Interview: Macy Gray
The release of her new album ‘Ruby’ gives us a chance to explore the inner workings of this iconic artist
Most musicians would happily wait a lifetime for an international smash hit but Macy Gray managed just that with her second single, 1999’s I Try. That song, and parent album On How Life Is, helped establish Gray as one of the most recognisable artists of the new millennium, and earned her one Grammy and two Brit Awards along the way. After such early success, the question was also going to be, ‘What next?’ and the answer is most revealing…
Rather than be defined by her moment in the mainstream, Gray’s subsequent career has proven her to be a songwriter of great ingenuity and range. From second album The Id through to 2016’s Stripped, she has explored styles and sounds without becoming complacent or repetitive. Alongside her continued adventures in music come television and film performances, making her something of the all-rounder.
Now she is back with Ruby, a record with elements of jazz, soul, hip hop, RNB and pop (including Sugar Daddy, co-written with Meghan Trainor) – it’s an illuminating collection of songs which illustrate the full range of her talents and provide us with an opportunity to delve a little deeper…
Let’s go right back to the start, can you remember the first song that you ever wrote?
“The first song I ever wrote was in fourth grade. I wrote it about a woman who gave her baby beer in her bottle. I would have been nine years old. I wasn’t necessarily a big songwriter, I was just doing what I was doing and was really good at creative writing from a young age. I used to write little stories all the time and I was always making up stuff and was good with stories. That eventually translated into writing melodies, but at first I really just wanted to be a writer, but I also thought I might be a fireman or something like that so I really didn’t know what I wanted to be. I just had talents, I was naturally smart and I could play the piano and I was good at putting words together and stuff like that, but I didn’t know how to sort it out and make it all into something.”
Was there a moment when you realised that music could be your career?
“I didn’t realise that until it actually happened. When I was coming up and was in bands around town, I would write songs and play at this Sunday brunch gig every week but I was doing it just for fun. I was enjoying myself and I got to be around people that I really liked and I loved to get on stage and I was just having a really good time. Of course, everybody wants to be a star but I didn’t really put it all together until it actually happened.
“I was sending my demo out to different A&R people at labels but I didn’t expect anyone to listen to it. I think I was so young that it was like, ‘This is all bliss.’ They say that ignorance is bliss and I didn’t know anything about the music business so I was just doing stuff and then it turned into something.”
Is songwriting easier now, because you’ve been doing it for longer?
“It is easier because I’ve been doing it a long time and the difference is you know what you’re good at. There’s that experience so you know what works for you and you know what doesn’t. You can go into a session and if it doesn’t feel right you can end it. I think that’s what experience does for you. It’s not necessarily like the older you get the better you get at it, you just know what not to do and how to get where you want to go a lot better, without all the drama.”
Do you have a set process for starting a song?
“No, I don’t have a set process. All of my songs come together differently. Sometimes I’ll have a melody in my head and I’ll sing it to my producer and my musicians or it may be that the producer has an idea and we’ll go from there. It is really collaborative and depends on who I am in the studio with, but I don’t have one way.
“I have written some songs all by myself but this album is actually the first one where someone wrote a whole song for me and I didn’t have much to do with it at all. I’ve never done that ever before, it’s a song called Cold World and the producer wrote that whole song on his own. I don’t usually sing songs that I haven’t contributed to, but it was cool because I really liked the song this time. Sometimes I’ve tried things where I’m not really crazy about the song and can’t pull it off, but this one fitted me perfectly and we just did it.”
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