From the very first track on Macy Gray’s new album BIG, the first for will.i.am music group/Geffen Records, that unique voice is instantly recognizable as one of the most distinctive in all of pop music.
The singer-songwriter-performer earned a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her 1999 hit single, “I Try,” which also received nominations for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Her debut album On How Life Is went on to sell more than 7 million copies worldwide. Her second album, 2001’s The Id, produced such intriguing tracks as “Psychopath,” “Sexual Revolution” and “Sweet Baby.” Gray’s worldwide touring led to followings in countries such as Israel, Australia, Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland. Her songs have appeared on the soundtracks of such movies as Rush Hour 2 (with Fatboy Slim, Slick Rick and Black Eyed Peas, where she first met will.i.am), Mona Lisa Smile, 8 Mile, Chicago (with Queen Latifah and Lil’ Kim) and most recently, Denzel Washington’s Déjà vu.
Now, Macy Gray is back after nearly four years, with a dynamic new effort that spotlights those classic pipes in a variety of stylistic settings.
With will.i.am and Ron Fair behind the console for most of the album, BIG ranges from the soulful plaint of “What I Gotta Do” and “Finally Made Me Happy” and the soaring ballad “One” to the funk backbeat of “Ghetto Love,” and the modern dance-floor smashes “Okay” and “Get Out,” created by Will and Justin Timberlake’s newly formed JAWbreakers production team. Macy worked with the new Whiteleaf Productions team of Jared and Whitey on the track “Shoo Bee Doo.”
For the first time, Macy was willing to work with other artists, songwriters and producers. Aside from will.i.am and Timberlake, Natalie Cole (“Finally Made Me Happy”) and Fergie (“Glad You’re Here”) provide harmonies and background vocals, while TVT Records artist Teedra Moses co-wrote lyrics with Macy on several others (“Finally Made Me Happy,” “Ghetto Love”).
“Will convinced me to try it, and after what I had been through with my last label, I was kind of humbled,” says Macy. “I was a lot more open to other suggestions. I discovered people’s energies, their ideas and what they could bring to the artistic process.”
Geffen Records Chairman Ron Fair, who produced Mary J. Blige’s triple-Grammy-award winning The Breakthrough album, including “Be Without You,” which earned nods for Best Female R&B Vocals and Best R&B Song, worked closely with Macy on the production of this record.
"Macy Gray is one of the most unique voices to ever make a record,” says Fair. “I was thrilled when multiple Grammy winning musical force of nature will.i.am brought her to the label. This is a brilliant record that is oozing life, soul, love, humor, joy, pain and extraordinary songwriting. Macy Gray is here to stay."
The album follows a narrative that mirrors Macy’s own experiences over the last few years, dealing with her husband leaving (“Finally Made Me Happy,” “Shoo Be Doo,” “Get Out”), being a single mom (“What I Gotta Do,” “Okay”), her memories of the good times (“Ghetto Love,” “Glad You’re Here”), hopes of finding Mr. Right (“One”) and the possibility of growing old together (“Slowly”). There are also a pair of tongue-in-cheek numbers in which Macy pokes fun at society’s preoccupation with materialism and bling in “Treat Me Like Your Money” and “Strange Behavior,” a film noir-like tale of Double Indemnity in which a wife kills her husband to collect his insurance policy.
Ironically, another song that deals with the subject of being a parent, “Okay” was written by will.i.am and Justin Timberlake. “What’s interesting is that they were both raised by single moms,” says Macy. “Justin’s very smart, very intense and very focused. He’s different than anybody I’ve worked with before.”
Macy attributes the album’s stylistic diversity to a trait she shares with will.i.am. “We both listen to a lot of different kinds of music,” she says. “Will wanted to make a record that had a great many varied sounds and approaches.”
BIG includes such unique musical tidbits as the soaring Nat King Cole “Nature Boy” string arrangement which opens “One” the sample of the intro from James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” on “Ghetto Love” as well as Macy’s playful quote of Dead or Alive’s ‘80s new wave classic, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” on “Treat Me Like Your Money.”
“As I was writing that melody, it just went there,” she explains about her unlikely reference to the U.K. one-hit wonders. “I heard the chord changes in my head. I didn’t even think about it. It was very natural. It made all the sense in the world.”
Although BIG is her first album since The Trouble with Being Myself came out in July, 2003, Macy has been anything but idle. As an actress, she’s appeared opposite Denzel Washington in Training Day, made a cameo in the blockbuster hit Spider Man, and performed in Scary Movie 3 and Jackie Chan’s remake of Around the World in 80 Days. More recently, she acted with Kiera Knightley, Lucy Liu, Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken in Domino, was cast opposite Cuba Gooding Jr. in Shadowboxer and had a major role in OutKast’s Idlewild musical. She’s also earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the Emmy-nominated HBO movie Lackawanna Blues, guest-starred on Lifetime’s The Missing, played a singer diagnosed with a career-threatening throat disease on the ABC drama MDs and guest-starred as singer Carla Thomas on the NBC series American Dreams.
Macy has created her own high-end women’s clothing line in the Natalie Hinds Collection as well as SNAC for men’s fashion. Her latest project is HUMPS, designing clothing for “voluptuous women,” a joint venture with Interscope Records.
The singer has also established her own music school, the M. Gray Music Academy in North Hollywood’s NoHo arts district, which has grown from 12 students to 150 in a little over a year. “It’s a huge undertaking,” she says. “I had no idea how hard it would be because it’s all about raising money. You have to ask for things, and I was raised not to ask for things, so it’s difficult for me.”
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Macy visited Houston the city and went to the Superdome, where she picked out eight families and put them up in an apartment in Houston for a year until they were able to support themselves as part of an organization called One by One she set up after the disaster. She plans to donate a portion of her touring proceeds to the foundation, which cooperates with the Red Cross in supplying aid to victims of the disaster.
It’s all part of the larger-than-life phenomenon that is Macy Gray. It’s no mistake her new album is called BIG.
“This was a hard, hard record to make, but I’m very proud of it,” she says. “I hope people like it.”
As for promotion, Macy is once more contemplating a little grass-roots marketing. “I want to get a real sexy bra, write the name of the album on it and walk around with my shirt open,” she laughs.
No one can say Macy Gray doesn’t think BIG.