Macy Gray has no trouble being herself


January 11, 2004


She’s unlike any of the model-perfect chart-topping divas. Impossibly tall and gangly and awkward in her movements and her speech, she has a love-it or hate-it voice that recalls Betty Boop after one too many bong hits, and a persona that says “truly unique individual,” if not “stone cold freak.”

Nevertheless, Macy Gray leaves her prettier, more “perfect” peers in the dust. She’s one of the most seductive artists in R&B today, and it’s all on the strength of her music.

As she sings on a track from her third album, “The Trouble with Being Myself”: “She may be pretty, got more money than me/But she don’t write songs about you/She’s always cooking and studying books and/But she don’t write songs about you.”

Gray writes songs, and they’re impossible to forget.

“I can’t think of what other people think of me when I make music,” she says in her girlish squeak. “It’s not relative. I just do my own thing, and I like it that way.”

Born Natalie McIntyre in Canton, Ohio, Gray grew up with the records her parents loved—Sly Stone, James Brown, Patti LaBelle and her ultimate favorite, Stevie Wonder. She discovered hip-hop in junior high and rock during two years at a predominantly white boarding school. She started singing and pursuing her own genre-blending mix of sounds after she moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the screenwriting program at the USC Film School.

Eventually, demo work and sessions recording commercial jingles led to a contract with Epic Records. The story of her 1999 debut, “On How Life Is,” became one about the current hype-happy state of the music industry—the disc was propelled to multi-platinum sales by a an absurdly inflated $15 million marketing push from Epic. But the hype was irrelevant when it came to the quality of those 10 tracks, and Gray’s subsequent efforts—2001’s “The Id” and last year’s “The Trouble with Being Myself”—were even stronger, though they got a fraction of the attention and promotion.

“The albums that I make, I don’t always make them for radio,” Gray says. “My first album was all about breaking me as an artist and getting my name out there. My next album, I wanted to go off on a tangent and just do something crazy, and I did that. And this album is kind of like elegant—a pretty album, a nice album.”

When Gray entered the recording studio with producer Dallas Austin and her big, kicking band (which includes former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Arik Marshall), the plan was to make an album in the style of the Beatles’ early recordings—fast, furious, and mostly live, with minimal overdubs.

“I wanted to do an album that was like the Beatles, where we recorded in two weeks, but it didn’t come out that way,” she says with her goofy chuckle. “It took like five months, and all the tracks have a million overdubs on them, so we didn’t stick to the plan at all.”

Gray did, however, record her vocals live with the band (as she always does). And while the concept of performing and recording with a large group (she has toured with as many as a dozen musicians) is out of fashion in many corners of the R&B world today, she makes no apologies for being “old school” in this regard.

“I love playing live, and I come from that,” she says. “That’s how I got discovered—we used to do clubs. That’s where I learned; I was always playing and promoting shows around town, and that’s really all I know. We use technology—it’s definitely important—but at the core, we always have the band.

“A lot of people don’t do that today, and usually whatever the masses do, that’s considered hip. Originally when people stopped using bands, it was cheaper to go onstage and track [sing over recorded music]. It’s kind of sad that that’s what happened. If you don’t take out a band, you can make a lot of money on a tour—that’s where it comes from. But when audiences go out, there’s nothing like seeing a band. But I wouldn’t call having a band old school; that’s just silly.”

The 33-year-old singer and songwriter also maintains a defiant attitude about the cold shoulder she’s gotten from radio since her first album.

“If I don’t get on the radio, nobody’s like really shocked about it,” Gray says. “I know when you get into comparing yourself to other artists or doing things to the standards that the record industry gives you… well, I don’t really think that anybody knows how to gauge it.

“Nobody really knows what a hit is. You can make something that you think is a smash, then no one buys it, or vice versa. You can’t really call it. People think they can, but you can’t really, because if you could, everybody would just do that and everybody would be on the radio. I know that if I want to do something radio, I know I can do it. But there are other artists that do that, and they do that great.

“I like the fact that I give people something that they don’t hear every day,” she concludes. “It’s like a new sound. Really the only thing that works for me is if I like it. If I try to please everyone else, then it’s not my song. If I like it, then that’s what I do, and that’s the only way I can really work.”

In this regard, Gray recalls not only funk and R&B greats such as Prince and George Clinton, but her current touring partner, David Bowie. (She opens for rock’s most famous chameleon at three sold-out shows at the Rosemont Theatre Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.)

“He’s a really big fan,” she says, obviously still somewhat amazed by Bowie’s support. “I talked to him way back when I first got famous—he was one of the people that just wanted to talk to me. That was really wild for me, because I wasn’t used to that. Then his people called up and said he was going on this tour, and I jumped at it. It’s a good lineup, for one, and then I just have a lot of respect for him.”

For his part, Bowie says of Gray: “I just think she’s absolutely great. She’s a wonderful stage artist—I just think she’s the best—but she doesn’t fit in with any one category, so she’s really had a problem getting her stuff known. She just isn’t easy to categorize.”

Still, Gray doesn’t plan on changing her working methods any time soon.

“My next record, I’m probably gonna do something completely different again,” she says. “I’m actually planning on starting it in the spring, and I’ll probably be done by June. I’ve got some songs written, and I’ve been talking to a couple of people about it. I’m really excited about it, because I went out to a lot of clubs over the holidays, and I was really kind of annoyed that the DJs weren’t spinning any of my songs. So I think I’m gonna do just a club-banger album—like a party album.

“I’m having fun kind of playing with it, just doing what I really want to do. I’m lucky that I set myself up that way.”



Here is a look at Macy Gray’s recorded legacy.

“On How Life Is” (1999) [three and a half stars]

The marketing push behind Gray’s debut may have been obnoxious, but in large part, the cheerleading was justified: These 10 songs represent some of the most vibrant and sexy genre-blurring sounds since late ’80s Prince. Songs such as “Why Didn’t You Call Me” (which finds her berating a one-night stand), “I Can’t Wait to Meetchu” (which could either be addressed to a lover or a higher power) and “Caligula” and “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak” (which find the artist vamping it up like George Clinton at his nastiest) are smart, self-assured and alternately poignant and funny—and that’s no hype.

“The Id” (2001) [four stars]

On her second album, Gray shows the depths of her talents, proving that she wasn’t just getting by on the hype or the backing of her smoking big band. She also takes time out to laugh at herself and the whole sticky business of sex, race relations and our culture in general. “Your mama told you to be discreet/And keep your freak to yourself/But your mama lied to you all this time/She knows as well as you and I/You’ve got to express what is taboo in you/And share your freak with the rest of us!” she wails in “Sexual Revolution,” and that could well stand as her mantra.

Point of Chicago pride: Gray’s favorite track, the Kurt Weill-sounding “Oblivion,” was partly recorded on a portable DAT player in the basement of the Aragon Ballroom, making use of that venue’s Capone-era pipe organ.

“The Trouble with Being Myself” (2003) [four stars]

Gray distinguishes herself from her peers in the natural R&B or neo-soul movements because she’s never afraid to fly her freak flag high. More important, though, is her unfailing knack at crafting memorable hooks, and she offers a dozen of her strongest on her third album. These include typically gonzo takes on love and the lack thereof (“When I See You,” “She Ain’t Right for You,” and “She Don’t Write Songs for You”), as well as an uncharacteristically serious tune that recalls a troubled youth (“My Fondest Childhood Memories”).

“It’s just like when you’re a kid and you want your parents for yourself and people come around and you wish that they’d go away,” Gray says of the song, downplaying its obvious personal catharsis. Still, this song points to the possibility of even more powerful and personal music to come.