Interview recorded on March 9, 2012
Macy Gray is not your typical anything. Whether loved or not quite understood, everyone would agree that she's still following the unique beat of her own drummer. And if she has to bring in the rest of the marching band to complete the sound, well that's ok, too.
It is that kind of unfiltered approach to music that keeps Macy Gray relevant. Her sound remains refreshing nearly thirteen years after her album ON HOW LIFE IS debuted, featuring her Grammy Award winning hit, "I Try."
Macy returns with a new album, a collection of covers called COVERED. She explains why she decided to recreate songs from the modern rock era. And she reveals to Darnell Meyers-Johnson her plans for the future, including a role in Lee Daniels' upcoming film "The Paperboy."
Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with a true original talent. She is known for her distinctive voice and unmistakable style. She first caught our attention in 1999 with her multi platinum debut album ON HOW LIFE IS. It featured
her huge hit “I Try,” and earned her many accolades, including a Grammy award. Since that time, we’ve seen her on television, in movies, and she’s recorded five other albums, including her brand new collection of cover songs, simply called COVERED. She is a singer, songwriter, producer, and actress. She is the amazing and glamorous and gigantically genius, Miss Macy Gray.
Darnell: How are you, Macy?
Macy: I’m good. How are you?
Darnell: I’m very fine. I just wanted to say, before we start, that we do appreciate your time in speaking with us today.
Macy: Oh, of course, any time.
Darnell: A little bit in that introduction, I just kind of made reference to the fact that you poked a little fun at yourself on your new album, in some of the skits that are on there. Are you a humorous type of person, by nature?
Macy: Oh, yeah, people laugh at me all the time. I like to think they’re laughing with me, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m being laughed at constantly.
Darnell: Laughed at? Okay.
Macy: But, yeah, the skits on the record are hilarious. I would buy the record just for those skits.
Darnell: Do you think … I know that you … and I was going to talk to you much later in the interview about your acting and stuff, but do you see yourself going into comedy roles, comedic roles, as far as your acting is concerned?
Macy: Oh, yeah, I’ve been wanting to do that for ages, and I’m actually talking to people about a TV show now, but I’ve always wanted to do comedy. But I guess I get more serious roles and stuff. But I love to laugh, and I just think that would be … I love comedians and I’m always at the comedy clubs around here. So I wish I was as funny as them, but I would like to do comedic movies and TV shows.
Darnell: That skit on your album with MC Lyte, in particular--I just could not stop laughing at that one.
Macy: Yeah, that was hilarious. There’s one with her and there’s one with Nichole Schezinger, and there’s one with J.B. Smoove from Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s hilarious, too.
Darnell: You have a certain “keep it real” quality about yourself, as far as those of us on the outside looking in, but at the same time, many people feel like they still don’t know who you really are. So, I wanted to ask you, what is the real Macy Gray like when you’re not on stage or in the studio?
Macy: I don’t know. I don’t really sit around and think about myself too much. I don’t know. I have three kids. I’m a mother, and I’m an artist; I know that much. My mother’s a teacher; my dad worked in a steel mill most of his life. You know, I’m from Ohio. That’s pretty much why it is --people from Ohio are pretty honest, pretty down to Earth … an “is what it is” kind of culture.
Darnell: Yeah. Do you have any particular hobbies, or anything you do when you’re not doing music or acting?
Macy: Yeah, I love watching movies. That fits right in with my laziness. I love watching movies. I work out quite a bit, lately. I’m in the studio a lot--I’m always writing. We like to--me and my kids--we like to go on trips every once in a while. I play cards a lot. That’s one thing, if you’re from Ohio, there’s nothing else to do, so everybody in Ohio knows how to play cards.
Darnell: So, you play a good spades game?
Macy: Oh, my God, I’m the best at spades, uno, poker--I can do all that stuff.
Darnell: That’s right. You were on a poker competition show, right?
Macy: Yeah, a long time ago, when I first learned how to play. I wasn’t very good, but yeah, we play cards. That’s a Midwest thing; I play cards a lot.
Darnell: Okay. Now, people are always talking about you in one way or the other. What do you think is the biggest misconception out there right now, that people have about you?
Macy: What is it? A lot of times, if I do a TV show, I’ll look at the comments, and they all think that I’m drunk or something. I guess my face just looks that way or something, I don’t know, but I’m not nearly as drunk as much as people think I am. That’s probably it.
Or, what else? I don’t know. I don’t get into reading much about myself, because a lot of times it’s disappointing, or they’ll say something completely wrong and I’ll get upset, and then it just kills my whole day. So, I stopped reading my press and all that a long time ago.
Darnell: I actually heard that about you. I did an interview with Sunshine Anderson when her last album was out, and she kind of said that about you. She said you were one of those people--you don’t really care what other people think about you. You don’t really focus on that or pay too much attention to it.
Macy: Yeah, I just don’t rely much on the press, because they get a lot of misinformation and then they print it, and then everybody’s misinformed. But no, I do--I like to read about other people a lot. So I don’t know.
Darnell: You have an interesting new album coming out, and I want to talk about that in just a bit, but first, every great artist like yourself has a story about how they were quote/unquote “discovered,” so, if you could, just tell me a little bit about how Macy Gray came to be.
Macy: Pretty much, I was doing--I had a band; it was actually a rock band, out here in LA, just a couple years after I got out of college. And we just played all the clubs out here. We played wherever we could play, anytime. We would do shows and, like, eight people would show up.
We just played for the love of it, and we did this club called the Roxy. It’s a popular live club out here in LA, and a guy from Atlantic Records was there. Then I got signed shortly after. He didn’t sign the band, but he signed me and then that record, that’s an old record--it never came out. Then I was dropped from that label.
Then two years later, I got picked up from Sony, and then that was the first album everybody heard, the HOW LIFE IS record; it had “I Try” on it. That’s pretty much it. I was just really young and we just used to play all the time. We would play in people’s living rooms, and I think the more you do it, the better you get at it. So I think that is kind of what happened without me even knowing it.
Darnell: And speaking of “I Try,” that remains your biggest hit to-date. You also poke a little fun at that song on your new album. But what do you remember most about making that particular track, because it’s stil a favorite of many people. I hear it in karaoke bars and places like that, so people still love it. What is it about that song, do you think, appeals to so many people?
Macy: I think, well, first of all, it was a huge surprise to me, because when we recorded it I had no idea it was going to go that far. So I think it’s just something everybody can relate to, you know? Kind of like, they can relate to that feeling of wanting to get out of a situation but they can’t because they’re all stuck in love; you know?
And I guess it’s catchy, I don’t know, because when we put it out I told my label, I was, like, “No way. That’s not going no where,” because I thought it was too wordy. Hooks can only be, like, short, like “I do, I do, I do, I do,” and this song has … the hook is really wordy, has a lot of words in it. I really didn’t think--I had no faith in that song, so when it hit, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.
Darnell: Some people have said that you haven’t been able to achieve that same kind of success you had with “I Try,” because there’s a stereotype of what black quote unquote “R&B female vocalists” should look and sound like, and you don’t necessarily fit that mold. Do you think image has played any role in why you haven’t had another huge hit like that?
Macy: I’ve never thought about that part. No. I think … I don’t know. I think art is art and you put out songs and sometimes a lot of people are going to like them; sometimes just your momma likes it, and that’s just part of being an artist. I really try to just focus on that, just try to make great music, and what comes out of me comes out of me, and if people like it, that’s great, and the people who don’t … you know.
There’s so many things that go into a successful record. Like when you hear a record on the radio 50 times a day, that’s not because they have a great image--there’s a lot of things going on behind the scenes that make songs hits. So it’s a crazy business that I signed up for, and I take the ups with the downs, but I have a lot of great music that I love, and I have a lot of really good fans.
Darnell: Definitely. You’ve made lots of good music since then, but educate us a little bit, because I know that you’re … I’ve heard, anyway, that you’re well-schooled in the business aspect of the music industry. Talk a little bit about what is really going on. You said a lot of things are going on behind the scenes of a hit record. For those who are just fans, and just listening to it, we’re not exposed to it; just educate us a little bit about what those other components are.
Macy: Well, you have to be, just … when you have a successful artist, there’s a lot of like talented people behind that, you know? There’s people directing their careers, and then there’s money, and there’s a lot of money that goes into people who sell a lot of records. It’s not a coincidence. Every artist doesn’t get that every time they go out. So it’s just like any other business. If you see Michael Jordan gym shoes, you know that he’s not the one doing all that. He’s not there making the shoe, but he has something to do with it, but there’s a lot of things that go into the success of anyone, I think.
Darnell: How would you categorize your musical style?
Macy: I kind of liken myself to Prince because he did whatever he wanted. Like he would do a rock record; then he’d do a hip hop record, like he was rapping on “Housequake.” Then, he would do, like, old R&B ballads like “Adore” or something. So, I kind of like--I listen to a lot of stuff, but when I go in the studio, I don’t really think about fitting into one category. I kind of do all these different things, so I’ve been criticized for that a lot--that my records are all over the place. People say that sometimes. Even thought I think this one is very--I don’t know what the word is, but it’s, like, pure. It’s all about--it’s centered; you know what I mean?
Darnell: You think this one is more cohesive, your new one?
Macy: Yeah. My new one is definitely centered. There’s a consistent style and theme. It’s a really good record, but I like to go in and do whatever I want, if I want to make a reggae record, I feel like I should be able to, but I know the general thing is to, if you’re an R&B artist, then you should just make R&B. But if you talk to any R&B artist, they’re fans of all kinds of things. It’s just that they feel like they have to do one thing to stay successful.
Darnell: Right, yeah. You kind of do what pays the rent, so to speak.
Macy: Yeah, and there’s nothing wrong with that. People do what they have to do, but when I go in the studio I just go crazy. I don’t really think about all the stuff you’re supposed to think about.
Darnell: As we’ve mentioned, you’ve made some great albums. I particularly liked the last one, and also BIG, and I wish we had time to kind of talk about them in detail. But, actually, I want to go right into your new project. It’s a collection of cover songs called COVERED. Before I ask you about the specific songs, tell me why you decided to do a covers album this time around.
Macy: Well, I’ve always wanted to do one, but I was always kind of talked out of it. and I wanted to put my original stuff out. So we finally did one. We’ve kind of been cultivating it for a couple years, because we play a lot of those songs live. When you go see a show people will throw in a couple covers sometimes. So, a few of the songs we’ve been doing live, and so the timing seemed right, and then it was just a matter of figuring out what covers to do. And I didn’t want to do old soul because I figured that would be too obvious, and I didn’t want to do--some songs are too classic, like you shouldn’t mess with them; you know?
Darnell: Right, yeah.
Macy: We ended up doing a modern rock record, but I think it’s awesome. It’s like a Soul approach to modern rock and roll. It’s cool.
Darnell: Right. When you guys were in the planning stages of it, as you were saying, there were some songs that you thought were untouchable. Is there anything in particular that stood out for you as a song that you absolutely did not want to touch?
Macy: Well, we tried a couple Prince tunes and none of those came out right. I think just because I’m such a big fan of his, I think I was intimidated by doing his songs. That might have been mental, but what else did we try? Oh, we were going to do “Superstitious” by Stevie Wonder; I don’t think anybody has ever redone that song … I know, like, a gazillion people have done “Superstitious,” but it never lives up to what he does; you know what I mean?
Macy: What else? We tried this Fiona Apple song. That didn’t really go well.
Darnell: [laughing] I like that honesty, because some people--they will probably be under the impression that, oh, their version is so great, and then they put it out and the fans are, like, no that wasn’t really good.
Macy: Oh, yeah, most albums are really precious. There’s a reason people like them the way they are, but, oh, we kind of took the tunes and made them our own. I think that was a good approach.
Darnell: Well, I wanted to ask you about some of them. So I’m just going to mention a few of them, and you just tell me why you decided to put them on the album. The album opens of up with kind of a moody version of “Here Comes The Rain Again” by the Eurythmics. Tell me about why you selected that song?
Macy: Oh, I’m a big Annie Lennox fan, and I was going through all her songs, and that was the one that I felt like I could cover … but I’m a huge fan of hers.
Darnell: I know that Radiohead’s “Creep” is one of the ones that you’ve done in concert before. You do a pretty faithful version of it here. What is it that you like about that song?
Macy: I like the lyrics a lot. I think the lyrics are amazing and, yeah, that’s one that we’ve been playing live for, like, 2 years. That was kind of a given. We just went in, we cut that in, like, a couple hours; that was pretty easy.
Darnell: Yeah? You also dive little bit into Reggae territory with “Smoke Two Joints” by the Toyes. Just tell me why you chose that to be on the album.
Macy: I’m so glad you said that! Everybody thinks that’s a Bob Marley song. Everybody is, like, she just did a Bob Marley song. But he never did that song.
Darnell: Yeah, yeah. That’s a common misconception.
Macy: That’s another one. I just think that’s a great song because it’s about smoking, but it’s political. They talk about war and peace, and it’s such a deep song, on a subtle level. It sounds like it’s about getting high, but it’s about getting high for a reason. I really like it; I’ve always loved that song.
Darnell: Alright, and one of the things that I never thought I’d hear you do is a Metallica song, and you do one of their ballads called “Nothing Else Matters.” Were you always a big Metallica fan?
Macy: I’m not really a metal head. I do like Metallica. They have a few songs that I really like. That particular song was just, again, the lyrics are amazing and we made it into a ballad, and we took out all those heavy guitars and it turned out to be a really pretty song. But those lyrics are just awesome, so I wanted to do that, for sure.
Darnell: You said that--even though you’re covering all these different people--you said that Nina Simone was actually an inspiration for this album; how so?
Macy: Oh, because I was--we were talking about the album, and I was, like, well, how are we going to do that? I didn’t want to be a copycat, take the original version and just do them over. And I was kind of looking on line for different covers people had done, so Nina Simone has all these amazing covers, and she kind of--but you don’t even know they’re covers because she makes them completely hers. My favorite one is “My Way.” She redid Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and it’s this Jazz, this epic Jazz-- crazy--it’s bananas; you’ve got to hear it. So, I heard that and I realized I could take the songs and do my own thing with them. She kind of set the tone for what the album is all about.
Darnell: Speaking of Nina Simone, you kind of do a mash up of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” and Nina Simone’s “Buck.” Whose idea was that? … because that’s one of my favorite ones on the album.
Macy: Really? Oh, thank you. My daughter hates that song; I almost didn’t put it on there. She gave me so much drama about that, but that’s one of my favorites, too. I didn’t get it, but anyway …
That was the thing. I wanted to do a Nina Simone song, and the only one we found that we thought we could properly cover was “Buck.” But then it didn’t go with the other songs, because it was so old.
Well, and then I wanted to do “Love Lockdown.” Well, I wanted to do a Kanye West song. So we kind of had these two on the table, so we put them together. It was real natural and real off the top of the head. It wasn’t like we planned it out for months. It was really spontaneous, and it just turned out that it worked.
Darnell: You cover a lot of different genres, as we talked about. You go from some mainstream pop, to a little bit of reggae, a little bit of alternative rock, a little bit of hip hop. You don’t really go into R&B, though. And I was just wondering, was that a conscious decision? You just wanted to do everything but that, on this particular album?
Macy: Yeah, because I just thought R&B and Soul covers would just be really obvious, and it wouldn’t be really a point, because I do my own version of that. You know what I mean? So, yeah, we kind of just focused on things that seemed a little far fetched.
Darnell: Which song was the most fun to record?
Macy: The most fun to record? Probably the skits. Outside of the skits, probably--let me think. The most fun, oh, “Teenagers”! My Chemical Romance. We had a ball doing that, because we had kids come in, we had a horn section; there’s strings on there. There’s, like, a marching band kind of thing. That song is crazy, and that part took us the longest. We spent about a week on that. So, probably, that one.
Darnell: So was there anything … was that song there that was a little more difficult to get finished? … a little more difficult to record?
Macy: No, it wasn’t difficult. It was just all the layering, because it has all these wild things on it. Like, there’s a piano on it, and then there’s three different drum tracks. We had about eight kids come in and sing in the background. We have a horn section, we have strings. It was just a lot. I don’t think any of the other songs are quite that epic. That’s probably why.
Darnell: I understand that you’re going on a world tour this year. Just tell me a little bit about that, and when that’s going to start.
Macy: Oh, man, I’m just getting ready for it. I’m just dying. I’ve been working out.
Darnell: That’s why you’re in the gym--getting ready for that, I would imagine.
Macy: Yeah, I know. It’s torture because I hate working out. I don’t care what anybody says. There’s nothing fun about working out. So I’ve just been doing that. But yeah, we’re going to do the states, and we’re going to go to Europe, probably not ‘til late May, but we’re definitely going to tour the album. I can’t wait.
Darnell: Okay, now, I know you were on Dancing with the Stars before. Is there going to be any ballroom dancing in the show?
Macy: No! [laughing]
Darnell: You’re done with that?
Macy: I wasn’t very good at it, remember? So … definitely not.
Darnell: Tell me a little bit about what the Macy Gray experience is like in concert?
Macy: It’s more like a big party. It’s like a big--it’s fun, you know? It’s very raw and loose, I don’t have a lot of production in it, but we kind of don’t need it, because the show--it’s one of those, like when your mom used to go to those old sweaty shows, and everybody would just be sweating and dancing and singing. Like, you know, it’s just about the music kind of thing.
Darnell: Yeah. You’ve made a successful transition into films, taking some smaller parts in some big, high profile movies. No one is ever going to forget that search warrant scene in Training Day with Denzel. Was that your first movie role?
Macy: Was it? I think I did Spiderman first. I’m not sure. No! Training Day was first. Training Day was definitely first. Absolutely.
Darnell: Yeah, and people still talk about that scene. And just briefly, just tell me what was that experience like, working with Denzel, and being on the set? Because, for it being your first film, you were working with top notch people.
Macy: Oh, I know! It was Denzel and Antoine Fuqua and Ethan Hawke. Yeah, it was cool. It’s cool because I didn’t know enough to be intimidated. The director just kind of called me up and asked me to do it, and I was kind of, like, why does this dude want me in his movie? He must not know what he’s doing.
I had never acted before. So it was one of those things where you just go for it because you don’t have … you’re not thinking about the consequence or the result. That’s the best way to approach something, even though it’s hard to do that sometimes. I think that was part of why it worked so well, because I just went in and just went for it, you know? I got to meet Denzel, and the cool thing about him was he was in character the whole time, so when I met him, he was that guy. He had the attitude and he had this look in his eye.
Darnell: Oh, so he’s one of those kind of actors, huh?
Macy: It turns out he was in character, but he’s awesome. He has a huge personality. He comes in the room and he kind of fills up the whole room. He’s one of those kinds of guys. We had a really good time, and yeah, I get a lot of people who say I loved you in Training Day. They don’t even know I’m a singer, I don’t think.
Darnell: Now I understand you’re going to be in Lee Daniels’ next film? Everybody knows him from the movie Precious, and I heard you’re going to be in his next film, The Paper Boy?
Macy: Yes, The Paper Boy.
Darnell: Can you tell me a little bit about your role in that?
Macy: It’s a ‘60s film about a murder mystery in a little, small, tiny town, and I play a maid of the main character. The main character is a writer and he’s investigating the story, and I’m the maid in his family’s house.
Macy: It’s a crazy--you know, it’s a Lee Daniels movie, so it’s wild. But it’s very good and Nicole Kidman’s in it, and John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron. Yeah, and Lee Daniels directed it. It’s going to be crazy. Everybody’s going to trip out when they see that movie.
Darnell: Before we go, tell me what’s next for you? You’ve conquered television and music, obviously, and movies now. What would you like to do next?
Macy: I want to get into some behind–the-scenes stuff. I want to get into producing TV shows and stuff like that, and plays. I’ve been working on this musical for a couple of years, and writing it has taken me a long time, but I want to get into, like making--creating things. I feel like I have a lot of good ideas, so that’s probably my next step--what I want to do.
Darnell: Okay, that sounds good. Is there anything you would like to mention that we haven’t talked about?
Macy: Well, I have on my website where you can call me. I have a hotline where you can call me if anybody out there wants to talk to me.
Darnell: Okay, go ahead. Give us that information.
Macy: You just go to MacyGray.com and the phone number’s on there.
Darnell: On the site?
Macy: Yeah, and I give times that I pick up the phone, and a lot of times it’s crazy, people calling at the same time, so I don’t get to all the calls, but I do talk to the ones that I answer. It’s actually a lot of fun. Everybody thinks that I’m ridiculous for doing it, but it’s actually a lot of fun.
Darnell: Yeah, it sounds like you’re a people person, so that would work for you.
Macy: It’s cool. It’s fun.
Darnell: Speaking of social media and the Internet and such, are you on Facebook or Twitter?
Macy: Yeah, my Twitter is @MacyGraysLife and my Facebook is Official Macy Gray, I think. I don’t really go on there much, but I do enjoy Tweeting. Tweeting is fun because you can have these conversations with people that you don’t know, and that you’re never going to meet, but you have these little back and forths. It’s pretty interesting, what that has done for people.
Darnell: You don’t get caught up in those Twitter feuds do you? I know some celebrities do. You’re not one of those, are you?
Macy: I’m not above it. I might, but I haven’t had beef with anybody yet.
Darnell: I’m not above it! [laughing] I love that. Well, Macy Gray. Oh, lets put some other information out there before we forget. When does the album come out?
Macy: March 27th. That is 18 days. 17 days. Yeah.
Darnell: Is there a video or anything out that we can look for?
Macy: Oh, yeah, there’s the video out for “Two Joints”; that’s on YouTube, and I’m making one for the first single. It’s called “Sail.” It’s an Awolnation song, and that’s pretty awesome. So that’s coming out soon, too.
Darnell: Okay, well, Macy Gray, I do appreciate your time. Any time that you have anything that you’re doing, our doors at SoulMusic.com are open. Feel free to come through and let us know what you’re doing.
Macy: Oh, thank you. And tell them to watch Conan O’Brien on March 27th.
Darnell: Okay. You’re performing?
Darnell: Okay, awesome. We’ll do that. Macy Gray, thank you so much. Take care, good-bye.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.