Sing. Dance. Write. Andra Govere: The most amazing 20-something you haven't heard of. Yet…
Creativity is an animal. Its fingers reach into the deepest corners of consciousness, pulling you toward inspiration. If you stare too hard, it lets go, and you're flung back to reality, back to whatever work needs to be ground out before the day is done. Living in the space between the two--between that ethereal form of true creativity and the leaden weight of life's responsibilities--is a tenuous balancing act. Some, like Vincent van Gogh, fall from one end toward insanity. Millions of others lose themselves in the opposite, becoming hopeless drones in a world of number crunchers.
Singer-songwriter Andra Govere, only 20 years old, walks this tightrope all day, every day. Of every 24 hours, she's working 16. "Sometimes I forget to eat," she says, beaming.
And she's never not beaming. Her smile is constant and genuine; her orbiculares oculi, muscles in the face whose control is involuntary, crinkle her eyes in a way that proves Andra means what she emotes. In a world of immaculate image maintenance, it's a rare trait.
How is it possible that someone can work so hard, yet be in such a sound (and, from all observances, happy) state of mind? E.F. Schumacher, referring to the Buddhist teaching of "right livelihood," argued that work should be both fulfilling to the worker and "bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence." In short, your work should stand for something, and in this way you can be both productive and happy.
Andra's songs are truly a testament to that in which she believes. With Hey Millionaire, a track from her new album to be released this year, she's able to cut between the utilitarian and the aesthetic to produce an organic cross section of life. Its story--of coddled well-to-dos rolling through impoverished neighborhoods--blends with its milk chocolate bass line and the syncopated rack of the every-other-beat rim shot, always on the two and four.
Though she considers herself "just a writer who happens to sing," Andra is responsible for both the lyrics and the arrangement. "I sit at home and I play my keyboard and write my songs there, and then I bring my songs into the studio," at which point Andra has "the ultimate say on what direction the songs go." It's incredible for numerous reasons, not least of which is that a career in songwriting was far from her mind when she was younger: "I never even thought it was a possibility," says Andra. "Growing up, I really thought that I would be a physicist or a mathematician."
There are two ways of explaining how Andra got behind a microphone instead of a Bunsen burner, and they're not mutually exclusive: passion with the will to channel it into something tangible, and with straight-up luck.
Though born in the United States, Andra's upbringing in Zimbabwe had a profound impact on the woman she became. She lived in a rural village dotted with strawcovered mud huts. Electricity and running water would have been luxuries.
As both her parents were college graduates, Andra was afforded opportunities perhaps out of reach for her neighbors, and took full advantage. She practiced dancing and ballet, honing her craft from a pastime to an art form: "When I was nine I became the first female of color to be on the Zimbabwe National Gymnastics Team," Andra says.
She was also the beneficiary of "motivated" parenting when it came to her education.
At 10, she was studying calculus; at 14, she was done with high school. Four years later, she graduated from Stanford with a civil engineering degree.
"I remember rushing to the post office when the application [to Stanford] was due," Andra says, half laughing. "I was finishing the essays the morning of and I really didn't think I'd get in, but I was really lucky." She also wound up getting a full scholarship, courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Working in concert with her determination to get things done, Andra is able to pull together threads of creativity to weave the delicate cloth of a finished song. "I grew up writing poetry," says Andra. "I used to write at least one poem every day, and I have stacks and stacks of poems that I wrote since I was like three years old… I can't think of a day I haven't written a poem."
Her singing ability, on the other hand, wasn't as developed. Considering the dynamics of her voice, which can range from bright and flute-like to a rougher, almost smoky honesty, what she says next is a surprise: "When I first started making music and singing I sounded absolutely horrible," Andra laughs. "It's really embarrassing."
Without any formal training, a career as a vocal artist would seem like more than a long shot. But remarkable things happen not just through planning and work, but also by chance: an asteroid striking Earth and giving rise to the age of mammals, Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin while cleaning up Petri dishes in his disheveled office, and Andra Govere taking a phone call that changed her life.
"I was supposed to be studying in Berlin for a quarter," recalls Andra, smiling, "[and] the day I was supposed to fly… my passport and wallet were stolen."
A travesty on any day, it was a bad situation made worse since Andra needed ID to get on the plane. She was also without extra money to do much of anything besides wait at LAX.
"I couldn't get a hold of my mom because she was in Zimbabwe… so I wound up sleeping at the airport for three days." That's 72 hours without a shower or a private room, living off coffee and pastries afforded by a sympathetic Starbucks employee who'd noticed Andra hanging out longer than the average traveler. Finally, Andra got some news--and not just good news, like "you can finally wash your clothes and sleep in your own bed" kind of news, but great news, unbelievable news.
"I got a call from Kerry Brothers," says Andra. Brothers is Alicia Keys' Grammywinning producer. For almost anyone else, a meeting with someone of his reputation would have been months or years in the making.
"He had heard a song I wrote and put on Myspace just for my mom to hear," says Andra, "and he says 'hey, I'm in L.A. right now, do you want to fly down from Stanford and do some songwriting with me for a weekend?'"
She accepted, knowing that if her ID hadn't been nicked, she would have been in Berlin, her life following a completely different path.
She met with Brothers with the understanding that she'd be auditioning as a songwriter. Once at the studio, however, "he made me record the vocals… and I was literally shaking. I didn't know what to do; I was choking. I couldn't get the notes out right."
Brothers saw through Andra's nervousness, heard beneath the all-too-familiar lump in the throat that comes with it, and recognized that Andra had talent. They cut a mixtape called Love is 4 Suckaz/ I'm a Sucka 4 Love; some of the songs are still available on YouTube. Her debut album is due out some time this year.
The mixtape is a high-wattage soup of synthetic beats and heavy post-production mixing. Its lyrics, as the title suggests, deal with love, jealousy and revenge, with a splash of anti-consumerism thrown in for good measure. Her album will be much different. "[It will be] something that people of all ages can listen to," says a smiling Andra, "something that parents want to buy for their kids, something that parents want to listen to simply because they like the songs." Musically, it will be "really organic… I want it to be a lot of acoustic guitars and really just bare bones, the kind of songs that will sound exactly the same when you perform them [live] as they do on the record."
In short, it will be a mirror of herself, the reflection of a person whose image is neither finely crafted nor carefully managed, but easy, disarming, and above all, genuine.
Sometimes, in the midst of a conversation, we may get the sense that the person we're speaking with isn't wholly invested. Their eyes lie. When they laugh, we can see the effort.
We can almost hear their feigned interest, feel the gears in their head grinding, waiting for their own chance to talk. We all but expect remarkable people, especially those training to live under public scrutiny, to have honed these tactics to a keen edge.
Andra exhibits none of these traits. It's no surprise, then, that her definition of fulfillment is neither transitory nor superficial, but stable and healthy.
"A rich life, to me, would be a peaceful one," Andra says, eyes shining. When her father first moved to the United States, he lived in a small house with books piled high and without much room to get around, let alone for material indulgences.
"He would spend all his time in the garden," says Andra, "and I'd always be like, 'Dad, don't you want more? Don't you want to be rich?'"
Andra then adjusts herself, smiles, and switches to her "dad voice," a caricature of English with a deep Zimbabwean accent.
"He's like: 'I am rich. Look at my books. Look at my garden.'"
Andra's clearly having too much fun. Her schedule is booked, her responsibilities endless. Signed to a record contract with a top producer, a 20-year-old whose college education has been over for two years, Andra somehow finds time to tutor calculus and offer ballet lessons free of charge. Yet here she is, beneath relentless studio lighting, completely at ease, making fun of her parents and cracking herself up.
Having done so much and with so much going on, you might assume that she's motivated by impossible goals, careening toward a future of some grand, indeterminate personal achievement.
You'd be wrong. For despite everything she's done and has yet to achieve, the goal is "just to be surrounded by music and by nature," Andra says. "That's all it takes to make me happy."
Sources: facebook.com; pbs.org; sciencebuddies.org; smallisbeautiful.org; newzimsituation.com; nih.gov; newzimbabwe.com; gatesfoundation.org; uci.edu; pumpthebeat.com