, achieving all three in 2016 and 2017 for her starring role in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. The treble means she is *just* an Oscar away from the rare EGOT status of having all four; and she's halfway there, receiving a nomination for best actress, for her portrayal of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet, in 2019.

Most recently, Erivo has played her musical hero, Aretha Franklin, one of the greatest vocalists of all time, in the Genius: Aretha series chronicling five decades of the Queen of Soul's life. It is a role that could see her add to her trophy cabinet at the upcoming 2021 Emmy Awards.

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So hers is already an impressive CV, and she is about to add to it with the release of her debut album. After years of performing in character it is her chance, she tells Sky News, to connect with people "directly as me".

"It will always feel different when you're not playing someone else," she says. "It allows me to show a different part of who I am. The more I can connect honestly, the better, I think."

More on Cynthia Erivo

Titled Ch 1 Vs 1, it's clear that Erivo sees this as just the beginning of her story. "My life isn't over yet," she says. "There's lots to come, there's lots to learn, there's lots to write. This felt like a new beginning for me when it came to music so I wanted to mark that."

The record is described as a 12-track journey into the star's mental and emotional landscape – one marked by heartbreak and sadness, but also triumph and growth.

Erivo says she wants people to know she is a "fully rounded person who has thoughts and feelings just like everybody else". That she has loved and lost. She doesn't elaborate, but says: "Life isn't always black and white, there are definitely grey areas, and there are things I've dealt with and have had to come through just like everyone else."

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in National Geographic's Genius: Aretha. Pic: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

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Erivo played Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin in the Genius: Aretha series. Pic: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Is that something people forget when it comes to celebrity?

"I think sometimes they do," she says. "But that's not necessarily just for me, I think that's across the board. I think that celebrity or fame – for me, those words are so strange because I still don't really associate them with myself. It makes me feel really weird to refer to myself as a celebrity because it's not what I did this for. I think people often forget that behind all of the glitz and whatnot, is a human who deals with stuff, it's just that often that stuff is out in the open."

The star says when it comes to writing songs, there is nothing wrong with letting your emotions show. "I'm not afraid to be as truthful as I can be, you know. It doesn't scare me. I guess I kind of am thrilled by being able to be vulnerable in front of people. I think the more I can do it, hopefully other people will be encouraged to be just as vulnerable."

Erivo's first single, The Good, was inspired by a conversation with a friend in mourning. "The phrase she said was that she just wanted to remember 'the good'. I realised that it could be attached to both the loss of someone or a relationship or anything that forces you to think of the best of the worst of times."

In the video, Erivo portrays a woman remembering the positive memories of a relationship with another woman that has come to an end.

"I wanted to pay homage to Black love, but often we see Black love – and most love – heterosexually," she says. "I wanted to see something that felt normal, that showed two women in a relationship… and it wasn't voyeuristic and it wasn't fetishistic. It was just a normal relationship going through the ups and downs that relationships go through."

Cynthia Erivo performing at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago in July 2021. Pic: Patrick Gipson

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The star, pictured performing at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago in July, says she is performing live is her 'lifeblood'. Pic: Patrick Gipson

Born and raised in London, Erivo now lives in the US, where her profile is bigger, but still has family and friends back here.

As a star of stage and screen, and soon the charts, I ask how she feels about the government's treatment of the arts and entertainment industry in the UK during the pandemic. The promise of £1.57bn in funding came four months into the crisis, which many argued was too late, while confirmation of a £750m insurance scheme for festivals only came earlier this month – again, too late for many events for the second year running.

Then there is the plan requiring people to prove double vaccination status when entering nightclubs and other "crowded venues" from the end of September – bizarrely announced just as restrictions were lifted in July – which has been condemned as an "absolute shambles" by industry figures.

"I think there seems to be this terrible battle that keeps going on in the UK when it comes to the arts and I don't know why it's difficult for the government to see that the arts are worth taking care of," Erivo says. "Because people gain so much, everybody gains from it, even commerce gains from it. If there's art, there's a reason for people to visit, there's a reason for people to see it, that means people are spending money to come and see these shows, to see the plays, the films.

"For me personally, I don't know that anyone should be forced to have a vaccine, everyone is individual and it's up to them.

"I do hope that we'll finally get to a place where people deem the arts a necessary thing, because it is, and it's often how a lot of people survive. And right now, there are people I know for sure in London who are only just getting back to work, only just getting back to shows and rehearsals. And they've desperately needed to be back at work and haven't really been taken care of, and that saddens me. A lot. So I hope that that gets fixed."

Before our time is up, I ask Erivo about another professional accomplishment that cements her status as a true multi-hyphenate in the industry. She is soon to become a published author, with her debut children's book, Remember to Dream, Ebere, to be published in a few weeks. It tells the story of a mother and child who is encouraged to dream big.

"I am telling that story for anybody who has a dream, who thinks that things are impossible, who needs to be encouraged to keep dreaming – adults or children," Erivo says. "I wrote it because it was the thing that I can relate to the most, the idea that the biggest dream is never too big. I feel like I'm living proof of that. I have definitely been able to live within the dreams that I've wanted for myself and I guess I wanted to share it with everybody else. I wanted other people to feel like they have that possibility, too."

Cynthia Erivo's debut album, Ch 1 Vs 1, will be released on 17 September.

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