Stirring the soul

This time last year, the name Macy Gray meant diddley-squat to the great record-buying public

This time last year, the name Macy Gray meant diddley-squat to the great record-buying public. She could have been David Gray's baby sister, or perhaps the heiress to the American retail giant Macy's, for all anybody knew or cared. That she was the proud possessor of a gritty, soulful voice and a knack for writing funky, instantly-karmic tunes, however, was something we'd all find out sooner rather than later, when her second single, I Try, wriggled its way into the charts last autumn, and her album, On How Life Is, wormed its way into our hearts.

Macy Gray is not her real name, you probably won't be surprised to learn. 31-year-old Natalie McIntyre, however, is certainly a real person: larger than life, an Afroshock of corkscrew hair barely covered by a big, woolly hat, and with a speaking voice which sounds like a cross between Marge Simpson and Minnie Mouse. When she hits Marge mode, she sounds like a confidently blaring klaxon, but when she goes into Minnie mode - often in the same breath - she's like a lickle gurl lost in the music biz jungle.

Don't be fooled by the uncouth/ingenue voice, though: Macy Gray has been "doin' her thing" for quite a few years now, and she's probably as savvy as any Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin even at this early stage in her success. A former film student from the small city of Canton, Ohio, Gray began performing in Los Angeles about 10 years ago, singing at jam sessions, in friends' livingrooms, in studios and in small clubs. She even set up her own late-night hangout in a Hollywood coffee shop, which she named The We Ours, and which became a magnet for LA's musical night owls.

When I met her in London she was about to perform the first of two sold-out shows at the Shepherd's Bush Empire; her album and single had gone into the Top 10, and everybody knew the name of this squeaky new soul diva off by heart. What a difference a decade makes. Her level of penetration in Ireland is particularly high, challenging even that of her Welsh namesake, David Gray. On How Life Is has now sold 80,000 copies over here, making it five times platinum, and proving that her appeal reaches across genres and generations; the single, I Try, has topped the Irish charts, giving Gray her first Number One anywhere in the world. It probably won't be her last.


"I don't know when I became a star really," ponders Gray. "Everybody else is saying I'm a star, but I don't know when it happened. I been playing since I was in college, just doin' my own thing. We did a gig in Hollywood and eight people came. We were doing the show and this lady came up right in the middle of a song and told us we had to stop now, 'cos they were going to open the doors. We've had a crazy time. This is definitely a big adjustment."

Not only will Gray have to adapt to superstardom, but her three children - aged five, four and two - will have to get used to it too. Gray, however, doesn't find being a divorced mother-of-three much of an obstacle to her musical ambitions.

"No, definitely at this point I'm more interested in my career. My kids are a big reason why I kinda stay at it. 'Cos I'm doing it for my kids."

Macy may be big on this side of the Atlantic, but back home in Canton, Ohio, most of her friends and relatives still know her as Natalie. Some of her townspeople, however, are noting Gray's rise with a certain familial interest.

"I'm definitely meeting a lot of new relatives and that," she observes. "And a lot of people that wanna be my friends. I'm running into that a lot. But it's cool. I'm not in Ohio that often. And usually when I'm there I just hang out at my Mom's house."

While Gray's slow-burn tactics have seen her catch fire in Europe and the UK, the US is still only warming to her organic r & b style. With American radio so rigidly-formatted, it's tough for Gray to break through the airwave barrier back home.

"I'm not a big radio star in the States," shrugs Macy. "I see myself mainly as an underground artist. Which is cool. Radio is real weird out there. Everything is like, straight down the middle, y'know. You're either Backstreet Boys or you're Mos' Def.

You're either Jennifer Lopez or you're Macy Gray, you know what I mean. But the one thing that America has going for it, is that it has a great street market. There's a whole culture of people who don't listen to radio. They only buy a record because they hear it on the streets."

With much of what passes for r & b sounding like bland, overproduced synthetic pop, does Gray believe the time is right for "real" soul music to reassert its street-level supremacy?

"I don't know. I can't say. It's all subjective. You can go into a studio and be pouring your heart out, and everybody's in the control room just laughing, you know. So I can't speak for everybody. But there's a big audience for buying r & b, so obviously it reaches into people."

Gray's voice has been compared with everybody from Billie Holiday to Tina Turner, and the album is a warm reminder that soul music needn't be about slick production and slick-haired session musicians. There's a touch of the live jam sessions on tracks such as Do Something, I Can't Wait To Meetchu and Sex-o-Matic Venus Freak, a testament to a childhood filled with the sounds of Sly Stone and James Brown, two staples of her parents' record collection. It's not all oldies in the Gray household, though: the frizz-haired firestarter also gets fired up by The Fugees and The Prodigy.

One classic band which she won't be screaming for, though, is The Beatles, whose song, With a Little Help from My Friends, Gray covered for the Music of the Millennium television show on Channel 4 late last year.

"I hate to say it, and I don't want to offend anybody, but I've never been really that crazy about The Beatles. I like their songs, but I always prefer their remakes. Like, I love Stevie Wonder's cover of We Can Work It Out. I love that. When we did With a Little Help from My Friends, I thought that was better than the original. One song they did, Come Together, I really like that one a lot, but they got so many hot covers. That's what I'm saying, I think their songs are great."

Before you start burning Macy Gray records in protest at this blasphemy, give a listen to On How Life Is - that is, if you can get a copy shipped to your remote island hideout, because only a complete recluse could have escaped its reach - and hear its instinctive, inspired homage to the great soul music of the past. Here's the gritty, almost rasping sound of a woman in love with music, using her strange, throaty tones to enunciate some universal truths and evoke a few beautiful visions. It's 21st century soul, timeless and tight.

With such a fine debut, you'd assume this was the start of a long and brilliant career; Gray, however, once told an interviewer that she planned to pack it in after four albums, and she stands by her assertion here.

"I just figure I probably have four good records in me. So I wanna make them and stop while I'm on top. I don't wanna go downhill, you know what I mean. I would never want to be known as the lady who used to be hot. I know there's a lot of great artists who have been making records for years and years, but they've only got maybe four or five really great records. I don't wanna do that."

Ain't too proud to beg, so I plead with Gray to reconsider this drastic strategy. When you become a legend - and Macy Gray just might - then people won't care if you're past your peak, I reason. Look at Nina Simone. She's frail, no longer able to perform as brilliantly as before, but people still come to see her because of how great she used to be. If people still want to see you, would you do it?

Gray ponders for a long moment.

"I don't know . . . I'd have to see how I would feel about it. I might be old and bent over, you know, people having to help me up onto the stage. I don't know."

Rest assured, as long as Macy Gray keeps making records as warm and intoxicating as her debut, then there'll be no shortage of people to help her up onto the stage.

Macy Gray plays The Point on Wednesday, March 29th

Macy Gray's album On How Life Is is on Epic Records, and her new single, Still, is out on March 13th

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist