IT’S a delicious irony that the one thing that really sets 29-year-old singer songwriter Macy Gray apart from the rest of the crowd – her rough-hewn diamond of a voice – is the thing that made her subject of merciless persecution in the school yard all those years ago.
“When I was little, I had this real funny voice,” remembers Gray, her voice still as squeaky, but decidedly less funny 20-odd years down the line. “Every time I talked the kids would make fun of me, so I stopped talking. Everybody thought I was shy, but really I was self-conscious of my voice.”
“I used to write all the time,” she remembers. “If I wanted to say something to somebody, rather than say it right out, I’d write them a letter. At school I used to write letters in class, sitting at the back, rather than actually listening to what the teacher was saying. I always had a pad and pen on me. Still do.”
The habit paid off. Gray released her debut album, Macy Gray on How Life Is in July last year, and revealed a unique, singular talent: her scribbled notes had matured into prodigious, brave songwriting while her voice had deepened and strengthened beyond all recognition. She’s got a voice that could stop traffic. And this time, no-one’s laughing.
The album, and the anthemic single I Try just exploded. Over the last few weeks of 1999, Gray became a standing fixture on TV and radio. Her five-date UK tour sold out within hours and the breathless, celebratory live performances left audiences shell-shocked in their wake.
Flying in the face of R&B convention, she’s not conventionally pretty, but she has a striking presence and she has ‘important artist’ written all over her awkward, ungainly body. Forget Lauryn, Whitney and Mariah, Gray’s peers are actually people like Nina, Billie and Janis. You hear her record and you know it’s an album you’ll be listening to for the rest of your life.
Raised in a relatively well-off home in Canton, Ohio, “a real small city, a blue-collar kind of a place,” Gray grew up listening to old favourites like Sly Stone and James Brown, Patti Labelle and Stevie Wonder. In Junior High School she discovered hip hop and then, during two years at a boarding school where she was practically the only black student, she got a taste for rock music. She didn’t have much choice.
“That’s all they listened to and I didn’t have my own radio. I was open to everything. I just developed a real appreciation for all kinds of music,” she remembers with a smile
She took this all-encompassing love of music with her when she left small-town Ohio for the glamorous surroundings of Los Angeles, where she enrolled on a scriptwriting course at the University of Southern California’s Film School. It was a big culture shock.
“LA is totally different to everywhere,” she laughs, as she stalks around her dressing room prior to a gig at the Town & Country Club in Leeds. “It’s all movie stars and record companies. The people there think in different ways to anywhere else. It took me a while to adjust to LA.” She lets out another of her infectious giggles and corrects herself. “I’m still adjusting to LA. A lot of people who got to LA really don’t like it. I’m kinda getting used to it. It’s a real different culture.”
In this country, we always imagine that Los Angeles runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It seems like the kind of place that just doesn’t stop, ever.
“It’s not,” says the singer. “There are a couple of places that open late. They’re real underground spots – block parties in basements and warehouses – but they’re all word-of-mouth and unless you’re in that scene, you won’t even hear about it. Everything else closes at like one, two o’clock, midnight even, some days.”
Finding that there was nowhere she and her musician friends could go to wind down when they emerged from the studio in the early hours of the morning, Gray took over a coffee shop in Hollywood and created her own after-hours performance club, the We Ours.
“It was just summin to do. The first night we opened, we just told everyone we was having a party that started at one am. People would invite their friends down, DJs would bring their records down and started working out. Rappers started coming down and freestyling with them on the mic. We started using it to practice, to work the show out and it just got to be a place where you could relax, where you could get up and talk shit or whatever.”
These loose, improvised jams she and her band first played at the We Ours were finally nailed down on her astonishing debut album. Mixing up soul, jazz and hip hop with just a touch of radio-friendly rock for good measure, the 10 tracks on Macy Gray On How Life Is reveal a songwriting talent of considerable stature and confidence, and the years honing her writing skills lend her a free and easy articulacy which seems to elude many of her contemporaries.
While other singers seem at ease baring their souls emotionally, when it comes to the physical expression of love, they often seem to get a bit coy on us. Gray doesn’t.
“Mm-hm,” she muses, fiddling with the tight beenie hat which covers that famous shock of corkscrew curls – and reduces her height by at least a foot. “It’s important to be straight-down-the-line. The whole album is just like a day in a life. It’s all the things you think about every day, and everybody deals with love and sex. There’s a song on there about death, there’s a song on there about murder, there’s a song about spirituality, there’s songs about the way things are and the way you wish things were. They’re the kind of things we all deal with on a daily basis.”
“Sex is definitely a big factor in your life,” she decides. “I just think it’s kinda corny when people go…” she lowers her voice to a husky whisper “…’Sex’, backing off from it. It’s obvious that it’s there and it’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know why people gotta be a hush-mouth about it. I don’t know who started all that. I don’t really see what the big secret is.”
Gray’s refreshingly-straight forward attitude towards sex is perhaps best heard on the sinuous Caligula, a deep-down-and-dirty bass groove which opens with the timeless couplet, “Hush, the neighbors hear you moanin’ and groanin’, But I just can’t help it, ’specially when we be bonin’.”
“It’s sort of like a shopping list of all the things you wanna do, and maybe one night you’ll find somebody who’ll do ‘em with you,” she explains. “I thought I’d write about love, but real love.”
Gray is just as direct and unflinching when she writes about darker subjects. Still is a tender lament to a love that has withered and died, written about her relationship with a man who, despite leaving her “with bruises on her face,” was still able to make her, “light up like a candle burnin’.” Written just after she signed to Sony last year, vastly increasing her financial independence at a stroke, I wonder if she would write the same song if she found herself in that kind of situation today.
“It won’t happen again,” she says with quiet finality. “Me and my ex-husband, we used to fight a lot you know, but I can’t see myself going there again. You can go back once, that’s one thing, but it happens again and you go back to them again, something’s very wrong, you know? So no, I’m not going to get myself in that situation ever again.”
Later in the evening, she’s roaming around the stage at the T&C, and the whole crowd is singing along to every celebratory, joyous, life-affirming word of her songs. She calms them down and introduces Still.
“You know when you got you a man and it’s all great?” she hollers to the women in the audience. “You go everywhere together, do everything together, eat together, sleep together, fuck together, you stay in bed all the time? Until one day, he stays in bed too long.” The place reverberates with a thousand female voices yelling their approval. “And you go, ‘yadda, yadda, yadda’. He goes, ‘yadda, yadda, yadda – Fuck you!’ And then there’s nothing else to say and you just have to throw something!”
Pandemonium ensues. She might come from thousands of miles away, but tonight she’s talking exactly the same language as the women in the audience, and when she finally plays I Try right at the end of the night, the place just goes crazy. Like Robbie Williams’ Angels last year, Gray has managed to capture the essence of that kind helplessness we all feel when it becomes clear a relationship is heading towards the rocks and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it except wait for it to happen.
Gray has never been afraid of big ideas. Even before her career took off, before she was signed up to the huge Sony corporation, when every day was spent getting high, she was dreaming of the time when she would be, “like Cleopatra”, with the world at her feet, the time when she would be “the latest craze.” Well, here she is. Everyone likes her. Everyone thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread.
“If only they did!” she howls, suddenly self-conscious and a little embarrassed. “No, it’s cool, in fact it’s wild. It’s a trip that people like the album that much. But, I don’t know. One day I was in a hotel and this one little girl, she wanted to feel my hair. And it’s such a odd question, you know, I didn’t really react. So she starts pulling my hair and I’m like, Get outta here! It’s just weird, stuff like that.”
“You have to look in the mirror every day of your life, and you know you’re just a kooky woman, and when everyone else is going on like this, it’s just kinda funny. You know you’re just like everyone else. I don’t know what’s different.”
So you’re not going to turn into some kind of prima donna then?
“I hope not,” she says evenly. “I haven’t tripped out about it all just yet. I’m waiting to see if I do. But I use it when I can, y’know, like little stuff, hotels. I say, I don’t like my room and they take me up to the Presidential suite instead. I kinda like that.”
She lowers her head, raises her eyes and flashes me a brief, stunning smile that lights up the whole room.
Gray has had plenty of opportunity to sample the best hotel suites the length and breadth of Europe. She and her 11-piece live band are in the last week of a tour which has visited France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Sweden and Germany over the last fortnight. It’s a heavy, punishing schedule.
One of the more reflective moments on the album, A Moment To Myself, finds the singer talking about, “a conversation I need to have with myself … a moment to myself.” How much time does she get to herself these days?
“Not much, not lately,” she answers with a tiny little sigh. “You definitely have to give up a lot. I see what they mean now, when they say that. Like a lot of musicians get all tripped out because, for a while, your life isn’t your own. You gotta be here you gotta be there, you gotta be here. Yeah, you can always say no, but if you want to make a living you have to do stuff you wouldn’t normally do.
“Right now, I’m at that stage where I gotta do what other people tell me and it’s kinda strange.”
She’s already taking out her notebook as I leave the room.
[This interview first appeared in the Big Issue In The North in December 1999]