In describing the voice of Macy Gray, music critics often draw likenesses to Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Eartha Kitt, Etta James, Janis Joplin, and Tina Turner. However, such comparisons are not entirely accurate, as Gray possess one of the most distinctive voices in popular music. “She is one of the great singers,” said critic Anthony DeCurtis, as quoted in People, “because she is immediately identifiable in a sea of people who seem totally interchangeable.” Her vocal talent—coupled with a fresh mix of funk, soul, rock, and pop, lyrics that explore sometimes dark territory, and a decidedly hip, stylish sense of fashion— catapulted Gray to stardom in 1999. Her debut album that year, On How Life Is, won over critics and fans alike.
A native of Canton, Ohio, Gray, one of four children, was born Natalie Mclntyre, later adopting her stage name as a misguided homage to a hometown neighbor. “Macy Gray was a man who used to come over and shoot pool with my husband,” Gray’s mother Laura Mclntyre, explained to Newsweek contributor Veronica Chambers. “She was always extremely shy, and he would tell her, ‘You’re going to be something special one day.’”
Gray attributes much of her shyness as a child to her unusual voice. High-pitched and girlish with a subtle rasp, it was a target for teasing throughout her school days. In fact, Gray barely spoke at all around her classmates. “When I was little, I had this real funny voice. Every time I talked, the kids would make fun of me—so I stopped talking,” she stated, as quoted for the 100% Macy Gray website. “Everybody thought I was shy, but really I was self-conscious of my voice. It never occurred to me that I could sing.” Even as an adult, Gray feels uneasy when she speaks. “When I hear myself talk, I always cringe,” she said. “It’s kind of a trip that everyone finds it so interesting.”
Nevertheless, Gray, who displayed an eccentric individuality and creative sense early in life, wanted to be heard. In addition to taking classical piano lessons, Gray expressed herself largely through writing. “She was either writing or playing solitaire,” recalled Gray’s younger brother Nathon in People magazine. “She used to write short stories [that were] very sophisticated,” added friend Therlanda Singleton, who grew up next door. “She always wanted to be a writer or a screenwriter.”
Gray’s mother and father encouraged their children to aim high. At the age of 14, Gray, a gifted student, won a scholarship to attend a predominately white boarding school where she encountered further taunting because of her race. “Most of the kids had never been around people from other cultures,” she recalled to Alison Powell in Interview. ”So they would say or do things that weren’t always respectful. I don’t think they realized it was offensive because they were never
Born Natalie Mclntyre c. 1970 in Canton, OH; one of four children; daughter of a retired steelworker (father) and an eighth-grade math teacher and school administrator (mother); married Tracy Hinds, a mortgage collector, 1996; divorced, 1998; children (with Hinds): Aanisah, Tahmel, and Cassius. Education: Formal piano training; studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California’s film school.
Performed at underground clubs in Los Angeles, CA, organized own club, We Ours, with fellow musicians, early 1990s; signed with Atlantic Records, 1994; subsequently dropped by label; signed to Epic Records, 1998; released On How Life Is, 1999.
Awards: LA Weekly Music Award for Best New Artist, BRIT Awards for Best International Newcomer and Best International Female Artist, 2000; Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “I Try,” 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022, (212) 333-8000, website: http://www.sony.com. Fan club —Macy Gray Fan Club, Attn: C. Darby, P.O. Box 489, Powder Springs, GA 30127. Website— Macy Gray Official website: http://www.macygray.com.
exposed to anything other than their own kind of society.” But her boarding school experience did enable Gray—who was raised in Canton on a steady diet of soul, R&B, and early hip-hop—to discover rock ‘n’ roll and pop music. “When I was a kid, rock music was considered white people’s music,” Gray explained. “Where I went to school, no one listened to it. It wasn’t cool, you know? And then I went to boarding school where it was just the opposite.”
Eventually, Gray was forced to leave the school, supposedly, according to school officials, for poor grades. Gray, however, noting that her class performance was fine, believes that she was expelled because she said something unfavorable about a school dean. As a senior back home at Canton South High School in 1985, Gray won a college scholarship to the United States Naval Academy, but turned the offer down to enroll at the University of Southern California (USC) to study film. “I had no idea that she had even applied to USC,” her mother told People. “I said, ‘Natalie, what can you do with film writing in Canton, Ohio?’ This is the Football Hall of Fame town, and that’s about it. And she answered, ’Mom, I do not intend to be in Canton, Ohio.’ I think she pretty much had her mind made up. And she kept it to herself.”
In film school, Gray stumbled into what would become her career when a friend asked her to perform with his jazz band. “I thought he was out of his mind,” Gray told Boston Globe writer Joan Anderman. “But I figured, hey, maybe my voice was weird for a reason.” After departing USC in 1989, a few credits short of a degree, Gray began singing in underground clubs in Los Angeles while continuing to try her hand at writing screenplays. She also worked as a production secretary for Universal and Paramount to help make ends meet.
After establishing herself on the club scene, Gray and fellow musicians organized a late-night club called the “We Ours” in a Hollywood coffee shop. The gathering soon became a local hot spot, with well-known guests such as Tricky, the Roots, and the Black Eyed Peas regularly dropping in. “We had food in the back, and the DJ set up lights. People started getting on the mike and freestyling, and then all of a sudden, people were doing poetry and break dancing. It became a sort of artists’ community,” Gray recalled to Anderman. Moreover, the We Ours club encouraged Gray to hone her stage presence, as she was forced to pay attention to the audience. “It was small, so if someone yawned or walked out you knew it,” Gray added. “You knew what was working and what wasn’t.”
Gray spent the early 1990s performing and sending out demo tapes, hoping to land a record deal. Although impressed with Gray’s sound, most labels were unwilling to take a risk on an artist who did not fit neatly into a marketable package. Finally, in 1994, Gray received an offer from Atlantic Records and promptly dubbed herself “Macy Gray.” In 1996, Gray married mortgage collector Tracy Hinds. The couple already had two children: daughter Aanisah, born c. 1990, and son Tahmel, born c. 1991. But in August of 1997, Gray and Hinds separated; she was seven months pregnant with her third child, a daughter named Cassius, at the time. In July of the following year, Gray filed for divorce.
Gray, prior to her divorce, was dropped by Atlantic, which decided not to release her debut album. She retreated to her parents home in Canton, believing that her music career was over, and enrolled in classes to secure a teaching certificate. Then, a Los Angeles-based music publisher named Jeff Blue, who had heard Gray’s unreleased album tape, talked her into meeting him in New York City for recording sessions. In November of 1997, she cut a solo demo that Blue distributed to major labels under the pseudonym “Mushroom” to guard against any industry bias.
In April of 1998, Gray signed a deal with Epic Records. In June of that year, she began recording On How Life Is, for which she wrote her own lyrics, with producer Andrew Slater—known for his efforts with Fiona Apple and the Wallflowers—at various Hollywood studios. Other participants in the project included Gray’s writing partners, programmer Darryl Swann and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, guitarist Arik Marshall (formerly a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), DJ Kiilu Beck-with (Gray’s boyfriend), guitarist and keyboardist Jon Brion, and drummer Matt Chamberlain.
Released in the summer of 1999, the neo-soul On How Life Is, containing the hit singles “I Try,” “Why Didn’t You Call Me,” and “Still,” earned critical raves, eventually reached the Billboard Top Five, and went multi-platinum in the United States and Great Britain. Soon to follow was a string of television appearances, live shows (including a gig opening for Carlos Santana in the summer of 2000), guest spots on other artists’ records, and award nominations. In 2000, Gray was nominated for two Grammy Awards: Best New Artist and Best Female Vocal R&B Performance for On How Life Is. That same year, she took home an MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist, an LA Weekly Music Award for Best New Artist, and two BRIT Awards for Best International Newcomer and Best International Female Artist. In 2001, Gray earned a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “I Try,” the hit song also nominated in two other categories.
“I Try,” Sony, 1999.
On How Life Is, Epic, 1999.
Compilations and appearances
(The Black Eyed Peas) Behind the Front, 1998.
(Fatboy Slim) Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, featured on “Demons,” Astralwerks, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 27, 2000.
Billboard, July 3, 1999; September 11, 1999; May 6, 2000.
Boston Globe, September 9, 1999; January 28, 2000; December 5, 2000.
Ebony, September 1999.
Entertainment Weekly, July 30, 1999.
Essence, July 2000.
Fortune, August 16, 1999.
Interview, March 2000.
Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2000; July 1, 2000; July 2, 2000.
Melody Maker, October 16, 1999.
Newsweek, August 2, 1999.
People, August 30, 1999; March 12, 2001.
Rolling Stone, August 31, 2000; December 14-21, 2000.
US Weekly, November 13, 2000; December 11, 2000.
USA Today, January 8, 2001.
Washington Post, December 27, 1998; August 8, 1999; August 15, 1999.
Macy Gray Official Website, http://www.macygray.com (March 23, 2001).
100% Macy Gray, http://www.2tup.com/gl/ (March 23, 2001).
Gray, Macy c. 1970–
Macy Gray c. 1970–
Eclecticism—the creative mixing of genres and styles—was a prominent trend in American popular music at the turn of the millennium. One of the major African-American contributors to that trend was Macy Gray, a singer and songwriter who additionally had an unusual but addictive vocal style to offer. After several fruitless careers and frustrating episodes in the music business, Gray finally emerged as the sensation of 1999 with her debut album, On How Life Is. Signed to a four-album deal with the Epic label, she seemed ready to dominate pop airwaves and turntables with more of her unique musical mix for years to come.
Gray was born Natalie Mclntyre in Canton, Ohio, around 1970; her father was a steelworker and her mother a math teacher and school administrator. She took the professional name Macy Gray as a tribute to a pool-playing male neighbor who told her when she was a girl that she would be something special one day. Self-conscious about her high-pitched voice, she became a shy child who rarely spoke. Even now, Gray told Newsweek, “When I hear myself talk, I always cringe. It’s kind of a trip that everyone finds it so interesting.”
Growing up in the 1970s Gray was exposed to much of the classic soul and R&B music of the era; she especially liked the great eclectic artist of the day, Stevie Wonder. The first wave of rap music surfaced during her junior high school years. Gray’s family encouraged her to achieve, and she evolved into a top student—with the result that another layer was added to her musical education. Gray was admitted to and spent most of her high school years at an exclusive and nearly all-white prep school. The atmosphere wasn’t always comfortable—Gray recalled in Interview magazine that her classmates “would say or do things that weren’t always respectful. I don’t think they realized it was offensive because they were never exposed to anything other than their own kind of society.” But Gray came away from the experience with an ongoing appreciation for rock music.
Gray studied classical piano for seven years and became a solid musician. Another major influence was Prince, whose fusion of rock and R&B anticipated aspects of Gray’s own music. When Prince’s Purple Rain LP was released, Gray painted her bedroom purple. She was kicked out of the prep school after
At a Glance…
Born Natalie Mclntyre in c. 1970, in Cantorin OH; married Tracy Hinds, 1996 (divorced, 1998); children: three. Education: University of Southern California, attended.
Career: Vocalist and songwriter. Performed with jazz bands in Los Angeles area, 1998; Paramount and Universal studios, secretary, early 1990s; the We Ours club, hostess, early 1990s; signed to Atlantic label, 1994; signed to Epic label; debut album, Macy Gray On How Life Is, released 1999; album reached top 5 of pop sales charts; toured U.S., 2000; second album released, 2001.
Awards: Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal, 2001.
Addresses: Record label —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
bringing a sexual harassment charge against one of the school’s administrators, but she had begun to pen short stories and to develop a strong sense of her own identity as a writer. Seething with creativity and determined to get out of Ohio, Gray applied, without her family’s knowledge, to film school at the University of Southern California (USC).
Admitted to USC, she turned down a scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy. The multicultural atmosphere of Los Angeles proved a congenial one for Gray. Mixing with film students and musicians, she began to write song lyrics but never gave a thought to performing them herself. Gray’s debut performance came about by chance: a singer friend for whom she had written lyrics failed to show up for a recording date, and Gray was asked to fill in. She thought nothing of it, but tapes of the session began to circulate among L.A. musicians, and to her amazement the leader of a jazz band that worked the city’s hotels asked her to join the band as a vocalist. “I thought he was out of his mind, but I did it because I thought it was good money,” Gray was quoted as saying on the website sonicnet.com.
Still not really thinking of herself as a performer, Gray became more deeply involved in the Los Angeles underground music scene in the early 1990s. She worked as a secretary at the Universal and Paramount movie studios and at night was a hostess at a club called the We Ours, open from 1 to 5 a.m. Innovative musicians such as the sophisticated rap group the Roots and the British electronica pioneer Tricky stopped by to perform. The club’s owner, Ron Harris, credited its success to Gray’s presence and positive impact on those around her. “She has a way of embracing people and nurturing them,” he told Newsweek.
Gray’s musical efforts culminated in a contract with Atlantic Records in 1994, and she set to work on her debut album. Living with her boyfriend, collection agent Tracy Hinds, Gray had two children in 1995 (a daughter in January and a son in December). The two were married in 1996 but divorced two years later, with Gray pregnant with a third child. At the same time, Gray’s musical career fell apart. Atlantic, unnerved by Gray’s Janis Joplin-lite voice, refused to release her by-then completed album and dropped her from the label’s roster. Gray left Los Angeles and retreated to her parents’ house in Canton.
But Gray had a backer in the music industry, publishing executive Jeff Blue, who had been struck by her distinctive voice and encouraged her to try again with another demo recording. It took Gray several months before she would even agree to meet with Blue, but eventually she set to work on the new record, armed with a group of new songs whose lyrics drew heavily on her own experiences. Blue went to work to try to sell her album to a major label, using the pseudonym “Mushroom” to disguise her identity and forestall memories of her career’s failed first stage. Signed to the Epic label, Gray released her debut album, On How Life Is, in 1999.
That album generated an instant buzz and finally rose to the top five of Billboard magazine’s album sales chart. Lyrically sophisticated and serious (various cuts deal with drug abuse and violent relationships), the album neatly synthesized many of Gray’s musical influences. By turns, it sounds like the 1970s soul group Sly and the Family Stone, the 1980s erotic rock-funkster Prince, and the hip-hop of the 1990s. Another noteworthy feature of On How Life Is is its frank emphasis on female sexuality. “Sex is a part of your everyday,” Gray told Interview. “I don’t think it’s really appropriate to be afraid of it because you are a woman…. I think if we didn’t have a taboo and all these reservations about women and sex, maybe women wouldn’t be so confused about their place in relationships,” she continued.
Gray toured energetically in the year 2000, beginning with a stint at the prestigious Los Angeles club the Viper Room. Like other African-American artists who explored older styles in the face of hip-hop’s dominance of black radio, she has found the majority of her fans among white listeners—partly, perhaps, because her voice is more typical of alternative rock than of most African-American styles. Initially troubled by this reaction, Gray has since accepted it: “I’ve learned you just got to keep going and do your thing,” she told Essence. Gray surprised observers when her single “I Try” won the Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal in February of 2001, beating out such heavily hyped contenders as Madonna and Britney Spears. Expectations were high indeed for her sophomore release, slated for later that year and said to include a stronger hip-hop component.
On How Life Is, Epic, 2000.
Billboard, September 11, 1999, p. 19; May 6, 2000, p. 12.
Ebony, September 1999, p. 18.
Entertainment Weekly, July 30, 1999, p. 72.
Essence, July 2000, p. 61.
Interview, March 2000, p. 66.
Newsweek, August 2, 1999, p. 62.
People, March 12, 2001, p. 91.
—James M. Manheim
Born: Natalie McIntyre; Canton, Ohio, c. 1970
Genre: R&B, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: On How Life Is (1999)
Hit songs since 1990: "I Try," "Sexual Revolution"
Possessed of an unusual, high-pitched, immediately distinctive singing voice and an almost cartoonishly freewheeling personality, the Ohio-born Macy Gray emerged, after years of music-industry frustration, as one of the most arresting new voices of rhythm and blues and soul in the late 1990s.
Born Natalie McIntyre in the industrial city of Canton, Ohio, to a steelworker father and teacher mother, Macy Gray was self-conscious about her voice as a child. A grainy, high-pitched whine of an instrument, Gray's voice manages to sound raspy and helium-high at the same time, mixing the range of jazz singer Billie Holiday with the raw power of the 1960s rock singer Janis Joplin. Although exposed to classic 1970s soul and R&B by her African-American parents, Gray also learned an appreciation for everything from rock to classical music while attending an all-white prep school as a teenager and studying classical piano for seven years.
Gray was asked to leave the school after making an unkind comment about one of its deans (though, despite her good grades, the school said it was a performance-based assessment), Gray moved to Los Angeles to attend film school at the University of Southern California and soon began writing lyrics. She made her performance debut when a friend for whom she'd written lyrics failed to show up to a recording session. The tape of those sessions circulated, and Gray was asked to join a local jazz band as its vocalist.
Working as a secretary at a pair of movie studios and as a hostess at the hot underground Hollywood rap and R&B club, We Ours, Gray honed her stage presence on the coffee shop/club's small stage. After landing a recording contract with Atlantic Records in 1994, the former Natalie McIntyre took the stage name Macy Gray as an homage to a pool-playing pal of her father's, who had assured her that she was going to be famous some day.
Gray gave birth to two children in 1995 and was dropped by Atlantic after completing her debut album just before the birth of her third child and her 1997 divorce from Tracy Hinds, a mortgage collector. Dejected, the singer left Los Angeles and moved back to Canton. Inspired to give it another shot by the music publishing executive Jeff Blue, Gray wrote an album about her experiences under the pseudonym "Mushroom," which landed her a deal with Epic Records.
Life Is Good
Gray's debut, On How Life Is (1999), garnered acclaim for its lyrical sophistication and classic soul sound, with critics lauding Gray's distinctive, wholly original singing voice. The soaring, gospel-tinged soul ballad "I Try" became the album's signature single, built around Gray's clear-eyed lyrics about romantic obsession: "I try to say goodbye and I choke / I try to walk away and I stumble / Though I try to hide it, it's clear / My world crumbles when you are not near."
In addition to songs about drug abuse and violent relationships, the album has a healthy, funk-inspired dose of another one of Gray's favorite topics: sex. With a world-view that owes much to the free-love ideal of 1960s hip-pies, Gray expresses her sexual liberation on the aptly titled grinding funk tune "Caligula" and the self-explanatory "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak."
In 2000 Gray took home an MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist, an LA Weekly Music Award for Best New Artist, and two BRIT Awards for Best International Newcomer and Best International Female Artist. In 2001 she won the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for "I Try," besting such competitors as Madonna and Britney Spears.
Gray recorded two guest vocals for the 2000 album by the techno artist Fatboy Slim, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, and appeared on albums by the Black Eyed Peas and Stevie Nicks. She played a drug dealer's wife in the Denzel Washington film Training Day (2001) and appeared as herself in the 2002 blockbuster Spider Man. At the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, the singer famously wore a dress with the release date of her second album, The Id, emblazoned across the front.
Though it failed to connect with critics and audiences as much as her debut, The Id (2001) is a daring experiment in genre-hopping soul. Piled high with layers of backing vocals, drum machines, burbling guitar solos, tape loops and retro keyboard sounds, the album is the sound of 1960s soul and funk brought into a modern setting.
The anthemic, Technicolor dance song "Sexual Revolution" is the high point of the album, encouraging people to liberate their sexual being: "I got to be . . . the freak that God made me / So many thangz that I want to try / Got to do them before I die." Also included is the hip-hop inspired song "Hey Young World Part 2," featuring rapper Slick Rick, the sweeping R&B ballad "Sweet Baby" with Erykah Badu, and the reggae-inspired slow burn "Gimme All Your Lovin' or I Will Kill You." Gray's third album, The Trouble with Being Myself, was released in mid-2003.
Combining a seemingly constant altered state with a bizarre style, Macy Gray became one of the most unpredictable, exciting soul divas of the late 1990s.
On How Life Is (Epic, 1999); The Id (Epic, 2001); The Trouble with Being Myself (Epic, 2003).