As a Tony, Emmy and Grammy winner and Oscar nominee who just recorded her first solo album of original music, Cynthia Erivo is well-acquainted with artistic challenges. But the prospect of portraying Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s third season of its Genius anthology series was unlike anything she had previously faced.
Not only was Erivo portraying Franklin over a 20-year span as she fought to claim her place as a self-sufficient artist, but she was interpreting her singular singing voice. For all of Erivo’s musical gifts, the vocal task was far trickier than it appears.
“When you look at her performances, not one of them is the same,” Erivo said during a panel at Deadline’s Contenders Television: The Nominees awards-season event. “She was very much a person who would sing from her soul, from her gut in the moment …. Each riff, each breath, each decision she makes is specific to that moment.”
Music, Erivo discovered during the production, “was essentially another language” for Franklin. “She wasn’t really good at telling people what she was going through, but when she sang, she was able to share who she was, what she was feeling, what she was going through.”
With the range of songs spanning gospel, protest music, soul and more, Erivo found that certain songs left her “petrified” at having to perform. In one, she recalled, summoning a few bars, “There’s no time signature, she’s at the piano, so essentially the music follows her.”
Because Franklin would emphasize certain words and elongate phrases to several times their natural length, songs became like a recitative, Erivo said. “In an opera, that’s where the story begins. For her, what that does is make you pay attention to those words. … It always means more when she stresses something.”
Among the many stellar collaborators involved in Genius: Aretha, Courtney B. Vance as C.J. Franklin, Aretha’s preacher father, proved particularly important in Erivo’s performance, she said.
“Their dynamic was so singular,” she said. “In one moment, it’s father and daughter and in another, it was two entertainers working alongside each other. … Working with Courtney to work out the equation of it was really special.”
By the end of the production, Erivo felt particularly empowered heading into the making of her album, Ch. 1 Vs. 1. After portraying Franklin’s battle to be credited as a producer of her 1972 album Young, Gifted & Black, she decided to seek her own producing credit on her album.
“Learning how she dove into music freely and fully is something I understand but really and truly I am unashamed to do now,” Erivo said. “I’m not afraid to really take control of the sound of the music coming from me.”
Check out the panel video above.