Desperate Times and Extreme Measures: An Interview with Macy Gray

[10 November 2010]

By Souleo

Ever since her 1999 hit, “I Try”, Macy has represented a modern breed of artists, ones who constantly turn back the hands of time on what would otherwise be their 15 minutes of fame and pop status as a one-hit wonder. Such artists are neither new nor have they fully established themselves within the mainstream, but they continue to hold on, surprise and evolve regardless of the challenges.

Still, for artists who seem to live perpetually on the fringes of lasting success, there remains the temptation of selling out, tempering their originality for an attempt at commercial staying power. On her new album, The Sellout, Gray pokes fun at the current state of the music business while remaining all business when it comes to her music.

PopMatters spoke with Gray about what’s truly ailing the music industry, reality TV, her fascination with murder, the prospect of going to jail in Barbados, and more.     

I read that you had some regrets about your last album, Big, in regards to letting too many people come in and tell you what to do. This time around, how did you strike that balance of collaborating and not being directed?
It was by default. I wasn’t signed and was dropped from my last label and on my own. I kept going to the studio and used my own money. I found people that wanted to work with me. I didn’t know if I’d get signed or how I’d put the record out. When you’re left to your own devices, you come up with a lot of different ideas. When there’s somebody in the back telling you this and someone else, there’s too much opinion and you forget what you wanted to do in the first place. It’s not real art anymore ‘cause all these people with other intentions are involved in it now. So it was cool to rediscover what it’s like to be on my own and create without people telling me what I should do. So that was refreshing and enlightening. Now I know that I’m the one who made this record, so whatever comes from it came from me.

There is that play on words with the album’s title, the dual meaning about selling records and keeping one’s integrity. Now that the industry experiences fewer record sales, does that take away the pressure you feel to sell a high amount?
I love pressure and I want to show that the problem is the quality in music is different than it used to be. Record sales went down and labels spent less money on records, so the quality suffered. People make records at houses and some don’t even mix the records anymore. It’s all about brand and looking good. Music has gone downhill and fans have reacted to that. People aren’t digging a lot that is coming out. You listen to the radio and hear the same songs three times in a row. Fans are turned off by that.

You were previously on Dancing with the Stars, and this past season had reality star, Kate Gosselin. Kate Gosselin was credited with keeping the show popular due to her lifestyle and story. What are your thoughts on this rise of celebrities who are famous not for talent but for their experiences?
Well, we’ve always been fascinated by people’s lives. There are murderers who are famous and people get famous for a lot of reasons. Reality TV has taken over, and there are famous people off of YouTube. So it’s a new age and it’s definitely interesting to see what people are fascinated by and attracted to. I think we are all very naturally nosey and want to know what somebody is doing. That’s why the news is so successful because we relate to things that are real. There are reality stars more famous than people with talent, but that speaks to how we are attracted to things we can relate to.

What do you think of shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent, where the judges show how the industry thinks more or less?  Do you feel that their judgment calls are a reflection of the industry and how it operates?
I think so, because all those people that are judges are in the industry and they have lived it and adapted a lot of that mentality. I think some of the fans vote that way, too, so it translates.

You’ve recently started to participate in Ustream to bring fans into your life. So has that been inspired by this new age of celebrity?
A friend of mine felt I should get more involved in that. Of course I didn’t want to, but then we had fun with it and I do it every Thursday. It’s an opportunity to promote my record. It was for fun and never to be my own reality show.

A few years ago, you were kicked off stage in Barbados for profanity and you apologized for that. When artists travel to certain international countries they are pressured to conform to certain modes of censorship. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I didn’t want to go to jail in Barbados and I didn’t know that that wasn’t allowed. The promoter pretended he was all upset and whatever. It wasn’t something worth fighting for since it wasn’t my country and I wasn’t trying to go to jail. It depends on what is being censored, too. Profanity is not a cause. If you’re in a country with no cussing it’s not worth trying to change the law. Now if you’re speaking about religion or politics, then that is worth fighting for because that is oppression and slavery in different forms.

Your fashion has always been a statement, sometimes literally. At the Brazilian leg of Live Earth you wore a shirt that read “Darfur Red Alert”. So do you see fashion as a political tool?
You can walk around and it expresses who you are. The hair says a lot and the way you dress says a lot, so fashion is everything. It’s a good opportunity to take it to the next level. In case somebody doesn’t get it, you write it down and they can read it. It makes it clear about where you’re coming from, like a walking statement.

You’ve frequently performed at Earth Day events, so is climate change a primary issue for you?
Yeah, I think it’s really like Mother Nature is screaming. Everyday, there is some disaster like Haiti, then China and Nashville. It’s very obvious what is happening and global warming is stepping up to us in the face. We all must preserve as much as we can. The message is coming that it’s real and not going away. I don’t know really what we can do about it. Is it solar power or no gas?  Does that really help if only a few do it?  I think you have to try and be part of the efforts to make it better.

You write a few songs about murder. I think it’s interesting because you take something so gruesome and use it to highlight the fragile nature of human emotions.
Yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by crime movies and how fascinated we are with violence. We solve our problems with war and love violent movies. There is a saying that God loves violence ‘cause where else would we get it from?  It’s part of who we are, and murder is violence. As disgusting as it is, it’s interesting. What would make someone take it that far? How does that feel, to be with someone and have them gone by your hand?  It’s an interesting part of our nature. I’m not condoning it and don’t think it’s funny, but it’s inspiring. You always have to ask, would you kill for your mom or kids or money? I would kill for my kids. I think we all have our boiling point. So I think it’s not so far away, like flying to the moon. We know we are all capable of murder.

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