The late ’90s would seem like an eternity ago for any mere mortal, let alone Macy Gray.
Gray turned the world on its head with her debut longplayer, ‘How Life Is’. ‘I Try’ – the lead single from that album – still receives high rotation on commercial radio; just the mere mention of the title and it’s probably started jingling away in your brain.
But the world has changed since 1999 and the music industry’s no exception. An artist as distinctive as Gray is a rarity in modern pop, and the singer-songwriter isn’t so sure she’d receive the kind of label support that was so important to her early success if she’d appeared 13 years later. “It’s a different time, especially for girls,” Gray says over the phone from a tour stop in Edinburgh. “It’s very ‘Stepford Wives’, with all the girls wearing the same clothes and you could interchange them: one girl could sing a song that another girl is singing. There are definitely still a few amazing artists coming through, and I don’t mean to put anyone down, but it’s just a lot more homogenised than it used to be. It’s just different; I don’t know how they’d react to me now.
“The recession hit the record industry hard and a lot of people closed down and it just came down to practicalities – they went with music that they thought could make money for them … I just think the industry as a whole made a lot of mistakes, business-wise, and it really has affected music and the kind of artists that you see. But now that the economy is picking up a little I think you’ll start seeing different things again. Like Adele: she definitely wouldn’t have happened five years ago. So things are changing for the better, for sure.”
It’s tempting to think Gray herself would have changed a lot in those 13 years. She’s moved into middle age, her kids have grown into teenagers, and she can look back on a discography – ‘The Id’ (2001), ‘The Trouble With Being Myself’ (2003), ‘Big’ (2007), and ‘The Sellout’ (2010) – that seems to chart the undulations in her own personality. But ask and the 44-year-old gives a thoughtful response. “I don’t know. I’m probably really different, though,” Gray says. “I believe that people change everyday and I haven’t ever really sat down and calculated [how different I am to the early days]. As far as music goes, I see things a lot differently to how I used to.
“A lot of other elements come into my music these days. The reason everyone’s first record is so brilliant is because you don’t have all those people in your ear telling you what you should do; you’re not really affected yet by the money or you don’t have people telling you that you’re great all the time, or of course hating on you publicly. You go in and you’re completely free from all that, and completely free to make music, because at that point that’s the only thing that matters. But then as you go on, especially if you get really successful, all these other things come into play and they definitely affect the music that you make. But I’ve been growing into getting away from all that again. I’m actually going backwards,” she laughs.
For her latest record Gray has in some respects quite literally gone backwards – to music that influenced her early career. ‘Covered’ features re-interpretations of classic Eurythmics, Metallica, and Radiohead songs, as well as a selection of hits by more contemporary artists such as Arcade Fire and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The inspiration for such a collection came early in Gray’s career, when she heard Nina Simone reinventing the work of artists such as Frank Sinatra and The Beatles.
“[Simone] did this really interesting thing of taking songs of different genres that were really far away from what she did, so I thought that was really cool to take those songs and make them your own songs, or see if you could do it. So it was a really creative challenge for me but I finally got around to it. It was fun, like me and Nina Simone going into battle to see who could make the best covers,” Gray says with a laugh. “But that’s obviously not going to happen.”
With such a broad range of music represented on the album it’s interesting to wonder how Gray went about selecting the artists she wanted to cover. As it turns out, it was all about doing something unexpected. “I knew I wanted to do rock songs – something really far away from what I do. Because if I did a soul covers record or an R&B covers record, that would be totally expected. I wanted to do something that people wouldn’t expect me to do and I’m a big rock & roll fan, so that made sense … It’s interesting: we tried to do a couple of Prince songs and some Fiona Apple songs, but they didn’t seem to work out. So these are the songs that felt immediate and came around really naturally.
“It was a creative thing for me: I wanted to get it out of my system and I thought now was a good time and I wasn’t worried about the sales and stuff. I just wanted to do it and see if I could pull it off, and we did it fast so that it wouldn’t take away from my next album. It was cool.”
When Scene catches up with Gray she’s barely three shows into a world tour that will see her come to Australian shores in September. It will be Gray’s first visit in over 12 years, and she can’t wait to get back. “The tour’s been excellent,” Gray says. “We’re only a few shows in but it’s been a good time. I can’t wait for Australia. We haven’t been there in so long and I really want go out there and just have a ball and play a lot of music.
“We have a whole show on ‘Covered’ that we do. I don’t know if I’m going to do that but there’ll be a lot of ‘Covered’ and a lot of the first album because everyone knows that.”
MACY GRAY PLAYS THE JUPITERS THEATRE WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 19 AND QPAC CONCERT HALL THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 20. ‘UNCOVERED’ IS AVAILABLE NOW.