Macy Gray: “I don’t have to impress anybody”The Grammy Award-winning artist talks about the ups and downs of life in the spotlight, why success and loneliness go hand in hand, and why it can be hard finding true friendship
The first thing we got from Macy Gray when we met her backstage in Vienna after a recent gig on her European tour was a big, heartfelt hug. The second things were complete honesty and a friendliness you don’t often find in the entertainment business.
With her first record, On How Life Is (1999), and the Grammy-winning hit single I Try, Gray topped the charts worldwide and became an overnight phenomenon. After that, the hype might have faded but she still released a string of top-20 albums, collaborating with everyone from John Frusciante and Erykah Badu (on her second album, 2001’s The Id) to Justin Timberlake and will.i.am (Big, 2007).
Now, 18 years after that huge album, Gray is touring venues all over the world to promote her ninth studio LP, Stripped, which marks her first foray into jazz and features covers of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, as well as a new pared-back rendition of I Try.
Here she talks to The Red Bulletin about the true meaning of happiness, what she learns from making mistakes, and how she’s dealt with the many trappings of early success.
THE RED BULLETIN: Let’s start with a personal question: what makes you truly happy?
MACY GRAY: I’m a happy person when I’m on stage. I am happy when I’m alone, because I don’t have any stress. I don’t have to impress anybody.
That sounds like you enjoy being alone.
Yes, I’m around people so much, because I have a big family. So when I am alone it’s the best thing in the world sometimes – and food makes me happy, I like eating.
What kind of food?
I’m a big fan of the wrong kind of food: burgers and stuff, and I like being drunk. I’m a happy drunk.
So drinking is a relief thing for you?
You just get a break. That’s what people don’t get about drugs. Drugs get a really bad rep. But you get this break, that you just don’t get doing anything else. Alcohol, weed – whatever. I am not condoning it at all, but I get it.
At the gig tonight you told the audience that the most important thing in life is freedom. What’s your definition of freedom?
Freedom is just a complete escape from anything that’s necessary or required – or any rules. Those moments you have when you are just you. People don’t realise how rare that is. You’re told to dress a certain way in this business. You have to shape your words when you’re talking to people – even people that you are close to, because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. You have to be cool and you have got to dance the right way. People don’t realise how much time you spend trying to keep it all together. I think freedom is those moments when you have nothing to do with all that. That’s why I admire crazy people, because they’re totally free.
You think they are happy?
They’re on another planet and they have no rules. When I see people like that, I’m always in admiration. They don’t do that all day, because that’s exhausting. People think they’re tired because they work hard, but it’s really all this effort into keeping up appearances.
Looking back at your career, do you think you have gone in the right direction?
I think I got back on my feet. When I started, it was such a surprise for me. I’d spent such a long time playing little clubs and playing gigs where eight people would show up. That was just really what I was used to, to the point where I didn’t mind it, so when I became really famous and 10,000 people would show up at my shows, nobody was more shocked or surprised than I was.
Was that hard to handle for you?
I just went crazy. I had all this access and all this money. I just partied. I didn’t know what else to do with it. I got to see the world and I also became a drug addict at the same time. But I saw things I would have never seen before. Once I got through that, I got on my feet again. I think for a while I was under a spell – it was kind of a dark time where I didn’t know what I was doing and my records weren’t doing well, and I kind of wondered where everybody went, because you have all these fans. I was selling out two nights at Wembley – almost 30,000 people – and then I come back two years later and you know, 1,500 people show up. You kind of get caught up in all that: ‘What is real? Do 25,000 people really love you?’ So when they stopped coming back, it was kind of a hurt to the heart for me.
So you felt like you were left alone?
You just feel: ‘Where did everybody go? What did I do wrong?’ Because it’s easy to believe that those people are your friends, because they come and see you. When I was new, I kind of thought that was all real, like those are my friends and they are going to come to my shows and buy my records for the rest of my life. But you learn the hard way that you have to really work hard to keep things going and to make things the way you want them. That’s a lot of work. It doesn’t just come to you.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Be good to yourself. Don’t s**t on yourself.
That can be a hard thing to do sometimes.
It is. There are all these distractions. You get mad at yourself. You eat bad food. You hang out with the wrong people and you know it. So I think it’s important to just be nice to yourself. Be good to yourself. Take care of yourself.