In recent times, the musical world has seemingly cranked out an assembly line of teen singers, marketed to the top of the charts. To the common music fan, they appear to be on the surface real diamonds in the rough, but in truth, there is little authenticity among them.
One authentic gem that has weathered two decades of highs and lows in the world of R&B-tinged pop music is Macy Gray. She is instantly known by her signature Billie Holiday-style rasp, which is simultaneously sassy, sexy, smoky, serious, and sometimes playful. Gray is continuing to add to her singing sparkle, baring her soul on her latest jewel, Ruby, which comes out September 21.
Born Natalie Renee McIntyre and raised in Canton, Ohio, the daughter of a math teacher and a dedicated steelworker stepfather (her birth father left when Gray was a baby), Gray grew up on a diet of Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, and James Brown. With the dawning of MTV, she added rock inspiration from Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart, and Metallica.
After not completing her work in film studies at USC, she began writing lyrics and found her way on stage singing jazz tunes. She got married to mortgage broker Tracy Hinds and had two kids in by late 1996. But, by 1998, with no record deal, she moved back to Ohio, pregnant with her third child, mixed up in a marriage that would soon fall apart, and with a music career that had nearly ended before it had a chance to begin.
Fate however, shined on the embattled singer-mother when her demo ended up on the desk of Jeff Blue of Atlantic Records. She staked her claim as a unique voice on her debut How Life Is (25 million sold) with its hit song “I Try” in 1999, garnering her a Grammy and fans the world over.
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Following eight more albums of varying chart and critical success stateside and worldwide, she broke away from her R&B side in 2016 and showcased her soulful warbles and natural jazz vocal inclinations, with a modest amount of avant-garde songwriting creativity, on jazz chart-maker Stripped.
With Ruby, Gray has created a diverse 12-song musical menagerie for mature audiences, benevolent in lyrical tone and hip but not forced. Standout songs include the anthemic, soul-stirring R&B confessional that is opener “Buddha”; naughty and catchy first single “Sugar Daddy," the soul-stirring, finger-scolding “White Man,” which includes a serious dance thump and Trump call-out, and the gospel/reggae-inspired “Witness.”
Phoenix New Times caught up with Gray as she began preparing for the release of Ruby and her subsequent touring stop at the Chandler Center for the Arts on Sunday, September 23.
You have always had album names that spoke to where you were at that time, from How Life Is, to Sellout and Stripped and now Ruby. What were you going for?
I love the gem ruby. It’s so regal. I really wanted a title that would stick. The stone is also red of course, which is my favorite color. It’s rich and has history. It’s classic, and so is this album.
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This is easily your most versatile album, and your first single is the very playfully provocative, “Sugar Daddy.” The new video that you recently released features Evan Ross (Diana Ross’s son), and you co-wrote the song with Meghan Trainor. Whose idea was it?
Meghan and I thought it be great to collaborate. She had the concept in her head for some time, so we took a stab at it. It’s really great fun and a bit cheeky. Her writing and talent is brilliant. It was the perfect song to come out with first.
“White Man” was actually the first song you recorded for Ruby. Once you released it, got noticed right away online, due to its subject, President Donald Trump. Tell us what inspired this song?
It was actually a Facebook post I saw while we were in the studio, and one writer, her name was Blush, had a post that said, "Dear white man, I’m not my grandmother." Everybody in the studio immediately thought of Trump because I believe his perspective and his thinking are so dated. That post was the inspiration for the song.
You have had more than your share of moments when the excesses of the business took a toll on you after your initial success. At what point over the past 10 years or so do you feel you put those evils behind you, found peace, and set yourself on a new course?
If I had a moment, it was this album; I think my sound reflects where I am. I’m a little older … just a little [laughs]. I’ve had more experiences and influences. I want my sound to feel fresh and relevant. I feel that I was able to achieve that, and I’m extremely proud of this album.
Your fans and audiences, not only in the U.S., but in no fewer than 20 other countries, have provided you unwavering support. What do you want for your fans?
I hope audiences can feel connected to the record. I hope that I can make them smile and make them reflect. I want them to take away sincerity, honesty and authenticity. I'm still looking at how I can contribute more artistically and as a human. This is one way.