There is a common misconception that Macy Gray rose to fame overnight. There are few people who can’t recall the lyrics to Gray’s “I Try,” released almost 20 years ago—a song that snagged her a 2001 Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Gray will be the first to admit she had no idea the level of success “I Try” would garner. She was thrust into the limelight and quickly began touring the world. When I ask what she misses about making music in the early years, before fame, she chuckles and quickly retorts, “Nothing! Of course, there is a purity to being young and you don’t know much, so that is beautiful, but it’s good to grow up, too…it’s good to be in a real studio with real producers and equipment.” Those years made for good stories, but she doesn’t want to jump into a time capsule any time soon.
“You are going to have crazy ups and downs, but no matter how crazy things get, how many times people tell you no, how broke you get or disappointed, you just keep going.”
Prior to her globetrotting, Macy Gray attended the School of Dramatic Arts at USC. The film school and music kids comingled in the courtyard, and it was there Macy embarked on a project that would change her career trajectory. She made a friend who had a 4-track in his dorm and played guitar; this led to her first introduction to greats like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Nat King Cole. She memorized lyrics and began playing gigs at a local Ramada Inn—she recalls having been 17 or 18 at the time. The Ramada Inn gigs led to a rock band, then a jazz band, then to the Sunset Strip, where she would play at famous clubs like the Roxy to crowds of eight people. I’m sure there were nights when more than eight people showed up, but Gray’s ability to joke about the size of the audience is evidence of her humbleness. On one particular evening, Tom Carolan from Atlantic Records happened to be drinking a beverage at the Roxy. Macy wowed him, and he offered her a showcase for Atlantic that led to Gray’s first record deal. A marriage, three kids and eventual divorce put her promising music career on hold, and it wasn’t until years later Gray would land a deal with Epic Records, the label that produced her debut album, On How Life Is.
Macy Gray and I meet in a small loft in West Hollywood—a converted air hangar that buttresses up to a quaint courtyard. Trees are bursting with the first evidence of spring; oranges weigh down tree limbs and California Mock Orange flowers bloom on nearby branches, turning the courtyard into an aromatic paradise. Macy is sitting legs crossed in an oversized vintage peacock chair. In classic Macy style, she’s donning colossal shades and coral lipstick—the glasses give Gray an air of mystery. Her presence in a room is palpable before you’ve even seen her. She spent most of the morning in hair and make-up, playing a mix of hits on a portable speaker she towed into the studio. The room burst into life, and Gray was the driving force behind the dancing that ensued.
We jump right in, and Macy Gray reminisces about one of her first trips across the pond. “We were in Germany, and it was like four o’clock in the morning. That was the first time I heard proper house music,” she recalls, pumping her arms in the air to the beat, “boom-ticka-boom.” The music scene in Germany had a heavy influence on Gray, and I can see her reliving those nights as she weighs in on her international travels. She recollects excursions to Morocco, Italy and Tokyo: “In Tokyo, I saw all kinds of clothes and stuff I had never seen before. In Italy, I got to taste where real pasta comes from. [Travel] changes your whole world and opens up your mind.” In Vatican City, Gray wept when she saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time.
“It’s hard to talk about music, you gotta hear it. I could say, ‘Oh My God. It’s so dope!’ But you still haven’t heard it.”
I can’t help but wonder if, in the age of pixels, our young folks will miss out on the types of experiences Macy describes. “I will go out to dinner with people,” Gray recounts, “and they’re on their phones, and I’m like, ‘I am going to go home and you can have a conversation with your phone.’” As a mother, Gray hasn’t had to force her kids to step away from the screen. “As a parent, you want to encourage your kids to go out and do stuff. I don’t have to tell my kids [to go out], they do it naturally,” Macy remarks with gratitude in her voice. With wide eyes, she makes one last comment about her travels: “In Tokyo,” she explains, “the waitresses are fucking robots. A robot dressed in a waitress outfit, and they bring your food to you!” For a moment, Macy’s tone changes and she mentions something about Uber having helicopters. Then she pauses, laughs and says, “It looks like we’re gonna be the Jetsons!” This Hanna-Barbera-esque world doesn’t seem that far off, and I have to laugh with her at the idea of a “Space Age” future.
Gray has had the pleasure of working with some of the most influential musicians of our time. Matt Chamberlain, who has worked with many greats like Elton John, Pearl Jam and Bill Frisell, accompanied Gray as the drummer on the live and unplugged version of On How Life Is. “I don’t know any other drummer that has the kind of swing that [Chamberlain] has,” Gray asserts. “Whatever he does, it works, and you can dance to it. It’s cool. I love it.” At first, Gray didn’t realize who Chamberlain was, and was pushing to have her own drummer in the studio. A new album is on the horizon for Gray, and it’s become one of her favorite works to date; a massive tour is scheduled to launch in the fall of this year. When I press her to tell me more, she responds, “It’s hard to talk about music, you gotta hear it. I could say, ‘Oh My God. It’s so dope!’ But you still haven’t heard it. It’s a proper album, and I’m proud of it.” Gray says we can expect to start hearing singles drop in late May or early June.
Despite a new record and the usual hustle and bustle of everyday life, Macy Gray has found time to champion some noteworthy projects. She’s setting up a foundation called “My Good,” a positive spin on my bad, the widely-used phrase borrowed from pick-up basketball. The foundation will shed light on and help reduce the negative stigmas often associated with mental illness—especially as it pertains to the youth in our country. The project is a personal and intimate endeavor for Gray. “I think mental illness is attached to negativity,” she notes. “I am so close to it, and I see what’s missing and why people go so long without the real care that they need. I feel like I can make a real difference.” The foundation will be an ongoing project for Gray, and she’ll use her new album to bring awareness to the campaign. “A portion of ticket sales from the tour and some of the album sales will be dedicated to the cause as well,” Gray shares with pride.
This issue of DOPE Magazine is all about sustainability, and it would be silly not to ask Macy Gray what she’s done to sustain such a lengthy career in the music industry. “You just keep doing it,” she posits. “If you really love it, there is no reason to stop. You are going to have crazy ups and downs, but no matter how crazy things get, how many times people tell you no, how broke you get or disappointed, you just keep going.” Gray’s message is clear—each day is another opportunity to shine and show the world what you’re made of.