Macy Gray says the whole point of being an artist is not having any limits or constraints — unless you put them on yourself. Many people know Gray for her unique voice and the 1999 hit single "I Try." Now, 14 years later, she's gone multiplatinum, won a Grammy Award, and put out six albums. Her most recent is a collection of cover songs, appropriately titled Covered. She's now touring with Grammy-winning saxophonist David Murray, doing vocals for the title track of his new album, Be My Monster Love.
She spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about how far she's come, and the roots behind her latest music projects.
On how she feels about her voice
"I still see my voice as odd. It never went away. I'm still in turmoil about my voice, but I feel very blessed that a lot of people like it, and that I'm able to sing at least good enough to, you know, do stuff like 'I Try' and '[Be My] Monster Love.' "
On doing cover songs
"It's something I've been toying around with for a while, like doing a cover album. We did these selective rock tunes and turned them into my own version of a soul song.
"Any time you create something, it's naturally gonna come out as your own or your own style or what you're used to or what you're best at, you know?"
On collaborating with other artists, including saxophonist David Murray
"A lot of collaborations you hear are — you know, they're friends, and they happen to be in the same place, and it all happens really organically. I used to studio hop. I used to hear about people being in-studio, and then I'd run and act like I was in the neighborhood, and then I'd get on the record, you know. [Laughs].
"We [Gray and Murray] did a show in Paris called Afro-Picks. It was a tribute to Fela Kuti and other African artists. And then ever since then, we've been working together. And now I'm doing a full-on tour with him, and we did a record, [Be My] Monster Love, together. So it's just sort of growing at its own pace."
On advice for aspiring artists
"Take the time to get really, really good at what you do, and then put yourself out there. 'Cause once you get really good at what you do, then people find you, you know. Then people start talking about you, and then they come to you. And your life gets a lot easier, you know."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we have a special conversation with one of the most distinctive voices in the music industry today. If you've heard her even once, then you know that voice. We're talking about Macy Gray.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I TRY")
MARTIN: That was the 1999 smash hit single "I Try," from Macy Gray's debut album "On How Life Is." Now, 14 years later she's gone Multi-Platinum, won a Grammy, put out six albums, the latest is titled "Covered." Her latest project is a collaboration with Grammy-winning saxophonist David Murray. She's currently on tour with him, and Macy Gray is with us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
MACY GRAY: Thank you.
MARTIN: So what's it like to hear "I Try" again? Are you sick of it, or do you still love it?
GRAY: Oh no, I love that song. I'm a huge fan of that song. It's been really good to me, so I would never not like it.
MARTIN: I remember hearing a conversation between you and my colleague Scott Simon years ago, of course when you kind of first busted out, and it was this really funny story about how you first realized that you could sing. And you said that initially, you didn't realize you could sing.
You had studied music, you'd played piano, but that your voice is so - well you used the word odd, I wouldn't use the word odd - but that nobody told you could sing and then of course, you had a boyfriend who had a gig, and he needed you to sing. And - I don't know, is the rest history? Would that be the way to say it - the rest, as we say, is history?
GRAY: Yeah, it's a lot more after that, but that was pretty much how it began, really.
MARTIN: When did you stop seeing your voice as odd?
GRAY: I still see my voice as odd. It never went away. Like we just did a song - a new song last week, and I was listening to my voice and I was like, God I wish - you know.
So I'm still in turmoil about my voice, but I feel very blessed that a lot of people like it and that I'm able to sing at least good enough to, you know, do stuff like "I Try" and "Monster Love" and blah blah blah.
MARTIN: Well, how did you get the idea to do this album "Covered," which is covers, as you might imagine.
GRAY: It's something I've been toying around with for a while, like doing a cover album, and we did like these selective rock tunes and turned them into my own version of a soul song. So that was the challenge, like that was the idea.
MARTIN: When you're putting an album together, what are you going for? Are you going for, would it be fun to kind of play around with or is it - are you trying to tell a story?
Are you hoping that the whole thing tells kind of a story about what you're thinking about right now? How do you put it all together?
GRAY: It's mostly inspiration. You know, you get an idea like that one or you start with one song and you build the album around it.
MARTIN: I was going to play a little bit from "Creep" with Radiohead, just because we liked it.
(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "CREEP")
MARTIN: What's it like when you make a song your own? I mean do you - I don't know why, I just have this image in my head of you kind of dancing around in your studio, like, just feeling it out - but I could be totally making that up.
GRAY: Oh no, we do a lot dancing and yelling and screaming at each other. But, you know, any time you create something it's naturally going to come out as your own, or your own style, or what you're used to, or what you're best at, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, CREEP)
GRAY: And then I grew up at a time when there was lots of different genres of music that were, you know, really popular, like reggae was really popular, like Bob Marley was like the hottest thing. And then Stevie Wonder doing like - his whole '80s stuff, and hip-hop was just really emerging and soul music was still around, you know.
You had all these different ideas and styles to grab from - more so today it's a lot more homogenized, you know. You don't hear so much of variety in music.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Do you feel a little bit constrained by what's coming out now?
GRAY: No, I don't feel constrained. I just feel you have to make a decision if you're going to - you know, adopt to what's popular or you're going to stick to what you do, and just kind of got to ride the wave to when it comes back your way again, you know. You know, that's the whole point of being an artist, is that you don't have any limits or constraints unless you put them on yourself, of course.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with - you already know this, because you've been listening - the Grammy-winning singer Macy Gray, who else would that be? The other thing about the album - is you've been doing some collaborations which is kind of fun - I'm so interested in how somebody with your style - how that comes about.
Like I was intrigued by the collaboration you did with Colbie Caillat's "Bubbly," and you sing with the British actor Idris Elba, who a lot of people will know from, you know, the hit TV show Luther, plus Thor and Prometheus.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUBBLY")
GRAY: We actually were, like buddies, you know. 'Cause he was in town and he was actually preparing for Prometheus. He wanted me to do a song on his record, so I said, okay do a song on my record and then we finally picked one and it was perfect. I love him on that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUBBLY")
MARTIN: Is that mainly how you decide who you want to work with, is who you like hanging out with, or how do you decide that?
GRAY: No, it can happen all kind of ways. You know, a lot of collaborations you hear are, you know, they're friends and they happen to be in the same place, and it all happens really organically.
I used to studio hop, I used to like hear about people being in the studio and then I'd run and act like I was in the neighborhood, and then I'd get on the record, you know.
MARTIN: Are you pulling my leg? Is that true, really?
GRAY: No. No, I used to do that, constantly, like, I couldn't wait.
MARTIN: Well how about the piece with your new collaboration with saxophonist David Murray, where you do the vocals for the title track of his new album "Be My Monster Love." How'd that come about?
GRAY: We did a show in Paris called Afro-Picks. It was a tribute to Fela Kuti and other African artists and - and then ever since then we've been working together. And now I'm doing a full-on tour with him, and we did a record "Monster Love" together, so it's just sort of - growing at its own pace, you know, it wasn't anything we planned yet. But so far it's been really good.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER LOVE")
MARTIN: Well, what are you excited about now?
GRAY: I'm excited about this record I'm doing with David. That's going to be fun 'cause I get to do jazz and what else - I'm working on a TV show, I'm not supposed to talk about it though, so you can't ask me any questions, sorry.
GRAY: Sorry. And then, you know I have kids, so...
GRAY: ...My schedule is always booked.
MARTIN: Yeah, how are they? I was going to ask about your kids. You have three. They're teenagers now, aren't they?
GRAY: Yes, 18, 17, and 15.
MARTIN: So you getting back your own? Like seeing little Macys in them?
GRAY: They all go through like, different stages. It's hard to label them and say this is their rebellious or this is their whatever stage.
They're just like, you know, you're going to experience a lot of things and you're going to change every day so I think you just kind of have to ride it with them, you know, because you never know - so that's my life. That's all...
MARTIN: ...I hear you. I bet PTA meetings are really well attended when you come. Are you the snack mom? Do you bring snacks?
GRAY: Sometimes, I like to bring, I usually get cupcakes 'cause those always go, you know. Sometimes if you bring healthy food, not everybody is in the mood for oranges and apples, but when you walk in with cupcakes you win, you know.
MARTIN: I hear you. That's great.
GRAY: You can get them to do anything. You get A's and B's, all kind of stuff.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything.
GRAY: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share for somebody who's listening to our conversation? Maybe if you were - if you could talk to another up-and-coming you, what would you tell them?
GRAY: Take the time to get really, really good at what you do, and then put yourself out there. 'Cause once you get really good at what you do, then people find you, you know, then people start talking about you and then they come to you and your life gets a lot easier, you know.
MARTIN: Macy Gray is a Grammy-winning, Multi-Platinum-selling artist. She's also an actress, and as we heard, a mom. And she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Macy Gray, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GRAY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE RAIN AGAIN")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.