Songwriter Interviews

Macy Gray

by Greg Prato

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Macy Gray was already a mother of three when she released her first album in 1999, the strikingly original On How Life Is. Roughly a year later, she had one of the biggest hits in the land: "I Try," which earned her a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. It was the most accessible song on the set, but a rather tepid track compared with other gristly cuts like "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak" and "I've Committed Murder."

Instead of chasing her hit with similar offerings, Macy kept making funky, unpredictable music. Her second album, The Id (2001), went to #1 in the UK, but in America radio and MTV had other priorities, and no hits emerged. She parted ways with Epic after her third album, and since then has branched out in different directions, including acting and covers albums. 2012 was a big year for both of these endeavors: she starred in the Lee Daniels movie The Paperboy and did her own interpretation of Stevie Wonder's Talking Book album.

In 2014, she released a new album of original songs called The Way. We spoke with Gray while she was in the middle of a US tour to get her thoughts on "I Try" and learn about her preferred method of songwriting.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Do you prefer writing on your own or collaborating with others?

Macy Gray: I do a lot better when I'm collaborating. I've written songs by myself, but they seem to come together a lot faster and better if I'm doing it with somebody.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite collaborators?

Macy: My favorite is Royal Z [Adam Waldman]. We've been working on a new record for a while now, and we come up with really awesome stuff together. I've been in the studio with a lot of really great producers - it's hard to just pick one. But definitely him.

Songfacts: And what is it that makes Royal Z special as a collaborator?

Macy: It's just relationships. When you're in the studio, it's a chemistry, a "click" thing, a personality thing. You can be in the studio with the greatest producer that ever lived, but if you don't have the same ideas about music or the same taste, then it doesn't really come out right. It usually just comes down to who gets it and who wants the same things you want musically.

Steve Wonder's second album of 1972, Talking Book (Music of My Mind preceded it by several months) is often considered the first of a string of releases during the '70s that have gone on to be not just the best of the singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist's entire career, but in pop music history. While the album contained two hit singles (the love song "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and the funky rock of "Superstition"), it also contained some great guitar work from Jeff Beck ("Maybe Your Baby"), socially conscious lyrics ("Big Brother"), and a would-be hit that was surprisingly never issued as a single: "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)."
Songfacts: You covered the entire Talking Book album by Stevie Wonder in 2012. What does that album mean to you?

Macy: I'm a huge Stevie Wonder fan, like everybody else. It's an album that I knew inside and out - I already knew all the words. And it was the first Stevie Wonder album that I bought. I had listened to a ton of them by the time that one came out, but that one struck me as one that I really wanted to have. It's just an awesome album - it has a lot of really classic tunes on there. It's a pretty amazing record.

Songfacts: I personally have a hard time deciding between Talking Book and Innervisions as my favorite Steve Wonder album.

Macy: Oh yeah, I love Innervisions. I could listen to that all day.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "The Way"?

Macy: "The Way" is really just life. You struggle with what you want out of life. For me personally, it was just where I was at when I wrote it - kind of looking for the answers to a lot of things and trying to figure out how I was going to get where I wanted to go. So that was just kind of a moment that I was having and where I was in my life when I wrote that.

Songfacts: "Beauty in the World"?

Macy: It was inspired by my kids. It's a good balance when things are crazy as always, and you go home and you've got kids, and at least half of the time, they're making you happy.

Songfacts: "Why Didn't You Call Me"?

Macy: I was in the studio with a guy that didn't call me - we went out on a date and he played the bass. He went in the studio to record on my record, he fell asleep, and I actually wrote it right then.

Songfacts: "Still"?

Macy: Same thing - it's just a relationship thing I was in at the time.

Gray split from her husband shortly before recording her debut album. Many of the songs were inspired by him.
Songfacts: "I Try"?

Macy: Same guy.

Songfacts: How did the sudden success of "I Try" affect you at the time?

Macy: It was crazy, because that was the song that I fought with my label about. I didn't think that it should have been the single, and I really didn't understand what was so special about it at the time. It's weird - it was all very strange to me. I was shocked when that song hit. And I'm still shocked every night when I sing it and everybody still knows the words. It's crazy.

Songfacts: What do you think of that song now?

Macy: I love it. I've always loved it. I just didn't know it was this major hit that it turned out to be. But it's an awesome song. I get it - I get why people like it. I did not expect it to be this thing that would be around for years and years though. I still don't get that. But it's cool - I'm happy about it.

Songfacts: And what do you recall about shooting the song's video?

Macy: I recall a lot of stuff. We were in Central Park and it was the first time I kissed a guy in front of a whole bunch of people. And I wasn't crazy about my outfit. But my label kind of told me to just shut up, be quiet, and do it, so I did. It was the first time I ever listened to anyone - I went along with what everybody thought was the right thing. I hadn't done that yet with my music. That's what I remember most.

And I hated my hair. I hated everything about it. The same thing with the song - I turned out to be totally wrong about all of it, so it was good.

Songfacts: Who are your favorite singers?

Macy: Of all time, probably Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder, of course. And Chaka Khan. I can go on and on - there's so many. I'm a big Steely Dan fan; I love the way he [Donald Fagen] sings. Robert Plant. I'm a huge Van Halen fan. I love the way Rihanna sings. Adele has an incredible voice. Shirley Manson from Garbage, I love her voice. There's a lot of people.

November 25, 2015.
For more, visit macygray.com.

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  • Jodi from Massachusetts ID also released one week after 9/11. That would have had a huge affect on her album sales, regardless of what MTV was focusing on music- and program-wise.
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