BlackBook Interview: Macy Gray on Her New Music + Her Incredible Legacy

Photo: Giuliano Bekor

 

It’s been nearly twenty years since Macy Gray released her first album, On How Life Is, which spawned the Grammy-winning mega hit “I Try.”

Eight albums later, she’s back with a new studio record, Ruby, and its buzzy, bright lead single “Sugar Daddy” is one of our sincere contenders for song of the summer. The track was co-written by fellow Grammy winner Meghan Trainor and is accompanied by a smoky, glittering music video featuring Diana Ross’ son and Gray as a down-on-her-luck lounge singer.

The new album, Gray describes, is as personal as it is varied: she describes groovy up-tempo songs, soulful ballads, and tracks she can only explain as something she’s been listening to on repeat. It’s out September 7th.

We caught up with singing legend, reflecting upon Gray’s proudest career moments, the legacy of “I Try,” her experiences with the #TimesUp movement conversation, and the artists she’s currently drawing inspiration from.

 

 

I wanted to start by asking you about this new album, and the songwriting process behind it.

It was written in pieces over about a year and a half. It started out with – I did a song on Ariana Grande’s album, Dangerous Woman, and I went to the studio of the producer of that album, Tommy Brown; he said, ‘We should do something together.’ I came back the next day, and we’ve been working together, for about a year and a half. I posted up with a whole crew of songwriters and producers over that time and worked on it with them as well.

Were you drawing on personal experience or stuff going on in the world as you were writing? What was inspiring you?

It’s a very personal album. There were other writers involved, so it was a combination, but they mostly wrote…it geared towards me and what I wanted to talk about. It was all really whatever I was going through at the time that ended up in the songs somewhere.

You mentioned the Ariana Grande collaboration – did she reach out to you?

I had never met Ariana before that, and I went to take a meeting with her label, Republic Records. An old friend of mine is head of A&R there. She said, ‘Why don’t you get on this Ariana Grande record?’ She sent me over to Tommy’s, and we hit it off. I didn’t even meet Ariana until after, at a birthday party she had that I went to way after the fact.

With ‘Sugar Daddy,’ did you come up with the concept for the video?

The song can mean so many things, so one of my favorite movies is Lady Sings The Blues. And there’s a favorite scene in there where she’s singing for money. So essentially that’s what we did with the video. To show everyone where I’m at… and it’s a love story. It’s kind of like my whole career in a simple visual. We got Diana Ross’ son Evan Ross starring in it. She saw it and she loved it, so I’m really happy.

How was it working with Meghan Trainor?

She’s adorable. She was actually working on her album with Tommy, and she came by the studio and ended up writing on my album, because she’s such a big fan. She came back the next day and the next day. She wrote the idea for ‘Sugar Daddy’ when she was 16 – it was one of the first songs she ever wrote. She had it hiding in her head somewhere. She went ‘I got this idea.’ And we finished it off.

 

 

Can you walk me through some of your favorite tracks? What were the most difficult to work on and the most fun?

There’s a song about living in the moment, living for right now. We have a feature by Gary Clark on there. I love the whole album, of course, but the very last song – I listen to it all day on repeat. Then there is a ballad I really like. But I really love all the songs, we spent a lot of time on them. Every song is super crafted.

And the title Ruby – what’s the significance of that?

Red represents emotion, and all the songs are about emotion, and feeling from the heart – and the heart is red. It’s a jewel, and it’s a jewel for me to be making an album like this, 20 years later. Jewels, and red: a bright awesome color that you also see when you’re nervous about things; and I’m nervous about the album coming out, so it’s just representative of everything I’m doing at this point in my career.

It’s been almost 20 years since On How Life Is, your first album. Do you feel like you and your approach to music have changed a lot, since you started?

It’s an entirely different process now because of technology and what’s available to artists – and the kind of music that’s out, and who runs the music business now. So I don’t think it’s really possible to do what you did 20 years ago today. But as a person and an artist, I’m a much better singer than I used to be. My life has changed, so I have different things to sing about. I’ve come a long way since my first album, musically.

Do you think this recent conversation with #TimesUp and #MeToo has had a big impact in your sphere of music?

I come from a different mother, you know? I’m from Ohio, and my mother was a ‘Take no shit’ kind of mom. Not to have any criticism of women who go through that, but I have always been able to avoid it, or nip it in the bud before it got started. But I do know that it’s rampant all over the place, especially in Hollywood where girls want to get their career going, constantly thinking you’ve got to do whatever it takes and getting caught in really dark situations. I’ve been fortunate to be able to handle things before they happen.

You’ve allowed some time to breathe between albums. Do you spend most of your downtime thinking about the next album – do you feel like you’re always working?

My mind is always going, I’m a musician, so…you can’t help but be creative. As a writer, you hear people say stuff and think about how you’re going to write it down. I’m the same way. I think in art. But I’m not working all the time…I’m actually a bit lazy.

Obviously, ‘I Try’ was such such a big song. Did you think it would be so successful if you made it now?

No, I actually was begging my label to put out another song. I didn’t think that song was a hit – that the chorus was too wordy. I was arguing with my label about another song, but they didn’t listen to me, which was a good thing. And, like, six months after my record came out that song hit. I was touring, and I was doing a lot of promo, magazines and stuff, but it was all new to me, so I was having a ball and not really counting my record sales. But the record came out in August ’99, and I don’t think ‘I Try’ hit until the next year. I was in Europe, and my manager called and said ‘Your song is number one.’ I didn’t even know what that meant. I was totally blown away. And the fact that I still sing it, and everybody knows every word, and I go to the mall and they’re playing it at Urban Outfitters, and in movies, and commercials, and stuff. I’m way more shocked than anyone. I had no idea.

 

 

What was the song you wanted them to release instead?

They did release it after I begged them, but I don’t even think they wanted to. It was a song called ‘Call Me.’ I thought that would be a massive hit. They were right – that song didn’t go. So I learned early that I really don’t know what I’m doing, and I should just stick to singing.

What about other moments in your career that have been your most proud? Even if they weren’t commercially your biggest?

This album, I’m super stoked about. I’ve been able to travel all over the world, to places I didn’t even know existed. I did this festival in the UK called Glastonbury. And I headlined there and that was a huge deal. I was selling out arenas. The fact that I still do big theaters and people still call me when I have an album out, it feels so good. I remember taking my mom to meet President Clinton, she was really happy about that. She met President Bush, because I did something for him. It’s cool to take your mom and your dad around. I got my mom backstage tickets to Tina Turner. She met Tina Turner, and she’s a huge fan. Little stuff like that, you’re glad you can pull off.

Are there other artists inspiring you right now, or that you’re listening to currently?

There’s so much music now, there’re tons. In terms of who I’m listening to now, I don’t even know who I’m listening to. I still really love Pusha T’s new album. I listened to that a couple days ago. Kendrick is always really inspiring. There’s so many, there’s a lot of great songs coming out – I don’t know that there’s one particular artist I’m following. I think Anderson Paak is cool. I think what Childish Gambino is doing is really groundbreaking. Not everyone is forced to be so commercial anymore – people are doing what they want to do, and it’s working.

Are you going to do any more acting work in the near future?

Yeah. I got so busy with my record, I had to turn down some stuff. I think next year is going to be crazy too, but I do want to do more movies. I haven’t been able to fit it into the schedule, and drop three months and go focus on film at the moment. But I do want to do that, definitely.

Do you have anyone that you really want to collaborate with in the future that you haven’t gotten to yet?

Gosh, I don’t know, it’s kind of an arrival if you get Jay-Z on your album. That’s something huge. Then you’ve definitely made it. I don’t know how soon that’s going to happen, but he’s someone I’ve always wanted to do. I’m still a big Kanye fan, I think he’s a great, great record maker. That would be cool. There’s a lot of people that I’m into.

The Movies We Hated In 2012

My colleague Hillary Weston and I see a lot of movies. Sure, we both loved a bunch of movies this year, such as the delightful Moonrise Kingdom, the biting Bachelorette, the lovely Beasts of the Southern Wild. But there were a few that we downright hated. While we don’t always agree on which movies were, in fact, the worst, here’s a brief list of the films from this year that drove us into fits of fury.

Prometheus

Ridley Scott’s sort-of-prequel to Alien left me with more questions than answers. For example, why did they hire Guy Pearce to play an old man instead of, I dunno, an actual old person? Would that automated surgery machine take my health insurance? What’s Michael Fassbender’s daily caloric intake? (It must not be too high.) What I did take away was this: there is no way that this has anything to do with Scott’s original masterpiece other than casually tossing around “Alien prequel” will gain a lot of buzz. I couldn’t have explained the plot of this movie five minutes after leaving the theater, and I had thankfully forgotten Prometheus until I decided to come up with the worst movies I’d seen this year. So there you have it, folks: Prometheus is completely forgettable until you try your best to think of things that are horrifically bad.—TC

To Rome With Love

Oh Woody, how I love thee. But just because you have spent your entire career putting out film after film—back to back every year for what seems like an entire century now—doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be so sloppy. Honestly, I doubt he even liked it, as even Allen’s character felt like someone doing a bad impression of himself. (Larry David, Owen Wilson, and Will Ferrell have all played better Woody Allens.) And don’t even both trying to find anything intelligent or redeeming about the women that populate the picture. Ellen Page’s boyish waif seductress was, to borrow a term in just about every one of his movies, "a pseudo intellectual" who was both manipulative and hollow; Greta Gerwig was an oblivious and passive goof who was supposed to be an intellectual but looked like an witless idiot; Alison Pill’s character was about as bland and lifeless as the canvas pants they wrongly put her in; and even the brilliant and beautiful Judy Davis had absolutely nothing to work with. The whole Penelope Cruz hooker storyline was absurd and a narrative bore, the Roberto Benigni "comedic" meditation on celebrity and the ego was unbearable to watch, and the father-turned-opera-singer sideline was no better than this Flintstones episode. By far the best part of the film was when I left to get a jumbo box of M&Ms and had to spend five minutes searching for the candy attendant. —HW

Silver Linings Playbook

There’s at least one movie released every Oscar season that everyone but me seems to like. This year, David O. Russell’s choppy mess of a movie fills the Little Miss Sunshine slot. Furthermore, this is the first movie that has ever forced me to leave the theater early. What did I hate most? The over-the-top quirkiness of the script? The propensity for each character to explain his or her madness rather than convey them with their actions? The fact the last thirty minutes are better than the first hour-and-a-half, at least according to every person I know who claims I cannot judge it solely on the first two-thirds of the film? (Go watch The Godfather and try to tell me the same thing, folks.) I’ve never been so grateful for Jessica Chastain, who will surely quash Jennifer Lawrence’s shot at an Oscar next spring. —TC

Lola Versus

After seeing Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’s sophomore effort, I recall writing down a few initial thoughts: "This movie has little to no genuine feeling. The dialogue was trite. The characters were like posed mannequins in an Anthropologie window attempting to tell a joke." And the worst part: even the wonderful and talented Greta Gerwig as Lola and a score by Fall On Your Sword could not save this shallow attempt at an anti-typical romantic comedy. The filmmakers are both young, intelligent people who have lived in New York for years, but I have to wonder: have they ever spoken to other humans? Every moment was contrived and two-dimensional, and it was filled with pathetic portrayals of wallowing that weren’t even accurate save for the lovelorn title character’s affinity for binge drinking and sleeping with people she would later regret. Lola chastises herself, saying "I know I’m slutty, but I’m a good person," even though it’s made clear that her ex was the only person she had slept with until they broke up, and then she sleeps with two other guys. Even the sparse scenes with her ex have absolutely no chemistry, and neither character exhibit qualities that would make you root for them not to wind up alone. All in all, it’s a film that apparently takes place in New York, but not a New York you’ve ever seen. —HW

The Dark Knight Rises

Here’s the thing: I knew I would hate this. But I had to see it, because to completely avoid the movie blockbuster of the summer would prove my own ineptitude at being a blogger. (And, as a blogger, it is my duty to share my opinions.) Christopher Nolan finally wrapped up his dour Batman trilogy with an overwrought political epic complete with as many of The Christopher Nolan Players as possible. Christian Bale brooding? Check. Tom Hardy being gay-question-mark? Yup. Marion Cotilliard for no particular reason? Uh huh. And leave it to Nolan to even strip away all the fun from Catwoman, who, as played by Anne Hathaway, is more like an old, unenthused tabby who only occasionally gets to ride some stupidly overdesigned motorcycle. Don’t get me started on the fact that it took a good forty-five minutes for Batman to actually show up; it was less of a superhero movie and more of a chance for Christopher Nolan and co-writer/brother Jonathan to an Oscar-clip monologue to every single character. —TC

The Paperboy

I don’t know why I expected more from the guy who interpolated shots of incestuous rape with images of bacon sizzling on a griddle in Precious, but I can say without wavering that The Paperboy was not just my least favorite film of the year—it’s also the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I’m all for a piece of well-made trash, but no amount of scrubbing would reveal a diamond under those layers and layers of shit. It’s misogynistic, homophobic, exploitative all around, and relies on the popular opinion that the South is a cesspool of murder, rape, racism, alligators—things that can only take place down there. And something must be said when Macy Gray delivers the best performance in a cast made up of Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, and Scott Glenn. —TC

Nicole Kidman Gets Sexual in ‘The Paperboy’—But Refused to Say the N-Word

The Paperboy, the new film from Precious director Lee Daniels, is a searing, character-driven thriller set in the southern Florida backwater, and features some dirty, smoldering, and messily spot-on performances from Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cusack, and Macy Gray (yes, even Macy Gray). But it’s Nicole Kidman’s sexed-up performance as a desperate woman trying to prove her husband’s innocence and release him from death row. Last night Kidman was honored at the New York Film Festival where The Paperboy, which opens in limited release on Friday, was screened for an eager audience. We caught up with the actress to discuss the film, how far she slipped into character, and her affinity for white patent-leather high heels.

How did you find your way into the character? How did you even begin to imagine her?
Well, I just thought, “Thishas to be authentic.” And I really needed to find my way in. So Lee said, “You should meet with some of these women that I know.” You know, women that were in love with men in prison and were sort of obsessed with them. I met with five different women that Lee had arranged, and that was how I kind of found my way in. At one point I freaked out to myself, and I thought, “This isn’t me. I’m not going to be authentic in this role!” One of the ladies said, “No, you can, you go, girl!” And she kind of gave me the confidence. Then I kind of just let it flow out of me, and I sort of went with it. I didn’t censor myself in any way—I just went straight into the character. And I didn’t see her as crazy, because I see very few people as crazy, so…[Laughs]

But, for me playing her, she’s a woman who is very damaged and is terrified of intimacy and of being close with someone. I suppose, the way in which she deals with Zac’s character, she knows he’s following her around like a puppy dog, but at the same time she’s not going to ruin him. Because if she lets him really fall in love with her, and if she lets herself, in some way, give in to him, and softens towards him, she’s going to ruin his life forever. What she says to him—“You don’t want me. Trust me…”—that, to me, is unconditional love. And her destiny, she feels, is that kind of like with [her husband]. That’s where she’s headed. It’s almost like a death wish. For me, that’s tragic, it’s very sad. And that’s where I came from with her—I had a lot of compassion for her. The reason I wouldn’t step in and out of the accent and the character the whole time was because I felt like I was going to be judging her. And if I just kind of stayed in it, I was very much, I thought, incredibly free to follow the instincts that were there. Which is how Lee works. You come on set and nothing is blocked out; Lee’s just sort of like, “Show it to me!” I never spoke to John Cusack through the shoot as “John.” It was always in character. At the end of the film, he came to my trailer and said, “Hi, I’m John!”

Are there physical things that you did? Like thinking about the hair, the walk?
Well, Lee was obsessed with the butt! He wanted my butt to be bigger, and I was like, “Okay, I can do that!” And I think that physically, I just wanted to find the sexuality of her. The director also triggers things that can ignite emotions and other things for you. And I think for me, the freedom of her sexuality was really important, and from the point I was in Lee’s hands, I didn’t really want to be saying “no” to anything.

Wasthere anything you actually refused to do in this provocative film?
Not really! No, yes, there was one thing: saying the n-word. I just didn’t feel like it was right for the character. And obviously, I have a son who is African-American. It just wasn’t right. The other thing I try to do as an actor is fulfill a director’s vision—that’s what you’re hired to do. And I have opinions and ideas, and I’m there to stimulate, hopefully, and ignite things in the director. But, at the same time, I’m not there to stop him. I really try, with every director,never to pull them off their vision. You’re there as a muse sometimes, you’re there as their conduit, and you’re there to create a character—together.

Can you talk about your character’s “Swamp Barbie” look?
Limitations are a great thing. There was no budget for the wardrobe. Everything was so authentic, and the costume designer was fantastic. I walked in there, and there were those white shoes! Lee has a thing about shoes! And as soon as we scuffed them, I was like, “These are the perfect shoes!” And after that, we just started trying stuff on, and Poloroiding and showing to him, and he would say, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” The costumes were really from that time period, and found down in New Orleans. Lee said I was also going to have to do my own hair and make-up, because we couldn’t afford a make-up artist! And I was of like, “Oh, God!” But I just went into the bathroom, and did the mascara and thick eyeliner like that, and put on this hairpiece that I had.

The important part of being an actor is learning not to shut down, not to say no, and being completely free and open. As you get older, you get a little more frightened—particularly now in this day and age, you know, there aren’t many opinions. It just makes me think, “Screw this!” I just want to push through it, and never stop myself from being brave and fighting through my own insecurities. I want to be in places I’ve never been to before and feel discomfort at times, and feel challenged, and feel ripped open. And it’s very, very hard to find those roles. It’s very hard to find those people that are going to do them with you. I do not want to get to an age, at this point in my life, where I am scared, or running scared. I much prefer to be pushing through the next few decades, giving it all I’ve got.

Elvis Costello, The Roots, Living Colour, Bettye LaVette & Others Pay Tribute to Robert Johnson

According to a tall tale, legendary guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a great musician. There’s no real proof of this Faustian legend save for Johnson’s immense talent and status as the root of the blues genre. Last night, in celebration of his 100th birthday, a stellar line-up of musicians gathered at the historical Apollo Theater in Harlem to pay tribute to the man who has inspired generations of artists across the globe. A benefit for the building of a Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee, the event was co-produced and hosted by actor Joe Morton in league with the Blues Foundation in Memphis. 

Opening the show was the house band, made up of Steve Jordan, James Blood Ulmer, Keb Mo, Colin Linden, Sugar Blue, and Willie Weeks — a group that Morton asserted was "the greatest blues band ever assembled." After performing "Terraplane Blues," Otis Taylor came onstage with a banjo to perform a solo rendition of "Kindhearted Woman." Immediately afterward, Todd Rundgren stepped out to perform a second version of the song; Morton explained that multiple versions of songs would be performed, as Johnson himself would sometimes put the same song on a record more than once. Soon after came The Roots, performing a spirited "Milkcow’s Calf Blues."

In a surprising turn displaying his versatility, "star of stage and screen and anywhere he wants to be" Jeffrey Wright joined Keb Mo at the microphone to sing "Stones in My Passway." Tony-award winning actor and dancer Hinton Battle glided across the stage while Public Enemy frontman Chuck D rapped the verses of "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." A choir joined Macy Gray onstage for "Come on in My Kitchen," and things really heated up when the great Bettye LaVette and Taj Mahal performed "When You Got a Good Friend" together. Following Sarah Dash and Keb Mo’s "Honeymoon Blues," funk metal band Living Colour earned the first standing ovation of the night after an electric rendition of "Preachin’ Blues," featuring gut-busting basslines and ear-piercing vocals from Corey Glover. Soon they were joined by Shemekia Copeland for the first of three versions of "Stop Breakin’ Down."

In the second half of the show, Sam Moore sang a consumate cover of "Sweet Home Chicago," Predito Martinez Group performed a Latin-inspired "Travelin’ Riverside Blues," and Elvis Costello wandered out to perform a single song: "From Four Till Late." One of the night’s highlights, however was the lovely Bettye LaVette, who returned to the stage to sing "I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man" accompanied by Kevin Kiley on harmonica. Before she twisted around, encouraging cheers from the audience, the venerable soul singer announced, "I haven’t stood on this stage since 1965 — and it seemed much bigger." 

Other than Todd Rundgren’s second performance, before which he mentioned that it was also the 100th birthday of the Oreo cookie and likened himself to "an inside-out Oreo" to an awkward silence, the end of the show was full of energy, with the group of performers, including Keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Living Colour, Sarah Dash, Jeffrey Wright, and Bettye LaVette, joining Patrick Droney, the 2006 winner of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation New Generation award, in "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day." The cheering audience jumped out of their seats at Sam Moore’s insistence. The event proved that Johnson, despite meeting an early death at the age of 27, was eternally influential, and most contemporary musicians owe a debt to his trail-blazing music. 

Hotel Hopping with the New Hilton: Gdansk

A few weeks back, Macy Gray was scheduled to perform a live show in Gdansk, Poland, but was plucked off the stage after her first song because she was so shitfaced. She never really apologized, and no one actually saw her in the city because she was shacked up in the Presidential Suite at the Hilton. Will Lady Gaga follow suit when she comes to perform in November? The fact that Lady Gaga is coming to Gdansk – the city is having special concerts for the remainder of the year to commemorate 30 years of Solidarity – isn’t what I find strange. It’s the fact that celebrities are booking rooms at what we generally perceive to be a mediocre, conventional hotel chain.

But things are changing for the Hilton brand, and in a good way. If you’re a global traveler, you’ll recognize that international Hiltons are not cookie-cutter duplicates, or stuffy. In fact, the brand is making great strides toward becoming more memorable by marching to a more contemporary beat. I decided to check out two recently opened properties, starting with Hilton Gdansk, which opened three months ago.

Located right on the Motlawa River in the heart of Old Town and next to a medieval tower, Hilton Gdansk truly feels like a boutique hotel. There are only 150 rooms, many of which have great views. I was impressed with the central atrium, which features a skylight ceiling and a centerpiece of 25,000 glass flowers connected by fiber-optic wire. It’s a fascinating sight from the glass elevators, and not indicative of the Hiltons I am used to in the States. The modern design of the guestrooms, with bold colors and organic-shaped furniture, was impressionable. The bathrooms were equipped with a separate tub and glass-box shower. There’s also an “urban beach” on the rooftop, which features a 5-meter indoor swimming pool, a sauna, spa, and terrace. It has “highest” rooftop bar in the city, and the building is only five floors. The Mercato restaurant offers cooking classes if you’re curious about pierogies, and there’s 24-hour room service, which comes in handy when you return from the beach resort of Sopot at 4 a.m. with an appetite.