Macy Gray sings it like it is
August 10, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- Macy Gray will be the first to admit that her voice is weird. As a child, she was mocked for her odd vocal pastiche of Eartha Kitt's croak, Tina Turner's growl and Billie Holiday's rasp. Gray spent years running from her instrument. She barely talked, much less sang.
So it's ironic, to say the least, that what once was the bane of Gray's childhood is now her claim to fame. She says she still can't really fathom that her August 3 debut album, "On How Life Is," has gotten her ink in Newsweek and The New York Times and an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman."
More than a year after signing a four-album deal with Epic Records and playing to audiences in showcases around the country, Gray says she just doesn't get it.
"It still hasn't hit me about my album," she says. "Everyone is talking about it, but you just never know. It's getting a lot of hype. But that's just that -- hype. I don't feel pressure yet. I'm always in the moment and try not to think about it."
Gray says she isn't counting her chickens yet, largely because she has one scrapped record deal with Atlantic Records under her belt. About three years ago, she says she was let go along with several other artists when the label cleaned house.
"I'm just going with the flow," she says. "I wanted to make a record that I would like and not worry about anything else."
On her CD, Gray sings with abandon. And despite her all-star band -- including former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Arik Marshall and ex-Tower of Power percussionist Lenny Castro -- the album has a gritty recorded-in-a-garage feel. To up the ante a little more, "On How Life Is" is produced by Andrew Slater, who brought modern-rock radio Fiona Apple and the Wallflowers.
Too shy shy
So how did a woman go from a self-described shy and insecure child to something of a club diva?
Gray grew up in Canton, Ohio, the daughter of a math teacher mother and a retired-steelworker father. She had seven years of classical piano training and grew up listening to her dad's record collection: Sly Stone and James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. She was self-conscious of her voice and kept her mouth shut.
"All kids are goofy," Gray says. "But I was extra goofy. Really tall, big feet, big ears. And I had a funny voice. When you're growing up, it's all about fitting in. I just wanted to have friends, so I didn't talk much."
At 14, she was shipped off to a mostly-white boarding school, where she acquired a taste for rock music that's still with her today. When she later enrolled at the University of Southern California to study film, she hooked up with a few musicians, who asked her to help them draft lyrics for tunes they'd already created.
Wee hours at the We Hours
When the band's regular singer didn't show up, Gray filled in and the band made a tape. By the time it made the industry rounds, it was her voice -- her former Achilles' heel -- that captivated listeners. She made peace with it and started singing with a local jazz band playing in Los Angeles hotels to pay the bills.
"The more I did it, the more I evolved on my own time," says Gray. "I'm at the point now where I get up on stage and tell myself that even if the audience doesn't have fun, I'll have fun. I just get up and party."
Her music grew out of her stint at The We Hours, a tiny Hollywood coffee shop open from 1 to 5 a.m. It served as her finishing school, allowing Gray to hone her live show. Bands like The Roots and Tricky became fans.
In April 1998, Gray signed with Epic Records and in June adjourned to the studio to work on her debut. She pulled in all her musical influences.
"When you're an artist and open yourself up to a bunch of different stuff," says Gray, "then when you go into the studio you come out with all kinds of crazy stuff. I just go in and let it roll."
Slow and low
Gray, who just finished a lengthy stint at Hollywood's trendy Viper Room, has spent months cultivating a local and national following. This time around, she says, she's taking it slow. This single mom who has three kids (ages 4, 3 and 1) says she already has her hands full.
"It's definitely a lot of work," Gray says, "but I'm in love with my kids and I love what I do so it's all good. I wouldn't change anything. My kids love seeing me on stage. My little girl dances to the tracks."
As she very well could. Unlike much of the raunchy hip-hop that critics say dominates the charts today, Gray's album will strike many as wholesome. When she does deal with sex in songs including "Caligula" and "Sex-O-Matic," she's witty rather than openly bawdy.
"This album is about freedom and working hard and having an open mind," says Macy Gray. "It has a kind of hippie approach. It's just mostly about you being you and being free and open.
"I definitely wanted to have a good time listening to this album. If you listen to Bob Marley records, you just sit back and party to them. I wanted this record to be like (that): You chill out, no matter what."
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