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Macy Gray
Photo Credit: Giuliano Bekor

Macy Gray on Technology, the Power of Trap Music, and Lasting Forever

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In an exclusive interview ahead of the release of her new album Ruby, Okayplayer talked to Macy Gray about race in the music business, technology, and finding the formula to longevity.

Macy Gray doesn’t smoke weed anymore; it messes with her voice.

Gray’s voice, of course, is an unrefined one— and in the pantheon of classic, identifiable voices in music, hers is among the rawest and most recognizable. Now, the musician laughs when asked about her past drug use, telling abrupt anecdotes that end faster than she welcomes personal prodding from interviewers.

When Wendy Williams asked about her history of substance abuse, in a recent interview, Gray responded to the question with a question: “What is a drug?” She revealed that she “never really liked hash” because it made her tired, and advised, “for the ladies, Grape Kush is excellent for your cramps.”

She’s setting her sights on marketing a line of cannabis specifically geared toward women.

The 51-year-old artist’s candidness pre-dates this era’s Youtube-Instagram-influencer transparency. In a 2014 interview with Oprah Winfrey, she delved into her battle with drug addiction. Then, she admitted she’d been prematurely endowed with too much money and too much fame all too quickly.

Gray hasn’t just coasted through the music industry, consistently releasing albums, switching labels — she’s survived it. Now, she plans to launch her organization My Good to help teenagers deal with mental illness.

Macy Gray parlayed soul and rock roots into accidental alternative pop stardom. The Canton, Ohio native would write songs for a friend while attending the University of Southern California, where she studied scriptwriting. She stumbled into recording and was later discovered by an Atlantic Records executive. Then began her whirlwind of a career. She’d release her breakout hit, “I Try,” in 1999; it’d peak at no. 1 on the Billboard charts in 2000, and eventually earn her five Grammy nominations.

Her debut album, On How Life, would go triple-platinum; she’d go on to sell 25 million albums worldwide, and win a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

Her voice and face was everywhere: in cameo appearances on television and on the big screen — from singing the theme song for Nickelodeon’s tween-friendly animated series As Told by Ginger to acting alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day.

But she would eventually fade from the forefront of mainstream success.

By the time she’d start working on her sophomore album, The Id, Gray had gone from alternative industry darling to being seen as an enigmatic, unstable fallen star. Her reputation was mired in controversy, after a string of surreal public appearances and interviews continuously confused critics and fans. Like the time at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in 2001 when she was booed for stumbling over the lyrics to the national anthem.

Where most artists haven’t found the formula to replicating the colossal commercial success of Gray’s debut era, she’s maintained some semblance of career stability performing live shows. She travels often — she tours six to seven months out of the year — and her accent reflects that: the quietest tincture of British inflection, the modest midwestern twang, and the eccentricity that attracted legions of fans across races and countries.

In a recent interview with Okayplayer, Kelis spoke about the moments she shared overseas with Gray early on in her own career, reminiscing on the comfort of exploring otherwise uncharted musical territory together.

“I was touring in Europe hard and fast, way before any Black American artists were going out there like that. We would be in the whitest festival of all time. I was a 19-year-old girl from Harlem, and no one looks like me out here. Somewhere far off, I would see Macy. ‘Yes, girl, I see you. I’m grateful that you’re here as well.’ We were booked on the same bill so often. It would be country after country. We were the only ones… For years, it was just me and her.”

At the dawn of the 21st century, while Kelis was screaming on tracks, Gray was growling. While mainstream R&B of the early 2000s was attached to hip-hop, Gray’s music wasn’t—  her sound was a coalescence of soul, rock and roll, and adult contemporary. She was the alternative.

Her 10th studio album, Ruby, was released this September. Ruby hosts the personal, political, and unpolished storylines told by the gravelly tone that fans are familiar with. Gray uses this project to dabble in live instrumentation, samples, jazz, and trap percussion. The album’s features — from Gary Clark, Jr. on guitar to the album’s single “Sugar Daddy” being co-written by Meghan Trainor — prove to be just as satisfyingly unexpected as her sonic fusions. After all, unconventional has unintentionally been Gray’s brand of cool long before it was commodified.

Okayplayer sat down with Macy Gray ahead of the release of her new album where she shared insight on how race affects the business model of music; how she thinks trap has been the last truly innovative genre; her predictions on how technology may change touring; and her artist’s guide to lasting forever.

The first thing I want to ask you, of course, is going to be about the theme song to As Told By Ginger on Nickelodeon. That was a very important show.

They were launching a new season of Ginger and they asked me to sing the song. And I went in and did it. I love the song — what the song says: “The grass is greener on the other side, but from where I'm standing the grass is green.” I just love that quote.

When you came to fame, I know that some things were just pinned as alternative. What was it like for someone to be ‘the black alternative’ at that time— music-wise, style wise?

At that time, rock and roll was still really popular. And then hip-hop — it was out of course, and had been around for a long time, but it was just making all these superstars and legends. So it was a really good time for music; you could still hear Sade and then LL Cool J on the same radio, and Erykah Badu. I think people were just a lot more open to different ideas and different styles of music. And people were still buying records. It was just a really good, lucrative time for music.

I think people were a lot more interested in talent then — if you had a different kind of voice, or if you were introducing a new kind of style. It's why everybody was so open when Nirvana came out — [Kurt Cobain] he was a whole new style of rock and roll. The same thing happened in R&B. I think it really kind of broke open when Erykah came out. And then there was Eddie Stone and Jill Scott and me and Lauryn Hill. She wasn't really alternative, but she did something so fresh and so different.

We just get this kind of monotone style forced down our throats now, so when you hear something different it takes a minute. I still think people are open, I just think that the industry floods everybody with one thing.”

Would you say that it's more difficult to navigate the industry now than it was back then for you? Or do you think you've kind of already have a grasp of it because you've been consistently making music?

It's difficult for everyone. There's a few artists who came up with the new way of releasing records, so that's all they know. But I think for somebody like me, who did it a different way, and thrived on that, it's really hard. it's been really hard to adjust and get to know how to play it.

There's a lot less money. I don't care how big you are. We made so much more money back then.

You could just make so much money off of record sales. And if you're a popular artist, like Mariah Carey, you're making two dollars a record. You sell five million records — and that's just record sales. You don't make anything near that from streaming, so it's just a new world and everybody has to get used to it. We're down to like three major labels. There used to be tons of them.

Artists don't make much money off of streaming and the money is made in touring now. Everyone is rich, millionaires, but where is the money coming from? I guess that speaks to why so many people do different things now.

There's money in branding. If you have a lot of followers, you can get contracts and influence the deals and stuff like that.

As an artist, you should just be able to be an artist, you shouldn't have to scratch and scrape and hustle every avenue to keep it moving. But that's just how it is so you can't really bitch about it. You've got to go with the new wave. Things were never going to stay the same.

Where do you think it will go after this? Post-social media, post-streaming, post-monotonous branding. Do you have any predictions on how the environment will change?

I don't know technology well enough to know where you can go from here. I don't know how you can beat Instagram, because it's free. And then streaming is $10 a month. I don't know how you can beat that. You'd have to be super genius to make it even easier for people to access music.

I think touring is going to —  people are going to start making holograms and shit. It's already kind of happening.

They wanted to do a Prince hologram. And they did a Tupac hologram.

They're going to have like every major city on the same night. It's going to be stupid but probably everybody's going to get used to it, just like they got used to this. I think concerts are going to get weird because I don't know how you can beat social media. I'm sure somebody will one day.

We made so much more money back then.

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What was the genre that pushed you to make music?

I had tons of influences. I took piano lessons from when I was seven. Musicians are more open to different kinds of music because they respect the idea of making it and what goes into it. they respect different things about music than your average fan. So, I think most musicians have a lot of influences. They might have one or two that really hit them hard but I don't know any musician who just listens to one [genre]. You meet these hardcore, straight up hip-hop heads and they know all about Black Sabbath.

That song that you did, ‘Ghetto Heaven’ with Common, can you talk a little bit about how that came to be? Erykah Badu was on the original, and then you ended up on the album version?

Yeah, he was doing a remix and we had talked about touring together. He actually opened for me when he was first really getting big. He wanted me on the remix because my song “I Try” was super cracking then and everybody knew who I was. So it was a good look for him. Another boring story — his label reached out, and I just went in and did it. I remember having a good time in the studio. That was one of my first real features, and I was super flattered that he asked me.”

Who was your favorite artist that you worked with?

Him, for sure, because we had so much fun that day. And

When I'm in the studio, I can get along with the devil; I'm so happy and comfortable there. I'm having fun no matter what.

I think legacy is just when you last forever. When you have such an impact on someone that they never forget about you. Or they never forget how to sing your song. There's a lot of women who have done that, and there's going to be more.

You have a lot of interesting features — like the Ariana Grande feature on her album.

She was cool. I loved that song.

Ariana is one of the voices of now. There's a lot of griping in the industry about R&B singers not being able to sing anymore. How do you think that R&B has transitioned over the last 30 years?

I think R&B is cool. It's totally different than back in the Usher days, and what not. R&B is just a whole ‘nother animal now. You can't really hold onto anything in music because it changes every day.

But where is the new Lauryn Hill? Where is the new Roots? Who's the new Erykah Badu? I don't think people take as many chances as they used to. I think a lot of artists feel like they have to do what's popular. And what's sad is the labels really endorse that because they're so scared of losing money now because they don't make as much money as they used to — so that translates into what artists feel comfortable doing or the chances that they take.

R&B is changing but it got hit so hard by a lot of things. Financials and race. There is a race issue, and that's just nothing you can argue about. There are plenty of sisters out there, but if you can find the Ariana Grande and do the same song, then that's what [labels] are going to go for. Everybody's still looking for the new Justin Bieber when there's plenty of black kids that could do proper, amazing R&B. But Justin Bieber's going to sell more records.”

[Trap music] is the latest, freshest thing that music has done that has all this power and influence. 

People ask questions like when are we ever going to see another Lauryn Hill or when is Lauryn Hill ever going to make music again? Do you think people actually want to hear Lauryn Hill make music again? If she, or if someone else of her caliber, were to continue pushing out music and art the way she wanted to, how would it be received in this current landscape?

I wouldn't expect nobody to come and do the new Lauryn Hill. I'm just saying as someone who goes out on a limb and makes her own album and dares to be and sings a little differently and has an amazing voice and can rap and hold her own. Or somebody like Erykah or Jill, who just completely create their own type of music. I just haven't seen that in a while. I'm not looking for those artists because you're never going to find another of those. But I'm just saying new ideas, anything that's fresh.

I mean, I hear some really dope songs but you've got like a whole new take on intro to music. Trap kind of changed everything.

Do you enjoy where trap has taken music?

I think it's amazing. I don't think it's going to last forever, so I'm interested in seeing what happens next. But it's the latest, freshest thing that music has done that has all this power and influence.

How does your artistry and career define your legacy?

I think legacy is just when you last forever. When you have such an impact on someone that they never forget about you. Or they never forget how to sing your song. There's a lot of women who have done that, and there's going to be more.

As an artist you have a chance to really live forever because you know the songs never get destroyed. And if you make a movie someone can always access it so the idea of doing that on a major level, I think that's really what legend and legacy is all about.

That's not easy, so if you can do that I think that makes you a genius. It doesn't happen by accident. It's definitely not just because of talent. That requires somebody who's really smart and super determined. You have to make moves and flow a certain way and look a certain way, and your timing has to be right. A lot of things have to fall into place for you to do something that lasts forever.

As far as myself, I mean — that's what every artist wants; nobody wants to be forgotten.

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