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MACY GRAY On Adulthood

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“When you’re 40-something, there’s things you don’t really remember about what it’s like to be a kid. I have kids, and some stuff in their life I think is so retarded, but that’s where they’re coming from. It’s just a different perspective.”

Macy Gray is back in Australia and will stop by the Perth Concert Hall this Sunday, March 8. AUGUSTUS WELBY reports.

 

moderately successful rock’n’roller once said, ‘We’re lucky we never had a hit’.

It seems like an odd thing to be thankful for, but there is some wisdom to the idea. Releasing a chart-topping record might seem like the obvious goal for recording artists, but having a massive hit is liable to interfere with the remainder of one’s career.

Of course, major success has its upshots – a marvellous sense of achievement, love from all corners of the world and ongoing royalties – but as an artist, the last thing you want to do is repeat yourself. 

Whenever a musician brings in big money, it’s only a matter of time before money-minded business folks enter the picture. As far as these parties are concerned – be they record labels, management or radio dons – that earlier success simply must be repeated. This pressure is something that US singer/songwriter Macy Gray knows all too well. 

Gray launched her career back in 1999. Her debut LP On How Life Is and its lead single, I Try, each shifted several million units (the album sold three million copies in the US alone). Some 16 years later, Gray remains a popular artist, but the shadow cast by her early commercial success has never receded. “I think for a long time my label was waiting for another I Try,” she says. “For as long as you make records you always have the same pressure. Especially if you had a taste of proper success – then there’s always that pressure to do it again. That doesn’t go away. Even if you get older or you get relaxed, you still have to come up with something.”

Since her debut, Gray has released five more albums of original music. The most recent of these is The Way, which came out last October. While you can’t deny the populist leaning of Gray’s music, she’s never fit into an obvious stylistic category. Beginning with On How Life Is, each of Gray’s records highlights her diverse stylistic impulses. 

The singer’s catalogue also includes two covers albums. In late 2012, she paid tribute to Stevie Wonder by covering his album, Talking Book, in full. Earlier that year came Covered, a collection of Gray’s all-time favourites including Metallica, Radiohead, My Chemical Romance and Arcade Fire. That album went some way to explaining her habitual genre-hopping.

My curse is that I’m a really big music fan,” she says. “I listen to a lot of different stuff and I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of different kinds of music come out, so I have all these influences in my head. It’s not like I go in there and I think I’m above all the other artists. It’s just that I have all this other information in my head, so when I go in the studio it all comes out. And sometimes it comes out a little all over the place and sometimes it comes out great. It just depends.”

Gray’s genre fluidity is perpetuated by The Way. There are up-tempo, rock-inspired tracks like Bang Bang, soulful sass on Queen Of The Big Hurt and catchy pop anthems like The Way and Life. “I think now I’m a better musician,” Gray says. “I’m a better songwriter, I’m a much better singer. I know what I’m doing a lot more than I used to.”

Lyrically, The Way focuses on what are appropriately deemed ‘adult themes’: the dissolution of a long-term relationship, drug addiction and existential reassessments. Interestingly, the 45-year-old Gray has basically been an adult for the entire time she’s been in the public eye, yet in the past she was advised against placing adulthood under the microscope. But by this point, she’s not willing to affect a younger perspective.

I would hate to go through all that I’ve been through and still think like a kid,” she says. “That would be stupid. I know people are pressured to do that – you see a lot of older artists and they’re trying to do dance records and these really stupid hooks that have nothing to do with their lives, and I know they go home and hate it. It’s like when you’re 16 and they say, ‘There’s so much you don’t know’ and ‘You’re not as old as me’ and, ‘You’re not an adult’. But when you’re 40-something, there’s things you don’t really remember about what it’s like to be a kid. I have kids, and some stuff in their life I think is so retarded, but that’s where they’re coming from. It’s just a different perspective. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to do that, really.”

In spite of her defiant streak, Gray still can’t completely avoid the pressures to produce another wildly successful release. Thankfully, the wishes of those outside forces haven’t filled her with bitterness. After all, she knows what she signed up for.

With whatever you do in life, you still always want to be good at it. You still want to have success, you still want people to call you up and tell you how much they love your record. You need people to get engaged in it so you can make a living. That never, ever, ever goes away.

In the back of that is the knowledge that I’ve done it before so I know I can do it again. I know I have it in me. But the pressure’s always there. Even if you don’t give a shit, you still have the pressure of it. You need challenges in your life, you need things to work for and you need goals. Or else you’re just going to sit around and get really fat.”

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