Macy Gray ‘Covered': Singer ‘Loves’ Metallica, Praises Kanye West’s Arrogance
With her fifth release, Macy Gray has returned with a renewed fervor, showcasing her versatility and somewhat surprising musical taste with Covered, featuring her renditions of songs by Metallica, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Chemical Romance, Arcade Fire and Kanye West. The album features some equally unexpected guest features, including silky vocals by former “The Wire” star Idris Elba, and skits with Nicole Scherzinger, MC Lyte and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” crack up J.B. Smoove.
The BoomBox spoke with Gray about the song choices and seemingly random guest features on her new LP, her opinion on Auto-Tune, and the current state of music, and she explained why Kanye’s arrogance makes him her favorite artist.
Why did you decide to do a cover album?
Oh, I’ve actually wanted to do it for a while, but I was always got talked out of it, ’cause cover albums have the stigma of being something you do later in your career, or when you’re not writing, or whatever. Then we came up with this concept of taking these rock songs and turning them into soul songs — it was kind of a challenge for me, so they thought that was a good idea, and we went with it. A lot of the songs on the album we’ve been doing live for a couple years now. It was really natural.
How did you choose the songs? Were they all artists you were already a fan of?
Yeah, there were definitely things I was a fan of. Mostly though, they were songs I thought I could pull off, that I felt like I could translate and mean it, and it sounded good in my style of music. Things that I could make personal to me, instead of just like, doing a song.
The Metallica cover, for instance, is not something that people probably expected. At what point were you like, “Yeah, I’m gonna cover an early ’90s Metallica ballad”?
Actually the words to that song I’ve always really loved. It’s such a great lyric, and a great statement, and it was actually not that hard, pulling out all the metal out of it. That was actually the easiest one. But you know I always remember that song. I know a lot of Metallica records, that was just the one I knew I could do.
So you’re a Metallica fan.
I am, actually. Isn’t that crazy? Everyone always looks at me sideways when I say that, but I do like Metallica.
How did you choose MC Lyte, J.B. Smoove and Nicole Scherzinger to appear on the skits?
Lyte is a real good friend of mine. I called her at like [2AM] and she came over. We were just trippin’. We did it that night, and I hadn’t heard it until it was time to put the album together, so we all were just cracking up, and I knew we had to put that on there. J.B. Smoove is a friend of Hal’s, the producer, Hal Willner. You know Hal used to work on “Saturday Night Live” [Smoove is an SNL alum]. And then Nicole is a really good friend. The first time I was in the studio with her ever, she was just sittin’ at the piano, doing all these impressions of different singers, and it was hilarious. So I asked her to do it on my record. It was all people we knew, though.
And Idris Elba as well, is he a friend of yours?
Yeah! I met him a while ago, and he used to email me his music — he’s an artist himself, you know. Then I was in the studio, and he would just come down and hang out. We was doin’ “Bubbly,” and I thought it would be cool to have a male voice under it. At first he was gonna do the whole song with me, but it just got too crazy. So we put it together so he comes in at the end. It was cool. All of it was a really laid-back and natural kind of thing, it wasn’t like I set out and was like, “I’m gonna put Idris Elba on my record!”
You said that Kanye West was one of your favorite artists recently. You’re a Kanye fan?
Yeah, huge. He’s like my favorite right now.
What do you like about him?
His music is genius. He has this hip-hop Quincy Jones thing, and I know he doesn’t do it all himself, but the choices he makes, I think, are really brilliant, and the things he talks about — I like his arrogance. I think music needs that, ’cause everybody tries to put so much focus on acting like they’re humble when they’re really not. He doesn’t pretend, you know what I mean? I think he’s cool all the way around. I think he’s great for his entertainment, and then the music backs it up. Really stunning records; I like him a lot.
What do you think about Auto-Tune and the new vocal style people are using now?
I actually don’t mind it. I think it’s cool for some songs like on his [Kanye’s] version of “Love Lockdown,” and I think it’s cool when T-Pain does it. I think if you use it as a crutch, like you go in the studio and you don’t really have to do anything cause “Oh, Auto-Tune will fix it,” then it gets obvious, and it gets a little wacky, but if you use it as art I think it’s cool.
I was thinking more in terms of singers who use Auto-Tune predominantly.
People don’t realize Auto-Tune’s been around since the beginning, it just wasn’t so obvious. They kinda turned it up and made it this kind of quirky way of singing — you actually have to sing off key for it to work — so I don’t know what’s going on when they use it, but I like it sometimes.
Your career has spanned one of the most turbulent times in music, and since Covered is a reflection of your tastes, I was interested to see what you thought about the current musical climate.
It’s a weird time. Dance music kinda came in and monopolized everything, and everyone felt like they had to run out and make a dance song in order to stick around. You heard a lotta like really horrible songs, that wasn’t natural. It’s definitely exciting, and the great DJs will always be around, but I think artists are gonna go back to what they do. I think it’ll definitely come out of hip-hop cause that [hip-hop’s dance trend] was awful. I think it’ll start going back to natural things, like I heard this new Jack White band the other day and it was raw, you know, and it was beautiful. It’s in a rut at the moment. I think everybody’s transitioning, tryna figure something out. Adele came along and just kinda reminded everybody that you don’t have to do all that, and now everybody’s tryna do what she does [laughs]. But it is what it is, it’s always changing.
Where does your inspiration for music and songwriting come from?
Everywhere. I write all the time, I can write about a tree if I have to. I like when things happen and I immediately think of a song, but it’s usually like, relationships or things going on in my life.
So it’s not from a melancholy place?
No, not always. I think that when you’re down, people look for ways to express or to feel different, and that’s why you hear a lotta love songs that are sad. That’s usually when you feel inspired to write something down.
It seems like many artists, like Nina Simone and people of her ilk, draw their inspiration from pain.
Yeah, you do have to be in pain to be a soulful artist. Yeah. It is definitely a little bit of torture that has to go on, to be believable.