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, R&B 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.”
There are so many different styles on Ruby, is that something you do instinctively or is it more of a conscious decision?
“No it’s just about where I come from and the musical styles that have influenced me and then when I go into the studio with my people, it all comes out. We had an idea for a concept that we wanted to do Nina Simone 2020 on this album and so that was the original idea but we came up with something that was completely my own and that just comes from what you listen to and what you know. I know people go in sometimes to do a certain type of song but I really don’t know how to do that. I just love being in the studio.”
How did Sugar Daddy come about and what was it like working with Meghan Trainor?
“She’s fun, I think she was only 23 when I worked with her, she was super young and we were in the studio. She happened to drop by because we were both working with the same producer and she just came in the room and said, ‘I have an idea,’ and we just ran with it. We wrote that song in maybe an hour and had it almost all done and it was really smooth and we just clicked musically and it was really easy, no problem. I like her!”
What do you think is the key to being a good co-writer/collaborator?
“Somebody who wants to make something great, you know, that’s really important to me. I think a lot of people just go in because they want to make the next song that sounds like everybody else’s song. So when you work with somebody who wants to do something that nobody else is doing, who wants to do something fresh and amazing, then at least you have a starting point. You have to work with people who know what they’re doing and have good ideas and fresh context and new things to talk about.
“Then I think it’s key that they know music, understand the structure of a song and know at least a little bit about music theory. They need to know where the track should go. Songs are like movies; you’ve got to have a beginning, middle and end.”
How does that translate into great songwriting?
“The hook is really important in a song – you find out through songwriting that there are a million ways to say, ‘I love you.’ 99% of the songs on the radio are about love, so it’s all about how you put it. You need that desire to be fresh and original and do something that no one has done before. It’s really just about that desire, and knowing what you’re doing.”
Did you get that from your collaborators on Ruby?
“Yeah, we all clicked really well. It was a lot of scheduling because everybody has a life. But other than that it was really smooth. A lot of the songs we did in a day, not completed, mixed and mastered, but we pretty much had them down in a day or two which is refreshing to me because I’ve done records before where we’ve spent days on each song.”
Do you think you can hear that urgency on the songs?
“For me it feels that way. A lot of times you can spend crazy amounts of time on your songs or a particular part but, like I said, when you have people who know what they’re doing it just flows and you don’t have to force it or search too hard for it. The stuff that you hear on the album, some of it was the first thing that they played, the first ideas.”
Would you go into the studio armed with lyrics?
“I did on a couple of songs. I wrote But He Loves Me a while ago and I had the idea for a song called Shenanigans. I had that concept and those lyrics. I don’t write anything down other than the hooks for the backing singers. I usually just go in and sing it straight on the mic, it’s better for me if it’s just all in my head. Then there’s a song called When It Ends where the words came after the music, but those other two came before the music.”
You mentioned you had an idea for a concept at the start, did that change throughout the process?
“Oh yeah. That was the concept but we didn’t go into the studio every day and think, ‘This needs to sound this way because we want to do this concept.’ We would just roll and whenever we could get together we would get together and the idea was to make something great. I know there are artists that have a set process… ‘I get up every day and I write at 10am and then I play my guitar and then I play my kazoo,’ but I can’t really give you one way that I do it.
“I believe in the universe, in fate and energy and God and being in the right place at the right time and being in the right frame of mind. I was really open to whatever ideas everybody had on this record and interested in what everybody had to offer. It was just a good time for me personally, I was in the right place for it.”
Have there been times when that wasn’t the case?
“For sure. I’ve made albums because I thought I had to and made albums that were other people’s ideas and I think I had a tough moment when I didn’t really know what to do. I knew what I could do but it didn’t seem like people were open to it or that they really liked it, so I felt like I had to change – which is the biggest mistake an artist can make. But I changed and that takes you off on this weird tangent and you get distracted and end up way out of whack, not doing what you know how to do or what works for you. But I got off that and once you get all lined up with yourself things all come together without even trying. But I did have a moment when I didn’t know what I was doing or what to do.”
So is it just enough to be excited about making music again or is there something else you hope to achieve with your songs?
“I want to do great things and I want to make great albums. I want to be remembered as a great artist and be on the list of greatest albums of all time and greatest singers of all time. I want to be in that club. You know what they say, ‘Nobody gives a fuck until you die,’ so I don’t know how it’s going to go. But I want people to still be playing my records 20 years from now. That would be it for me.”
You already have I Try in your locker, is it possible to explain that kind of success?
“I didn’t expect that and am totally shocked still. I woke up today and two people tagged me on my Instagram because they were covering I Try. It’s something I don’t understand and have no idea about. When I wrote I Try I thought it was too busy and it had too many words in the chorus and I was fighting with my label about them putting it out as a single. I had no idea and I still don’t. I get on stage and perform it but as far as me knowing why that song has lasted so long or is so big, I couldn’t explain it if you gave me a million dollars.”
Have you ever tried to write I Try II?
“No, it’s impossible because I didn’t try to write that one. I didn’t write it thinking it was going to be a monster hit. If I knew that there was a formula then everyone would do it, but I just don’t know and couldn’t analyse why that song is so amazing. I wouldn’t want to regurgitate the same song. There are a lot of artists that do that at the moment and I am totally bored with them, though I won’t say any names.”
Do you have any advice for anyone who is starting out on their songwriting journey?
“Just be fearless. Don’t be afraid of what you want to say, don’t be afraid to write crazy chord changes, don’t be afraid of anything. If you’re writing a song you’re pouring your heart out so you’ve got to go for it and let it all out. You can’t worry about what other people will like, because then you’re totally screwed.”
Lastly, any final thoughts on Ruby?
“I’m excited and I think it’s a wild album. It’s so great musically and my voice is A1 and the things I’m talking about are fresh and interesting. I don’t know how it’s going to go because I’ve been low-key for a minute. A lot of things go into a song becoming a hit; a lot of things need to line up. People think that you just go and play all the radio stations, but there’s timing and a lot of things have to go right for a song to really resonate.
“I’m just open to whatever happens at this point. I love the album and wish the best for myself and the record and the people that worked with me, but I can’t tell you what is going to happen. I think it’s an amazing album and I just hope people get that. Even if it’s just for them, I just want to give everybody something fresh to listen to.”