Macy Gray’s Organic Brand of R&B Is Racing Towards The Future.
written + interviewed by Evan Balikos
In the late ’90s and until the end of the mid-2000s, Macy Gray was unavoidable in headlines and music stores worldwide. In the inception of her career, she struck gold with her effortlessly soulful debut album, On How Life Is, which was showered with critical acclaim and launched Gray’s most successful single to date, “I Try.” In 2001, she came back with a vengeance on the id. It expanded on her rattling, bluesy arrangements by including fuller and funkier songs, as well as the modern soul hit “Sweet Baby”, that featured Erykah Badu and John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and also the fiery, disco-pop-tinged, pro-sexuality anthem, “Sexual Revolution.”
After delivering a triad of albums from 2003-2010 that brought sharp electropop riffs and hip-hop percussion into the mix, as well as more anomalous projects like a Stevie Wonder cover album, a rock concept album, and a collection of minimalist jazz renditions of her songs as well as other artist’s, Ms. Gray returned late last year with Ruby, an album that successfully proved she could deftly retain her signature sound after it was mixed and pleasantly matched with a modern R&B sheen. Now that the Tenaya Taylor-directed music video for “Buddha”, the third single from the album, has dropped, Macy and I talked about the concept of the video, the meaning of the song as well as the album, and Macy’s continuing musical explorations as an artist with 20 years of experience behind her.
watch the music video for “Buddha” + read the interview with Macy Gray below:
EB: Let me start by saying that it is an absolute honor to be speaking with you. Twenty years later, and you’re still making the beautiful, soulful, and resonant music that is evident on your latest album, Ruby. First, I want to talk about the music video that just premiered for the single, “Buddha.”
EB: There’s a lot of vulnerability in it. I like that you were very honest about your past, using footage of you at an awards show and concerts you’ve performed at, in combination with shots of you in this faux-stage-set-up where you look very conflicted and heady, but also elegant. What was the initial concept of the video?
MG: It was kind of like a run-through of my life. It was like a little flashback of things that have happened in my career, and it was kind of just to show where I’m at now because that’s the whole—y’know, because the lyrics are “we’re alright now.” Then, Teyana put it together really nice. It was kind of bunch of footage but then she turned into a story. It was great.
EB: It’s an awesome video. I really like it. I’m curious about the inclusion of the death hoax headline of you in the video. I always feel like those fallacious headlines cause so much devastation to the person they’re centered on. Did you include that in the video because you wanted to retaliate against the tabloid that produced it? Was it sort of like you were saying that you became reborn through that proclamation of death?
MG: No, it was just a statement on the kind of stuff that I read—y’know you get comments and see all the misinformation that goes out in the world. I mean, I was obviously alive when I was sitting there reading that. That was pretty much what I was saying [laughing].
EB: [laughing] Ah, ok. Well, I think that Teyana Taylor was a good choice for director of this video. How did you decide on her?
MG: Well, I had been watching her videos on social media and stuff. I forget the name of the song, I think it was “Issues/Hold On”. I just loved the video. So, I reached out to her, she hit me back, and we did it. It was pretty simple.
EB: I bet fast connections like those are easy. I mean, you’ve been in the industry for a while.
MG: [laughing] Thank you.
EB: I want to talk about the music too. I really love “Buddha.” Gary Clark Jr.’s guitar solo is scintillating, and I love the gospel influence on the chorus. It is so infectious. I sing along with you almost every time. Is this your favorite song from the album? Which one do you like performing live the most?
MG: Yeah, when we do that one live, that one is fun. My favorite song is probably— it’s a song called “When It Ends.” That’s one of my favorites.
EB: I love that one too.
MG: I mean, I love the whole album! But, yeah, “Buddha” is great. But I always like the B-sides. I like “Shinanigans” and stuff like that one.
EB: Yeah, I really like “Shinanigans” too.
MG: Thank you.
EB: Let’s talk about the album, Ruby. The whole thing feels very aligned with a “don’t look back attitude” that you’re embodying in the video for “Buddha.” Stylistically though, the album really seems to present you with an unfazed brilliance. You have a clear confidence in your performance that harkens back to your debut. Production wise, there’s a lot of bumps and grooves that are reminiscent of tracks from the id or Big. So, because of that, I want to sort of challenge your philosophy. You’ve told Rolling Stone that you’re focusing on ‘The Now’ and not looking back on your past, but is the one exception to that the themes and ideas displayed in your past music?
MG: Yeah, for sure. That lasts forever. When you do any kind of art or writing or music or movies—its permanent. That’s why you got to be really diligent and as confident as you can about what you put out there. So, yeah, that’s going to be there whether I look back on it or not, but that’s the thing about myself that I’m most proud of and it’s the thing I do best, so I don’t mind looking back on that. Like, I’ll listen to some of my old stuff and—yeah, some of it I’ll be like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I put that out”, but some of it I’m really, really proud of.
EB: I love that perspective. Do you feel like the most truthful parts of you are in your music more than anything else that you do?
MG: Yeah, for sure. The truth definitely comes out in your art. You can learn a lot about people by the lyrics they write and the kind of music they make. That’s where a lot of emotions come out that you weren’t even acknowledging before the person started writing and being creative.
EB: Right, and I think that is where the image that you’re presenting becomes fully realized, is through your music.
EB: It’s been a year since the album dropped now. It has received very positive reviews, like the one from Exclaim! How do you feel about the final project? Were there things you would have liked to include, remove, or alter?
MG: No, the album is perfect. That’s one of my best albums. I wouldn’t change a thing.
EB: [laughing] Yeah, I agree.
MG: Thank you.
EB: No problem. I wanted to talk about another album too: Stripped, which was your last album before Ruby. I think it kind of divided critics with its live sound and primarily jazz arrangements, but I loved this album. I loved the softness of this album. I was hoping that you were planning on doing more projects that step away from studio overdubs and move towards that kind of sound experimentation. Is there another album like Stripped, or as left-field as Stripped, planned for the future?
MG: Oh, yeah. I actually want to do that again. I was talking about doing an up-tempo album like that. Not jazz though, but like a pop record. I’m wondering how that will turn out. I like trying new stuff out all the time. I’m super open to being adventurous and trying new stuff.
EB: I feel like being adventurous is the key to surviving in the industry these days.
MG: Definitely, yeah.
EB: I have one last thing to ask. Your music has sometimes coincided with soulful hip-hop. There’s that wonderful Outkast sample on “Do Something” and the song with Slick Rick from the id, and those are just some examples. Are there any current rappers that you’re looking to collaborate with? I personally feel like you and Anderson .Paak would complement each other well since your voices are both so distinct and raspy.
MG: Oh, I love him. We were actually supposed to get together a few times, but it just hasn’t happened yet. But I’m open to—I mean, I learn a lot from other artists. It’s cool to be in a room with really talented people. I don’t know if there’s a duet or collaboration I’m looking into at the moment, but I love going into the studio with other artists. That’s one of my favorite things.
EB: I love that. Thank you so much for being here to speak with me. I really enjoyed the album. I’m going to be listening to it as I write this up.
MG: Thank you, sweetheart.