Recording Andra Day as Billie Holiday Was an Exercise in ‘Surround’ Sound

The United States vs. Billie Holiday -- Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, spent much of her career being adored by fans across the globe. Beginning in the 1940’s in New York City, the federal government targeted Holiday in a growing effort to escalate and racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial and heart-wrenching ballad, “Strange Fruit.” Billie Holiday (Andra Day), shown. (Photo by: Takashi Seida/Hulu)

Capturing the right musical ambiance for Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” was the product of a year-and-a-half of research and planning, even before shooting began in late 2019.

“These songs don’t sound like a record from that time,” executive music producer Salaam Remi tells Variety. “They sound like you’re in the room at that time. I wanted them to sound like you were in the room, with these musicians in their 20s and 30s really jammin’. I wanted you to feel the musicians sweat as they’re playing.”

Remi, who has produced records for Amy Winehouse, Nas, Fugees and Fergie, was brought on board to produce the Billie Holiday songs that Andra Day sings throughout the film. His movie credits include “Rush Hour 3” and “Sex and the City 2.”

The Holiday classics showcased in Lee Daniels’ film include “All of Me,” “Strange Fruit,” “Solitude,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Lover Man” and “God Bless the Child.”

“Lee was all over the music,” Remi adds. “He had different songs for different scenes; it was about how he was using the songs to tell the story.”

It fell to Remi not only to record Day’svocals but also to surround her with the right sound. “For me, it was an understanding of what the original arrangements were, and how they would have done them at that time, but also how they were playing out in the movie,” Remi says. “If she was at Cafe Society, it might have been a smaller group [of musicians], or at Carnegie Hall, a larger group.”

“We try to be as accurate as possible to the period,” says music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein, who’s no stranger to collaborating with Daniels; they worked together on “Precious” and “The Butler.”  “But the layers of the music, how it was orchestrated, are more like the pop of the ’70s than the jazz of the ’40s or ’50s. It’s more of a soulful pop feeling.”

“Sometimes I was able to push the envelope,” Remi adds. “On a lot of Billie Holiday recordings, you can’t always hear [the detail]. There might have been one mic going straight to vinyl. I had to augment because I was recording digital at the highest possible bit rate.”

Remi’s mandate was to re-create the Holiday sound but with modern-day tools and in the right dramatic context. But although he recorded all the Holiday numbers in his Miami studio in September 2019, prior to shooting, some songs were also done live on the set, notably the very political “Strange Fruit” that got the singer in so much trouble with the FBI.

Day was already singing very much in the Holiday style when she arrived at Remi’s studio. “She knew,” says Remi. “She had the vocal chops. She was nailing it from the beginning.”

Adds Day of her process: “I found her voice through the music and through song, but I also found it through her laugh. I looked at her breath. Where does she breathe? Why does she breathe the way she does? Where is her voice sitting?” The actor punished her voice just as Holiday did. “I’ve never smoked a cigarette before in my life, but I adopted the habit of smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol,” she says. “I wasn’t mimicking or impersonating it, but interpreting it.”