MACY GRAY – Not About To Revive Her ’90s Sound

DON’T CALL HER NEW ALBUM A RETURN TO 1999. IT LOOKS AND SOUNDS LIKE A GROWN MACY GRAY EFFORT. REAL NAME NATALIE RENEE BARRY MCINTYRE, SHE EXPLAINS TO RIP NICHOLSON THAT THE WAY IS BETTER THAN THE FIRST.

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MACY GRAY interviewed @ 12:20 AEST –  Friday 5th December, 2014
For Street Press Australia & Rip2Shredz Press

Words by RIP NICHOLSON
Images courtesy of © Noam Galai

[Full Q & A below]

“I’ve come a long way since my first album as a songwriter, as an artist.

“I know more than I did back then. So, it’s only natural that my album is gonna come out differently and hopefully way better,” says Natalie McIntyre, better known as Macy Gray, of most recent album The Way. In a soothing voice crinkled only by the occasional raspy giggle, she adds: “Definitely, my vocal cords are on fire!”

In 1999, McIntyre’s raspy vocals gave her an instantly-recognisable singing voice made famous that year by I Try and its attendant album, On How Life Is. McIntyre has since pushed 25 million record sales worldwide. By 2014, she had become a singer, songwriter, actress and single mother of three, and intended her new album to be more reflective of that. “This album is very personal to me,” says McIntyre on the album’s press release. “I want my fans to understand the place where I’m at in life.”

“I think it’s a good album and also a little bit ahead of its time. But as a musician and from what I expect from myself, I’m really happy with this album,” she explains.

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“I want my fans to understand the place where I’m at in life.”

However, this being her eighth LP, critics have heralded The Way as a return to 1999.“Yeah, I don’t agree with that. It’s definitely not a return to my first album, ‘cause I did that a loong time ago. I’m not making an album cut from the same idea as the first.”

On How Life Is dropped during a time when the leading ladies of R&B were heavily fusing their production with hip hop beats. Gray credits her producer with making the point of difference to R&B. “It was really the concept of the producer, Andy Slater. But because I’m black, everybody wanted to bill me as an R&B artist. You know, it’s definitely a jump-off-a-cliff move to try to do rock‘n’roll as a black artist or anything away from R&B, rap and soul. So, my producer, who wasn’t a really big fan of the current R&B sound at the time, had a new concept, to make the same sounds with live instruments like they used back in the day. We had a grand piano and real drums! We had a huge, full-on, like the biggest percussion set I’ve ever seen. My friends were like, ‘Why doesn’t the just do that on a drum machine?’ But he was right, when it came out everybody reacted to that because I think I was really, really fresh at the time. It really was the idea to use the same music but recreate it using live instruments and it added to the excitement, live as well.”

McIntyre brings the new album to Australian stages in March and is looking forward to cuddling a koala and all that. “We want to do all the cornball tourist stuff. See a kangaroo,” giggles McIntyre. “But, I am excited because we’re going to go to places we haven’t been before and I really want to be a tourist this time around.”

[Full Q & A below]

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 Q & A with MACY GRAY

Macy Gray became the face of nu-wave soul finding a return to the classic formula right at a time where soul and r&b female singers were being button-pushed into hip-hop production, losing their graceful voices under thumping 808s. ‘I Try’ and ‘Do Something’ made Macy Gray a household name in 1999, a beacon for a return to soul and r&b appreciation in the charts. Her distinctive voice has been on the down low in recent years as far as dropping from the once heralded heights her 1999 hit ‘I Try’ took her. Fifteen years on and with her eighth studio LPThe Way, most critics have played to the theme of a ‘return to form’ for the Soulstress. One conversation with Macy Gray and one is reassured that her new work is a graduation from her first album. One listen to the records and misconceptions of a familiar soundscape to Macy Gray of old are deadened.

Before Macy Gray tours Australia in March in celebration of her new LP, she was more than happy to talk about life, music and the new album with TheMusic. At home in Los Angeles, Macy Gray is in the kitchen, taking care of dinner for her family. After pushing 25 million records globally, this interview finds the iconic voice of modern soul, singer, songwriter, actress and mother of three reflecting on her growth as a musician. As welcoming as she is, conversations deeper into hip-hop were halted before heading down a track of nerdy nostalgia between two self-confessed rap fans. However when asked if she listens to any rappers in today’s mainstream scope, Macy confessed to singing along to Future’s ‘Tony Montana’, playing anything by Kanye and to having a long-standing crush on one of hip-hop’s realest “rock stars.”

RIP – Hello Macy Gray, how are you?

MACY – Hey, I’m good. How are you?

Very well, thank you. And how was your Thanksgiving?

It was great. We went to New York and had a ball.

You are in L.A. today, what have I caught you in the middle of?

I was just in the kitchen, at home, cooking something up.

That’s a different side to Macy Gray. Is it safe to say you are developing another dimension to the Macy Gray brand, revealing the real side to your life, as a business woman, a mother and an artist?

I dunno, I think I just grew up a little bit. I’ve come a long way since my first album as a songwriter, as an artist. I know more than I did back then, so it’s only natural that my album is gonna come out differently. And hopefully way better. I think it’s a better album and I just think I’ve gotten a lot better.

Definitely my vocal cords are on fire!

But as a musician and from what I expect from myself, and being fortunate to still be doing what I love, I’m really happy with this album.

The way you ended the new album with ‘Life’ it really seems as if you’re in a good creative space?

Yeah, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. Once I figured that out we did the record in about five or six months. It just took a while to get there. But I was really excited to get back and record something ‘cause I knew what I wanted to say. Once we got that it was no problem.

When your first album dropped in ‘99 I was 17 and going through a breakup period with my girlfriend at the time. Your music really acts as a strong emotional bonding agent, leaving a lasting impression and is very relatable – and this new album is no different. Does that burden your or challenge you when you’re writing and recording?

You’re in the studio thinking about all the little things that need to be done. You can’t really be conscious of everything that’s going on. I have too much on my mind. It takes so much out of you to make a record, and then you’re in there drinking, and whatever else, you’re not really aware of outside influences. But that’s good. That’s all a part of making music. If it makes people feel something, even if it’s to just get up and dance or sing along, as long as you get a reaction, then that’s cool.

If you wanted a break away from Macy Gray the star, I guess being in the studio, that creative environment that you’re used to is your escape?

Not really! No, that’s my work. I mean, it’s one of my favourite things ever but it’s very difficult to make a record. It doesn’t just happen. So I wouldn’t call that my escape time. But I love it, I love it as much as I love doing anything else. But definitely not an escape. It’s one of the most stressful parts to my day.

When ‘I Try’ came out, most ladies of r&b, soul were buddying up to hip-hop and following the soundscape of rap music. Mary J Blige with Bad Boy, Lauryn Hill with the Fugees and Erykah Badu with Outkast and Dilla beats. You smashed out a fresh sound that was really needed at the time. You showed that female soul and r&b could be done without having to go the hip-hop route. Did you feel that you kind of led the return to a more traditional female r&b soul?

Well it was really the concept of the producer, Andy Slater. But because I’m black, everybody wanted to bill me as an r&b artist. You know, it’s definitely a jump-off-a-cliff move to try to do rock ‘n’ roll as a black artist or anything away from r&b, rap and soul. So my producer, he wasn’t a really big r&b fan, especially the new r&b sound at the time. So he had a new concept to make the same sounds with live instruments and we went back to using the type of instruments they used back in the day. You know, a grand piano, and we had real drums! We had a huge, full-on, like the biggest percussion set I’ve ever seen. My friends were like, ‘why doesn’t he just do that on a drum machine, a MPC machine?’ But he was right, when it came out everybody reacted to that because I think I was really, really fresh at the time. It really was the idea to use the same music but recreate it using live instruments and it added to the excitement, live as well.

So, your 8th album; The Way. Has it gotten any easier over the years?

No, uh-uh, it’s never easy. I’m more confident with what I do but it’s not easy.

Several reviews have likened it to a return to the original sound. How do you see this one against your catalogue?

Yeah, I don’t agree with that. It’s definitely not a return to my first album. I mean, I’ve grown up so much and I’m such a better musician and artist so I hope not. ‘Cause I did that a long time ago. I think it’s a good album that shows that I’ve grown a lot and I’ve come a long way and it’s fresh. I think it’s also a little bit ahead of it’s time. Everybody’s doing something totally different right now and we’ll see what happens but, I don’t agree with that. I’m not making an album cut from the same idea as the first.

Do you concern yourself with trying to please fans and give them a specific signature sound of Macy Gray or would you much rather fans let you evolve your sound?

Yeah, of course. I mean, I hope I don’t come out like an artist who goes in just to make a cool sound. I’m really a victim of being a music fan. I listen to so much music and I get excited and you know I grew up at a time when there was so much music. There was so many different styles and I remember there was Herbie Hancock at number one and there’d be a reggae song and a couple of black rock ‘n’ roll bands and then, you know, for the first time we had people making hip-hop. You know, Jazz was still popular and all the old records from the ‘70s were still being played like Stevie Wonder. I think if you grew up at that moment there was so much music in the air and it gave me an education of how songs could be formed, the different formulas as well.

More so than today, as we are in a time where r&b and rap is being fused into the one pop genre, it is a lot harder be in a distinctive genre away from that. That must give those who grew up in the 70’s a much more eclectic outlook on music than kids today?

Yeah, you know but all the stuff today is happening because of it. And that’s not to take away, there’s some awesome music out right now but, like you said it’s hard to separate real r&b artists or hip-hop artist that really own their hip-hop sound. You know, we just had a lot of superstars when I was growing up. Not that Jay Z and Kanye aren’t superstars but, we had like, LL Cool J, that’s our rock star, you know. He had the Kangol, big chains and the boombox look. I Don’t see that charisma much anymore, but there’s a lot of great music, like, Kanye makes awesome records! But, he’s not LL Cool J! But I don’t know that my opinion. My kids will tell you another side to my taste in music, (laughs).

Do you have any desire to work with any hip-hop artists that you haven’t yet?

Oh yes. Don’t get me wrong I’m a huge fan of a lot of hip-hop. Not all of it, but a lot. One of my favourite albums of all time is Kendrick Lamar’s album (Good Kid, M.A.A.D City) and I actually like Future’s music.

So you’ve developed a taste for the nu-skool hip-hop?

Yeah! My sons listen to anything new and I’m always asking, ‘who is this?’ and I will find myself liking stuff I didn’t think I would, like I like (Future’s) ‘Tony Montana’, and I’m like ‘what?’ but a month later I’m singing along to the hook, (mimics ‘Tony Montana’ hook and laughs).

Are you turning into your mother and telling your kids to turn their music down?

Oh no. I never tell them to turn it down. I have bad ears so they could like blast the speakers, I wouldn’t know.

You’re headed down to Australia in March. How often have you played here?

I keep debating, it’s either my third or fourth time.

You jet-setter!

I know right?!

Well, you’re coming at a good time. It’s hot and unbearable at the moment. March will be much cooler.

Oh really? – Right! You guys have totally different seasons.

Apart from performing, have you had a chance to holiday and see Australia?

Yeah we did all of it. Not all of it but all the cornball tourist stuff. We saw a kangaroo, (laughs) but I am excited because we’re going to go to places we haven’t been before and I really want to be a tourist this time around.

What can fans expect from this Macy Gray tour – a brush through the extensive catalogue or will you showcase the new album?

Both. Somehow we managed to get all the albums in there and for this first round, because the new album hadn’t come out yet, we didn’t play the new songs as much, but we’ll probably do a lot more when he come to Australia when the album will be a little more settled in and known by then. So, I’m looking forward to it.

Well as long as you play songs like ‘Stoned’ ‘Hands’ and ‘The Way’ I’ll be happy.

(Laughs) OK, I’m writing these down as you speak.

I think the latest album is a great mark on your career. Contrary to reviews, I too don’t believe it’s a return to old but a return to the real sound of soul from a musician. I think your new album shines as a beacon for a lot of young r&b stars coming out and losing their styles to fit to a pop industry standard and getting a bit trashy in the process.

Ah thank you. I like those though!

Hey, as a guy, I like them, too.

(Laughs) Saucy!

Thanks, Macy.

Thank you and I will see you soon.

MacyGray (in print)[2014]

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