The voice of Macy Gray is a wondrous thing. It can be as intimate as the wee small hours or as exciting as a packed nightclub; disarmingly sweet on one song, harsh and raspy on another. The obvious comparison is to the post-war Billie Holiday, but there are traces of other singers both legendary and little-known: Abbey Lincoln, Betty Davis, Nina Simone, Karen Dalton, Tina Turner. Yet in the end, Macy Gray sounds like no one but herself: Within eight bars of any given song on her Epic debut album, On How Life Is, The Voice is unmistakable.
Over the course of ten tracks, Macy creates a musical melange of old-school soul, hip-hop, R&B, funk, and rock. She seems to shrug off format, genre, and market. Instead, On How Life Is sounds like a drive through the neighborhoods of contemporary Los Angeles: Roll down your window, and you can hear her roots and her inspirations. An almighty rolling groove binds the album’s shifting emotions and eclectic arrangements. From the insinuating, head-noddin’ opener “Why Didn’t You Call Me” to the poignant final track “The Letter,” the feeling is unforced, natural, seemingly effortless.
At the center of this cross-cultural melting pot is Macy Gray. On stage as on record, she cuts a commanding figure among a dozen players, belting out her personal vignettes with smoky passion. In a city dominated by just two music scenes, rock and rap, Macy has created her own musical universe, one that’s simply (in her words) “of the people.”
“More than just listening to a record,” says the 29-year old singer of On How Life Is, “you kind of see the surroundings and the musicians who created itboth guys who had been playing for years and guys who had never been on a record. Most everybody on the record is someone I wrote with or friends of mine.”
Macy Gray’s music grew out of countless jams and listening sessions in living rooms, studios, rehearsal spaces. Eventually, Macy created her own after-hours hang, which she called The We Ours. This Hollywood coffee shop (open weekends from 1 AM to 5 AM, with open mic, live music, and guest DJs) became an extension of the singer’s circle of friends new and old, and a place to polish her live show.
“I started it because we would get out of the studio real late and there would be no where to go,” Macy begins. “Word spread and it grew. People like The Roots and Tricky came just to hang out, but it wasn’t like a superstar thing. It’s more like a ghetto superstar hang-out, people who are big locally. We used to play there every week, but because the place was so smallonly 100 peoplewe stripped down our 12-piece band to a four-piece, with new arrangements.”
The unique blend of straight-up soul and modern hip-hop which characterizes her album is a product of Macy’s own upbringing. Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, she grew up on her parents’ record collection: Sly Stone and James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder (“I just loved Stevie Wonder”), Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. Her junior high years brought the first wave of hip-hop. Then, during two years at a nearly all-white boarding school, Macy acquired a taste for rock, “because that’s all they listened to, and I didn’t have my own radio. I was fortunate in that I was open to everything. I just developed a real appreciation for all kinds of music just by being exposed to it.”
Macy loved music and had seven years of classical piano training, yet it was years before she ever sang a note in public. In fact, she barely spoke. “When I was little, I had this real funny voice. Every time I talked, the kids would make fun of meso I stopped talking. Everybody thought I was shy, but really I was self-conscious of my voice. It never occurred to me that I could sing.”
Macy moved to Los Angeles to enroll in the screenwriting program of the USC Film School. Eventually she hooked up with a few musician friends, who asked her to help them write lyrics. When it came time to record one of the tunes for which she’d penned the words, the singer didn’t showand Macy was asked to fill in.
When the tape began to circulate, it was Macy’s voice that prompted calls. The leader of a jazz band playing the L.A. hotel circuit asked her to join. “I thought he was out of his mind, but I did it because I thought it was good money,” she admits. “Sing old jazz standards and Sinatra songs for an hour for a hundred bucks!”
Macy began singing on demo sessions more frequently, making a local name for herself almost by accident. “I really thought these people were all lying to me and that they didn’t know what they were talking about, because I was still thinking about the girl who didn’t talk! I really didn’t think much of it, it was something to do. It became serious when we started doing shows around L.A. at regular venues.”
Macy Gray was signed to Epic Records in April, 1998 and in June of that year began recording On How Life Is with producer Andrew Slater (Fiona Apple, the Wallflowers) at several Hollywood studios. “It was a real big hang-out,” she says of the sessions. “The spirit of it was great. Everyone just wanted to play, and it was kind of a new style for everybody to do.”
The players include Macy’s long-time writing partners, programmer Darryl Swann and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, as well as friends DJ Kiilu and guitarist Arik Marshall (formerly of the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Also on board are such seasoned veterans as Funkadelic guitarist Blackbird McKnight, ex-Tower of Power percussionist Lenny Castro, and drummer Matt Chamberlain.Whether it’s the funky breakbeats coupled with Macy’s raspy words of encouragement in “Do Something”, the album’s first single or the smoky ballad, “Still”, reminiscent of early Aretha, the result is an album filled with Macy’s irresistibly gritty, yet soothing vocals.
The lyrics, all written by Macy, are chiefly stories from her life. “The record is little snippets of things that have happened to me, that inspired me to write. It’s On How Life Is, but it’s just my life. It’s not like I’m speaking for the whole world; I don’t really have some big message. [The record is] just based on what I’ve gone through, and I hope people can relate.”