The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discusses her unique voice, the career she thought she’d have when she was growing up in Ohio and her new CD, “Covered”—her first in two years.
Singer-songwriter Macy Gray
Tavis: Pleased to (laughter) – pleased to welcome Macy Gray back to this program. The Grammy winner is out now with a new collection of cover songs, appropriately titled “Covered.” The disc features mostly songs from the rock genre, but it also includes a terrific song by Nina Simone. So from the disc, here is some of the recording session for the song, “Bubbly.”
Tavis: I want to start by talking about what didn’t make the project. (Laughter) A little birdie told me -
Macy Gray: Yeah?
Tavis: – that Prince was on the list for a cover -
Tavis: – and it didn’t quite make it. What were you playing with from Prince’s -
Gray: Pop – we were going to try “Pop Life.”
Tavis: “Pop Life?”
Tavis: And what happened?
Gray: Just didn’t work out right.
Gray: Because I was thinking, you it’s probably because I admire him so much, I think whatever I did would never live up to – I think that’s – I think it was mental.
Tavis: Yeah, mental?
Gray: Yeah, because everybody else liked it.
Tavis: But you didn’t?
Tavis: Wow. How do you know when you pick something that – I guess you don’t know – that it might work? What is it about a song for you that makes you want to cover it?
Gray: Usually the lyrics, because I still think people gravitate to the lyrics first. So it’s usually the lyrics, and if I feel like it’s something I can translate properly. Or it’s something that’s personal to me, then I feel like I can pull it off, because I’ll mean it, you know what I mean, while I’m singing it.
Tavis: Right. Is there something on here that you were dying to do? To your point about you have to feel like you can pull it off and give it your own treatment, was there something that you, a song that you’ve been dying to cover your whole career?
Gray: Dying to cover.
Tavis: What on here that you really, really, really wanted to do?
Gray: We wanted to do “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” but that didn’t come out right, either – by Stevie Wonder. (Laughter) I know. You can’t do that song over.
Tavis: I started to laugh, because all the stuff you wanted to do didn’t make the project, Macy.
Tavis: So “Pop Life” didn’t make it, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” didn’t make it.
Gray: Definitely not.
Tavis: Okay. Is there something on here that did make it (laughter) that you really wanted to do, Macy Gray?
Gray: Yeah. Well, the first song we did was “Creep” by Radiohead.
Gray: So we’ve been doing that live for a couple of years, so that was easy. We did that in about two hours. Then there’s a Metallica cover on there, one of the best-written songs I’ve ever heard, but we made it like it’s a soul ballad now. It’s pretty hot.
Tavis: When you say “one of the best-written songs” you’ve ever heard – I love asking artists this question – what makes for you a great song? So you said it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. What makes it a great song for you?
Gray: Just like when you hear a song and you never forget it. You hear it the first time and it makes you stop, or it always has, like, something original, like something different to say.
Like there’s a million songs about I love you, so people are always trying to come up with different ways to say “I love you,” you know what I mean? So there’s a thousand ways to make a great song, and then you can have great songs where the lyrics are really stupid, too. So I guess it’s what hits you, really.
Tavis: Right. I’ve never thought that Nina Simone has gotten the respect that she deserves, so I’m glad that -
Gray: Yeah, me neither.
Tavis: Yeah, tell me why you decided to do one of her pieces.
Gray: Well, what we did was we did like a mashup. She has this song called “Buck,” and then we used the music for “Buck” under Kanye West “Love Lockdown.” So it’s like this weird – it’s cool, though.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Did you – I read somewhere – I never know what’s true and what’s not true, so I’ll just ask you. I’ll tell you what I heard.
Tavis: I read somewhere that you wanted to do an album of covers earlier in your career -
Tavis: – but people, I guess your management, the record label, didn’t really want you to do it so soon.
Tavis: Why were you so anxious to get to it even earlier than now?
Gray: It’s just fun switching around other people’s songs, and we had already had – we had always put covers in the show. So it was just a natural thing to me to get them recorded.
But I guess cover records have kind of a stigma within the industry. I don’t think people who are in the industry really put so much stock in it. But they felt like usually covers are for, like, when you get much older and you start – like Tony Bennett does covers, or, like, Rod Stewart, they make cover albums.
So anyway, they didn’t want me to, like, have that stigma. They felt like -
Tavis: Like you’d run out of gas.
Gray: Like I was 80, yeah.
Tavis: (Laughter) Although Tony Bennett, I love Tony Bennett, now, so Tony Bennett can cover anything.
Tavis: But he does a lot of collaborations, though. He does a lot of duets.
Tavis: He does them well, though.
Gray: No, he’s awesome. But I think it’s cool. I think you should do a covers album whenever you’re ready to.
Tavis: Yeah. You still enjoy doing the live tour stuff?
Gray: Oh, yeah, I love it. It’s my favorite thing.
Tavis: Your favorite thing.
Gray: One of my favorite things. (Laughter)
Tavis: Why is one of your favorite things to be on the road so much, still?
Gray: It’s just one of those things I’m attracted to. I just love being on stage and I love making music, and as far as – it’s great for narcissism, because you have all those people (laughter) screaming out your name. I’ve seen the whole world. Not the whole world, but we’ve been a lot of places that I never thought I’d go, and so it’s just – it’s a blast. I’d recommend it to anybody, really.
Tavis: Is music what you always thought you would do?
Gray: No, I was going to be a – well, I don’t know about you, but when I was little, in Ohio, every kid is told to be a doctor, because it’s in Ohio, and that’s like the biggest thing you can be in Ohio.
So for half my childhood I was telling people, “I’m going to be a doctor,” because that’s what my mom told me. Then I was going to be a firewoman, and then I wanted to be a choreographer. Then I wanted to be, like, a cartoon, have voiceovers on cartoons.
But this whole time I was taking piano lessons, so I was learning music the whole time.
Tavis: Right. So when did you figure out that music was really your gift, that music was your calling?
Gray: Not until college. I was, like, in my early twenties. I was a late bloomer. Well, my boyfriend had a band and I joined his band, and that’s how I started singing. It was kind of a – not a mistake, it’s not a mistake. I don’t know what that was.
Tavis: Kind of happenstance?
Gray: Yeah, so I started doing shows with him, and I just, like, fell in love with it. It was just addictive for me.
Tavis: This question might sound silly because no artist succeeds – no musical artist succeeds if they don’t find a following of fans who love their voice.
Tavis: So I don’t want to – I’m not naïve, but there are some artists whose voice is so essential to their success, they’ve got this sound, and the minute you hear them you know exactly who it is.
Tavis: You have one of those voices. The minute you hear Macy Gray, you know it’s Macy Gray.
Tavis: How much has just the sound, that raspy, that sound of your voice, how much of that has influenced, you think, your success, the sound of your voice?
Gray: Oh, it’s everything. Because I have some great songs, but I think my voice kind of gets people’s attention, and it sets me apart so I don’t sound like a lot of other people. So it’s been everything. My voice is definitely a big present for me from God, because it’s not like I can even take credit for it. I didn’t dig in my vocal cords and mix them up.
So I just woke up one day and I had this voice, so it definitely seems like it was meant to be. Yeah.
Tavis: So are you going to tour, are you already touring for this?
Gray: Yeah, we’re going out this summer, and then we’re going all over the world, all over the States. Yeah, we’re going to Europe first.
Tavis: Wow. You like performing in Europe?
Gray: Yeah, I love Europe. I have a lot of fans there, and it’s cool to see the world. You learn so much. Every time we go, we see different things, and I’ve got friends overseas, so yeah, I love traveling.
Tavis: Is there a difference between how you’re received in, say, Europe, and how you’re received here? I ask that because many of the jazz greats, they loved traveling to Europe because they were received in a certain way, regarded in a certain way.
Tavis: Are you received any differently there than you are here?
Gray: Yeah, massive difference, yes.
Tavis: In what ways?
Gray: Well, I have a lot more fans there, and just that’s it, really. Like, way more than I have here.
Tavis: What do you think accounts for that? Because I’ve had some fascinating conversations, again, with jazz artists about what they think accounts for their following in Europe. What do you think accounts for yours in Europe?
Gray: I do know that in Europe they have – they get more music. Like here, you turn on a station and you hear maybe 10 songs.
Tavis: The same stuff all the time, yeah.
Gray: Right, so in Europe, they definitely have their pop stations, but if you go to the record store – they still have record stores – and you have, they have a French music section and an African section and a rock section, you know what I mean, and a Latin section.
So there’s just more access, and every section is packed with people. So I think they just hear more and so I think if anything is a little different or not the usual thing, they’re used to – they kind of grow up listening to that already, so it means more to them, I think.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So before I let you go, are you going to do any more acting? I was flipping channels the other night and I saw, like, “Training Day” for the 18-thousandth time.
Gray: Nineteen thousand. (Laughter)
Tavis: There you popped up, so you got any more acting projects on the docket?
Gray: Yeah, we just did a movie with Lee Daniels called “Paperboy,” and that’s with Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey, Zach Efron and John Cusack.
Gray: Yeah, it’s cool.
Tavis: That’s some nice casting.
Gray: Yeah, it’s awesome.
Tavis: Yeah, and Macy Gray.
Gray: And Macy Gray, that’s me. (Laughter) Hey, what did the jazz musicians say when you asked? Because I never know how to answer that question. I don’t know.
Tavis: You gave an honest answer, that’s all you can answer. The short answer is that what I’ve heard from talking to many of them is that there is an openness to it, there’s a respect for the music – that’s the word I hear all the time.
Tavis: That they have a respect and a regard for jazz music in the way that -
Gray: Oh, okay.
Tavis: – for whatever reason, we just don’t. It’s really interesting about jazz, because as an artist, you well know this – jazz is the one art form that we gave the world.
Tavis: We as in African Americans and this country gave to the world.
Tavis: Jazz has been such a wonderful ambassador for us, and the one thing, as you well know, that draws us all together is music. People argue and fight about everything else in the world; put on a record -
Gray: Yeah, and everybody’s cool.
Tavis: – everybody’s cool.
Tavis: You make that happen, Macy Gray, so I thank you.
Gray: Thank you.
Tavis: The new project from Macy Gray is called “Covered.” As the title suggests, it is a collection of wonderful covers with some great collaborators on the project as well – Kanye West and MC Lyte. You can hear their voices on here, and some others.
Gray: Idris Elba.
Tavis: Idris Elba – that’s right, the actor.
Gray: Nicole Scherzinger.
Tavis: Yeah, so you got a lot of good people on here.
Gray: And JB Smoove.
Tavis: Yeah, he’s funny.
Gray: He’s hilarious.
Tavis: I like him. Good to see you.
Gray: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and keep the faith.
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