Nine Songs: Macy Gray
Macy Gray in 2022 could not be more different. Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, she’s warm, relaxed and engaging. Her new album, The Reset, is her best and rangiest work in years, with a renewed sense of purpose and a mix of styles that gives plenty of scope for her outsized personality to shine.
Gray never imagined that someone with a voice like hers could ever make it to the big time. As a child she would talk as little as possible, afraid of people’s reactions to her erratic, high-pitched speech. Eventually she found the confidence to start performing – first in a college friend’s jazz band, then in underground clubs in L.A. while she tried to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter. Her first recordings were bankrolled by Atlantic Records, but the label refused to release them and Gray very nearly gave up. Splitting from her husband, she left L.A. with her three young children and moved back in with her parents in northwest Ohio. That was reset number one.
Reset number two came a few years after the success of On How Life Is, her multi-million selling 1999 debut, and its Grammy-winning flagship single, “I Try”. The money and the yes men that came with that level of fame were, for Gray, a toxic combination; a one-way ticket through the trap door of early 2000s celebrity culture that duly ate her up. She fast became as famous for her erratic behaviour as for her music, and, inevitably, the balance tipped out of her favour. Shocked by the face she saw in the mirror one day, Gray cleaned up her act.
On her new album – her eleventh overall – Gray examines the idea of a reset through a wider lens. The title of course nods to the pandemic, but also to the painful process of confronting the many problems of American society, and specifically the Black community. Songs like “Cop Killer” and “Mr. Policeman” are tied in closely with Gray’s charity work – in 2018, she co-founded a nonprofit to support the families of people lost to police brutality – while “America” is a sorrowful plea to a country she no longer trusts in. “I used to believe everything happens for a reason,” she says. “Now… I just don’t know.”
For her Nine Songs selections, Gray combines her lifelong love of soul, funk and R&B with tracks from canonical rock acts like Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. Interestingly, although she has released two covers records – a song-for-song love letter to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and Covered, which featured tracks by Metallica, Eurythmics and Radiohead, among others – none of the artists on those albums feature amongst her choices.
“For me, the Covered album wasn’t necessarily about my favourite songs, but about songs I thought that I could translate differently and add something, or songs that had lyrics that I felt could have come from me,” she says. “The songs here are different. It’s hard to explain why I like some of them, I just do!”
“This song is just so beautiful to me. It seems like a really soothing song. Robert Plant’s vocals were always pretty, but there’s something about the guitar and the bassline and everything about this song that makes me feel better about things. You know, like everything will be okay?
“I discovered Led Zeppelin late, when I was in college. The drummer in my band loved them and was always listening to them. Everybody knew the classics, of course, but I never really got into the band until he was playing the Led Zeppelin II album in his car one day. Now I know every song off it by heart. I obsessed over this album for a long time. I even have a rough demo version of “Ramble On”, where you can hear how it was before it was properly mixed.
“I actually have no idea what the song is about. It’s like when you hear a song in a different language and you don’t know what they’re saying, but it still means something to you. It’s that kind of song, and that’s why I’ve never covered it. It feels like the singer is trying to tell us something that’s really personal to him, some kind of belief that he has, but some of the lyrics are so strange. Like, what was that?”
“Growing up, I was such a misfit and Prince’s music spoke to me, because he did everything his own way. He was so different. I always felt torn about how I felt about a lot of things in life, but Prince made it seem like it was okay to feel that way. He would have one song about sex and then the next one would be about God.
“I remember I went to see the movie Purple Rain with my cousin, probably when it came out in ’84, and we ended up watching the whole thing twice through. We were already huge fans by then, and everything was about Prince for a long time. He had a huge influence on me. I had his records and they used to show some of his concerts on TV. I remember I would sit there and watch how he played the guitar, how his fingers would find the chords. I learned a lot of guitar chords from Prince, and I even wrote some songs with those same chords.
“My favourite song from the Purple Rain album was “Take Me With U”. Everything about that song is perfect. It’s a simple story and the chords are pretty basic, but it has these interesting drum sounds and other parts that elevate it. It’s a great example of classic songwriting. If you took a Songwriting 101 class, that’s the song the teacher should make you study. It’s been one of my favourite songs since forever.
“I met Prince a few times and he was always nice to me. We had each other’s numbers and we talked on the phone a couple of times, but we never really hung out together in the way that some of my friends did. I always went to his shows whenever I could, and he came to my shows a couple of times. I didn’t know him intimately, so I can’t tell you any wild stories about him, but he was an interesting guy. A proper dude, and an unreal guitar player. One of the best ever.
“I don’t think anybody plays guitar like he did, but because he was Prince I don’t think he really got the credit for that.”
“Nina Simone’s version of this song is so amazing. I discovered it while I was trying to learn the lyrics to one of her other songs. I didn’t even know she had recorded “My Way” until it popped up, and when I listened to it I was blown away. It’s such an interesting take on the song, I can’t even imagine how she even came up with it. She just gave it a whole different meaning. She really sang it. She gave it a lot of power with those crazy piano licks, and the percussion player on the song is doing things that not even a drum machine can do.
“Nina was the queen of making cover versions of songs and doing them better than the originals. It’s funny, because I thought “Feelin’ Good” was absolutely her song, but then I found out it was from an old musical. She made a lot of really incredible recordings that you would think were her own songs. “My Way”, to me, is probably the best cover she ever did.
“For my last record, Ruby, I approached it at first with an idea of ‘Nina Simone 2020’ in my mind. But, I mean, you can only dream of being as good as Nina Simone and I don’t think we got there. It’s sort of impossible, but that was the goal. I think my new album is actually closer to some of what she did. But, you know, she had so much going on. I don’t know if anybody will ever know how much.”
“I remember exactly where I was when I first this song. I was driving in the valleys of North LA, on a street called Laurel Canyon, early in the morning. The song came on the radio, on a really popular hip hop station that I used to switch on in the mornings to get my kids all hyped up for school. Anyway, it came on the radio and I just had to pull over. I literally got chills. I was blown away, it was just so gorgeous. Like, ‘Wow.’
“In one way it’s a typical R&B song, but it’s also really raw in the way that it could have been a Bob Dylan song. It was still the Fugees, but at the same time very separate from what they had been doing, different from what was going on in hip hop or anything else at the time. It’s so gorgeous and amazing. I was already a fan of Lauryn’s, but this song took me over the top.
“When The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out the next year, everybody I knew was obsessed with her. I can probably sing you that record backwards, I listened to it so much. It’s such a banner album for being a girl and growing up at that time. It was part of the culture. It spoke to everybody, and it’s everything that an album should be.
“Before my first album came out, I was in London doing some promo and Lauryn Hill was staying at the same hotel. I came downstairs from my room to go out one day and I saw her with her husband and kids at the front desk checking in. She had a security guard, who would sit outside of her hotel room. I remember I just kept walking past the door, back and forth, just to try and hear something from inside. I was super goofy.
“I had a promo copy of my record and I left it with her security. I said, “Could you please give this to Lauryn? Tell her my name is Macy Gray and I just wanted her to hear my album.” I don’t know if he ever gave it to her, but that’s my Lauryn Hill story.”
“I don’t know what it is about this song. I just love it. It’s a very California vibe. It’s a perfect song for smoking weed and driving around, or just chilling. There’s a lot going on. A lot of samples. I always wondered how they managed to get this song cleared, but somehow they did it.
"Sublime was a sort of ska and rock band, but “Doin’ Time” is a very ‘90s, hip hop-ish song, sort of like what The Pharcyde were doing. It was a very different sound from their first album, 40oz. to Freedom. I listened to that album non-stop when it first came out.
“I’m not crazy about Sublime. This song just has a vibe that I like. When Lana Del Rey covered it, I was surprised that a lot of people didn’t know the song. It’s on all my playlists, and when I DJ it’s one of the songs that I’ll play to put people in a laidback party mood.”
“I started using this song for my vocal warm-up exercises, about five years ago. It came on my iTunes one day and I started singing along and I thought, “Oh my god, this is really stretching my voice out.” Like, all the things you’re supposed to do to warm up are in this song. You have to use all the different parts of your voice to hit the notes, from low to high.
“Aretha does an actual scale in the song. I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about it as a warm-up song when she recorded it, but it really is perfect.
“This song is also a lesson in keeping rhythm. She was such an expert singer, and this is a song that she could really go all-out on and show off everything that she could do. I didn’t know that people like Kelly Clarkson sang it on American Idol. But it makes sense because it’s a song that definitely requires range. It’s cool.
“I heard the original by Ben E. King once, but I like Aretha’s version better. Ben E. King is the man, but Aretha’s version is kind of cheeky. It’s super poppy. It has all the horns. It’s almost Disney-like in a way, but it’s really a perfect song. I play it all the time.”
“When this song came out, I felt like I could really relate to what Kurt Cobain was singing about. I think the lyrics grabbed me more than anything, and it has one of the prettiest melodies. It’s just a really great song. I didn’t realise it came out so long ago. Oh my god, almost 30 years! Wow. Time really flies.
“The thing about Kurt Cobain is he could actually really sing. There were a lot of screamers back then, and they were always like “Party on, dude”, there was all the makeup and all the glitter and sequins and all that rock and roll stuff. Then Kurt Cobain shows up with greasy hair, wearing a flannel shirt and singing about being miserable. It felt totally refreshing. He came along at the right time, and I remember really connecting to the things he was talking about when I was in my early 20s.
“Musically, I think the ‘90s ruled. It was a really stunning time for music. Everything changed. And for me personally it was a big decade too. I got married in the ‘90s. I had three kids in the ‘90s. I got signed and my first record came out in the ‘90s. It was a really busy time for me. I don’t even remember what else was going on in the world, probably because I couldn’t pay it much attention.”
“I remember hearing about Bob Marley when I was little, but my parents weren’t really fans so I didn’t really hear much of his music until I went to school. A lot of college kids were into reggae. It was that time of life when maybe you haven’t quite figured out what you are really into yet, so you start exploring things like reggae and jazz. When you go to college in America, that’s what you listen to. So I heard Bob Marley quite a bit, and that’s when I started buying his records and really getting into his songs and stuff.
“Musically, “Rasta Man Chant” is a very simple song, but it weighs on you heavily. The beat sort of drags, but at the same time it’s a very visual song. You can close your eyes while listening to it and picture the story. I can’t really put it into words, but for me it’s just a very heavy song. Very spiritual, cultural. Very Jamaican. I don’t even know what Bob Marley is singing about, but the song is unforgettable.
“I think this recording captures one of those perfect moments in time. I don’t think anybody else could try to record this song and capture the atmosphere of the performance. I don’t even know if the same band could do it over, because it feels so in the moment.
“My band and I actually do a kind of mashup with this song. I sing “Brand New Key” by Melanie over the top of “Rasta Man Chant” and it’s pretty cool. I tried to get my band to play it the way that Bob Marley’s band did, but it’s just so personal to those particular musicians, so we do it our own way.”
“I’ve never heard a song so perfect as “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The words, the melody, everything about it is perfect. It’s really simple. Just a guitar and a little bit of drums, but with a crazy string section on top that makes it sound so huge. It’s one of those records that so many other records aim to be.
“Actually, it’s because of “Ain’t No Sunshine” that I reached out to Booker T., who produced the first Bill Withers record and arranged the strings for all the songs, including this one. Booker T. is this legendary producer, but what he really loves to do is string arrangements. He goes crazy for that. We worked together on a song called “First Time” [from 2014’s The Way], and he’s still there when I need him for string arrangements. He’s cool.
“I think one of the things that makes “Ain’t No Sunshine” perfect is that everybody can read something into it. Everybody knows what it’s like when you miss someone, so you can totally insert your own life experiences into the story that Bill Withers is telling. I think it’s the same thing with “I Try”, and why so many people like that song. Everybody can relate. Even if their situation was different to mine, we have all had that same feeling. You know what I mean?”