"Can I Get a Witness?": An Interview with Macy Gray
Celebrating her tenth album, Macy Gray delivers a set of radiant gems on Ruby, bringing guests like Gary Clark, Jr. and Meghan Trainor along for her Mack Avenue debut.
Artistry Music / Mack Avenue
21 September 2018
When Macy Gray smiles, she powers the room with megawatt electricity. When she laughs, she personifies joy. She does both when discussing Ruby (2018), her tenth studio album. However, it's what happens when Macy Gray sings that makes Ruby a radiant gem among the 25 million albums she has sold worldwide.
"Ruby is a state of mind," she notes about the album title, which adorns a striking cover photo of Gray bathed in a ruby red glow. "It's a mood. The color red is excitement and passion. It's how you feel when everything's kind of crazy and then you got to go handle it. It's like that moment when you got to make a decision."
New fans, as well as longtime listeners who first fell in love with Gray through her Grammy-winning performance of "I Try" (1999), will find a bounty of treasures on Ruby. Featuring guests like Gary Clark, Jr., and Meghan Trainor, the album showcases Gray's singular voice in several different settings. The woozy horns on "Tell Me" evoke a dimly-lit speakeasy while "Just Like Jenny" and the choir-driven "Buddha" seem telegraphed from a mountaintop. Elsewhere, she explores the complexity of relationships ("But He Loves Me") and brings R-rated merriment to Patty Cake ("Shinanigins"). On the album's rousing closer, Gray turns a question — "Can I get a witness?" — into an urgent, boldfaced declaration.
Gray's debut for Artistry Music / Mack Avenue has already gathered some momentum on the charts. Earlier this summer, "Sugar Daddy" spent nine weeks on the Adult R&B chart, peaking at #21. The accompanying video, directed by Christian Lamb, stars Gray opposite Evan Ross in a loving homage to Diana Ross' Oscar-nominated performance in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). It's just one of many Ruby tracks that seem ready-made for the screen, from the haunting atmosphere of "Cold World" to the smoking embers that fuel "When It Ends".
"I've been reaching for the stars," Gray sings on "Over You", arguably the album's most compulsively listenable tune. If the strength of Ruby is any indication, she's reaching for the stars and riding their trail. During a recent visit to mid-town Manhattan, Gray met PopMatters for some South Carolina Lowcountry cuisine at Spoonfed NYC and shared the recipe behind Ruby's irresistible ear candy.
Before we discuss Ruby, I just have to say that your last album Stripped (2016) was stunning. It's no surprise that you sounded so comfortable in a jazz setting.
Thank you. It was really natural. I'm actually an undercover jazz singer, but I make pop records! My first two bands were jazz bands. You know how when you go to college, you go through your jazz phase? "I listen to jazz, I don't listen to that (other) crap." It always stuck with me. If I could make a living doing jazz, and make a ton of money, I'd probably do jazz.
Of the ten albums you've released, there's no doubt that Ruby is among the best. It's so cohesive, yet it features three different producers, Tommy Brown, Tommy Parker (Thomas Lumpkins), and Johan Carlsson. How did you bring the three of them together for Ruby?
It was from heaven. It was crazy because you can go to this producer and go to that producer and then your album sounds like 50 different things. It all kind of came together on its own, really.
It started with Ariana Grande's record. I got asked to do that feature on her song, "Leave Me Lonely" on her last album. Tommy Brown was producing that record, so I had to go over to his house to do the vocals. He's partners with Tommy Parker, so the three of us worked together a lot. I'm pretty sure the first song we did was "White Man". Then there were a couple of songs that I did just with Tommy Parker. He said, "I want to do Nina Simone 2020." That was the vision. I don't think that's what we ended up doing.
Johan came through my ex-manager. Johan's wife met my ex-manager's girlfriend. She said, "My husband's a record producer" and my ex-manager's girlfriend said, "My boo is a manager." "Who does he manage?" "Macy Gray." Johan said he wanted to meet me. I went over to his studio, and I played him some of the songs that I'd done with Tommy Brown and Tommy Parker. Johan and I did five or six songs together. He's a super-cool guy. He's amazing.
Johan produced the opening track "Buddha", which features a solo by Gary Clark, Jr. on guitar. How was Gary invited to play on that song?
I love him so much. I actually met him at AFROPUNK in Brooklyn. We were like, "Let's work together", but when people say that, they just say it. Nobody calls nobody! [laughs] Gary actually meant it! My manager sent "Buddha" to him. Before I looked up, Gary went into the studio on his own and cut the solo two days later.
"Buddha" makes me crave an entire Macy Gray-Gary Clark, Jr. album.
Wouldn't that be sick? That's a really good idea.
"Cold World" is definitely one of the album's most compelling tracks. It's interesting how you address "misfortune" as an external force — "Who are you misfortune?" — but then at the very end of the song, you say "misfortune is the look in my eye". What do you relate to in that song?
Tommy Parker wrote that with his sister. I wish I could take credit for that. It's like that battle that we all have with ourselves where we're trying to figure it out. You have all of this stuff going on inside. You think you're fooling everybody, but people check you out, and they see where you're coming from. People know a lot more about you than they let on. Do you know what I mean?
I do. What's also interesting is that the song doesn't resolve anything, necessarily. It lingers with a question mark in the air.
Yeah, "Cold World" is amazing. What was your take on what it meant?
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
To me, it's like having an internal dialogue with yourself: "Is it the other person or is it really me that has the issue?" Maybe the thing that you're critical of in the other person is something that you really see in yourself.
Exactly. That is so cool. I like your interpretation. I'm going to ask Tommy what he meant. It's probably something way out. [laughs]
I think "Over You" is the quintessential Ruby track. That's the song that makes you want to get in the car, open the sunroof, and just blast it through the windows. I'd be curious to know how that track evolved from the initial idea to what we hear on the record.
That was the first song I did with Johan. It started out with a song on piano. He had the chords picked out. He played it on the piano. He didn't have any lyrics, but he was playing it, and he goes [sings] "…over you", and that's all he had. Me and Tommy (Parker) wrote the rest of it. Then Johan started adding horns and, before I knew it, it was massive.
At the time, I wasn't even signed, so I couldn't make him any promises. Johan put all this energy and all this work into something, and we didn't even have any guarantee that we'd be able to put it out. He just wanted to do this song. It's good to be around people like that, who just love it genuinely. To them, it's about something bigger than getting it on SoundCloud and how many streams you get. That's so fresh and rare.
His focus really comes through in making "Over You" a special track, and then your voice adds such a scintillating element to the whole production. You co-wrote and co-produced "When It Ends". It sounds like you are really feeling something on that song, especially when you sing, "You'll say my name when you tell about the best you ever had."
"When It Ends" is one of my favorite songs on the album. I put that on repeat all the time. It has a vibe. It makes you sit back and take it all in. It grabs you.
Yes, I love the swirl of voices singing around you.
Oh! That's the best part. You know where it came from? Us not knowing what we wanted to do! We had different singers come in, and they'd riff on top of it. We kept it all. The whole song was like this accident. Even that little breakdown with the bass solo (Alex Kyhn), we had almost finished the song, and it sounded like we were playing the chorus too much, so we muted the vocals. All you could hear was that bass.
"When It Ends" is such a smoldering track. What kind of mood did you want to create on that song?
I was in this Minnie Riperton mode. I thought, I got to do a song like Minnie Riperton, but I don't have a "Lovin' You"-type song. Tommy Parker was playing some chords, and then I wrote the hook that night. It actually took me awhile. I had written the idea for the hook, but I didn't know what to make it about because there's a couple of songs called "Say My Name". I didn't want to make it about sex because that's been done. Then something really personal broke my heart. I wrote the song in five minutes after that happened.
Earlier you mentioned how one of Tommy Parker's original ideas behind the album was Nina Simone 2020. When I heard "White Man", I actually thought of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn" because both songs are uptempo and very tuneful, yet they have these searing lyrics. In your own way, you and Nina Simone are each calling out the cancer of racism that infects this country. As an artist, what kind of dynamics have you observed in the music industry that stem from racism?
The industry's accused of racism, but it's really just the way America is. Usher could have sung all of Justin Timberlake's songs, but they'll sell more records if Justin sings them. That goes back to Elvis Presley, and it still works. When you hear those Ariana Grande songs, SZA could have done them, but you're going to sell more records if Ariana sings them. That's just the way it is.
There's racism and misogyny, of course, but all the record business cares about is selling records. [laughs] As soon as Latin music hit, then every label went out and found their new Ricky Martin. That's the one thing that the record business owns — if you have a broken leg and your record sells, they're going to go find five artists who have broken legs. Period.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
When I listened to "Just Like Jenny", I was really struck by the line "I wanna travel alone, I wanna come back home". What's the sentiment behind that song?
"Jenny" is Forrest Gump's Jenny. The movie starts out, and she says "Dear God make me a bird so I can fly far away". The song is about the desire we all have to be free, to see what's up in the sky, to see what it's like to have wings. Everybody wants to fly away.
It sucks to go through life, and nothing is guaranteed. You get up, and you go out every day. You take a shot, and you go for it, but there's no guarantee that it's going to pay off. There's no guarantee that you're going to get anything out of it or that you're even going to come out of it alive. You don't know if you're going to make it home. Just getting up, the stakes are high.
There's another lyric that I keep revisiting. It's in the second verse on "Witness" where you say, "No place for the cynical. You'll fit right in if you're criminal". What was the impulse to write that?
That's like the state of America. Something might not be cool, but if you criticize it, you're a troll, when really you might be telling the truth. If you're honest and say what you're thinking, people say they appreciate it, but then they think you're cynical or judgmental. They judge you for being judgmental! "You'll fit right in if you're criminal"— that's more acceptable, actually.
Earlier this summer, you premiered "Sugar Daddy". In addition to co-writing the song, Meghan Trainor also plays and sings on it. Of course, she's known as an artist in her own right, but what's her greatest strength as a collaborator?
She's cute. She's really young. She's open. She came in and said, "I have an idea" and then she started singing "Sugar Daddy". She'd written it when she was a kid. I think she said she was 16. She had the idea for it, and then we finished it. That's her playing the piano.
Meghan's an amazing songwriter. She has a really good ear for good hooks [snaps fingers] and sweet melodies. She could be Carole King. She has that thing about her.
The video for "Sugar Daddy" was inspired by Lady Sings the Blues (1972), specifically the scene where Diana Ross (as Billie Holiday) sings "The Man I Love" and meets Billy Dee Williams (as Louis McKay). Tell me about acting opposite Evan Ross in the video.
He's a rock star. He's awesome. He's actually a friend of mine. I've known him for a while. He's a sweetheart. He's super-proud of his mom. This is a dude who loves his mother. There's no bigger fan of Diana Ross than Evan, I promise! It was cool because he wanted the video to pay proper tribute to his mother. That was his biggest concern.
Evan's a very good actor. He's been at it his whole life. I love him on the screen. He did one of my favorite movies, ATL (2006). He's one of those guys that can do it in his sleep. When he turns 60, he's still going to be doing movies. He's a lifer.
You've acted in so many films over the years and worked with directors like Lee Daniels (The Paperboy), Tyler Perry (For Colored Girls), and Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). Describe your experience on movie sets versus recording studios.
It's a different environment. There are so many people on a movie set. It's so collaborative. It's one of those atmospheres where you have to bring your A game. You gotta be great. If you miss a beat, or if the lighting guy drops the lights, it's messed up. Nobody wants to be the one to screw it up. It's high pressure. With records, I could not get anything done for two nights, and nobody would care, but there's a time crunch for movies. There's all this money being spent. Everything is so important.
Thinking back on your recording career, it's been two decades since the release of your first album On How Life Is (1999). Over the years, how have you adjusted to handling fame?
It's taken time. I think when it first happened, I definitely didn't know how to handle it. [laughs] I was having a lot of fun. It's just like anything else. It's a craft that you have to learn. People think you get famous, and you just go buy some nice clothes, do some cool stuff, and make a lot of money, but there's actually a mastery to having a career. Every artist has to learn the process of it, the things that don't work and the things that do work.
You just have to watch and learn. I once got invited to a dinner. I went to the dinner, and I didn't sit at the table next to the person who invited me. He never invited me again. How would I know that? I was just hanging out with my girls. We were having fun. I don't even remember seeing him that night, but he took it so personally. When you go to an event, things like that matter to people and it does affect your opportunities.
I remember a couple of years after your debut, you sang background on Stevie Nicks' "Bombay Sapphires" off Trouble in Shangri-La (2001). I'd love to know how that came together.
I'm a massive Stevie Nicks fan. I love her. I think "Dreams" is the best song ever written and she wrote that. I had dinner with her one night. She said, "Why don't you come sing on my record?" I went in the next day, and I cut it. It was fun. She's just raw. You just give her the mic, and she goes for it. She's there. She's all-in. Nothing else matters.
A few years ago, we lost Natalie Cole, who sang "Finally Made Me Happy" with you on Big (2007). What place did Natalie occupy in your musical development?
She's just legend. When I was coming up, she had all of her big songs like "This Will Be". She's a staple. I think everyone will remember her. They're always going to play her songs. She won't be forgotten.
I'd like to end by going back to "Buddha". There's a line in that song where you say "I pray every night that my dreams come true". What dreams have yet to come true for you?
For me, at this point, it's satisfaction. I don't really have that yet, just being finally okay with who I am and what I have. You spend your whole life trying to get this thing, then you get it, and you wonder if what you're looking for is what you really need.
Macy Gray and Christian John Wikane
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio