Macy Gray’s debut album, On How Life Is, was released in 1999 to critical acclaim and popular success. Her quirky phrasing, distinctive voice, and playful lyrical approach to serious subjects won her praise from fans and the media, but subsequent albums sold better overseas than at home. A long hiatus followed 2003’s The Trouble With Being Myself, which was critically praised but had disappointing sales, and her 2007 comeback, Big, was met with mixed reviews. After several stressful years of trying to find a new approach to her work, she’s just released her fifth album, The Sellout (Concord). Gray recently took some time to speak to The A.V. Club about how The Sellout was made, how she feels about her own work, and how the music industry has changed since her debut.
The A.V. Club: Why The Sellout? That’s usually such a negative term; why did you pick such a provocative title?
Macy Gray: We originally called it something different, but I thought it was pretty generic, and I wanted to make it something more personal. I went through a lot of personal struggle to make this record, and I wanted the title to reflect that, but in an ironic way. And, you know, people are going to call you a sellout no matter what you do, so I thought “Why not just beat them to the punch?”
AVC: You’ve said this is your best work. What makes you think that?
MG: I really took my time making this album. I think my songwriting and musicianship are better now than they’ve ever been, and this time around, I didn’t let anyone come in and make me do the record they thought I should do. I was involved in writing every track, and I wanted to feel responsible for every song on the album, so that’s the way I approached it. The last album (Big), I was calling all of these hotshot producers to come in and work with me, and it got to the point where they just weren’t calling me back. So with The Sellout, I made my record instead of their record.
AVC: Do you think you’re a good judge of your own work? You’ve said you didn’t like the sound of your own voice, even though most people think it’s your best quality.
MG: I don’t know if I’m a particularly good judge of my work, but that’s part of how I came to make this album. I had to learn how to trust myself and to believe in what I was doing, instead of taking other people’s advice about what I should do. That didn’t work out for me last time, so I didn’t want to make the same mistake.
AVC: Do you pay much attention to what fans or critics say?
MG: That’s one of the problems I was having. Early on, I made the mistake of starting to read my own press, and if you do that long enough, it’s going to steer you wrong, whether they say you’re doing a good job or a bad job. And of course I care about what the fans say, but there’s a difference between listening to them and doing what you think they want you to do. When I made Big, I was really certain I was making the album the fans wanted to hear, but it turns out that’s not what they wanted at all. So this time around, I only made the album I wanted to hear, and hopefully everyone else will respond to that.
AVC: Did you take a different approach to the songwriting as well?
MG: Yeah, I think the songs on this one developed a lot more organically. I had really fallen in love with electronic sounds, and I didn’t want to—well, I can’t say I’m really over that. I still love really odd noises and electronic sounds and unusual instruments. So The Sellout uses a lot more stripped-down acoustic instruments, but those strange noises are still there. It’s just that I didn’t want to put them in a song unless I thought they really fit, that they’d come naturally from fitting with the song.
AVC: You’ve talked about how you went through some really tough times, and that a lot of the album came from a negative place, but it’s a pretty sunny-sounding record. Were you consciously trying to work out your bad feelings through the music?
MG: Not really. Although just the act of making music is a way for me to do that, to work on whatever I’m feeling. I wrote the songs based on the way I was feeling at the time, and the process of making the album, of finishing the album, is what was cathartic to me. It wasn’t any specific material, or any specific songs, that were written to put myself in a particular mood. That’s just the way it works out for me when I’m recording.
AVC: You’re in a business where a lot of people get successful in their early 20s, or even their teens, but you were a bit older when you first became a success. Did that give you a different perspective at all?
MG: I don’t think so. I wish it had. I wish I could say that I went into this knowing a lot more than the kids who get into it know now. But the fact is, you go into music only knowing what you know, and you learn it all, the good and the bad, as you go along. I might have been a little older when I got into it, but I was certainly no wiser. That’s something that can only come with experience.
AVC: Now that you’ve been recording for more than 10 years, how has the music business changed for you, both artistically and in terms of the way you do business?
MG: The business end of it, at least in terms of money—it hasn’t changed that much for me. The record companies still do business the way they do business. We’ve all obviously had to cope with a lot of huge changes in technology. In terms of the day-to-day aspects of the business, that’s been the thing that’s changed the most for me. You have to deal with these new technologies and learn how to use them, because they’re not going away. Artistically, I think the main difference is that the labels have become really averse to taking risks. Business is shaky for them, so they don’t want to take a chance on anything that’s unusual, anything that might not take off right away, and that’s leading to a situation where you have all these teenage singers who are eager to please, and the labels put them out there with the same old material because people have bought it in the past, and they all start to sound the same. There’s nothing distinctive coming out now. There’s no new Bruce Springsteen out there. There’s no new Lenny Kravitz out there. Nobody’s going to want to chance it with someone who sounds unique, so they just keep putting out the same stuff.
AVC: What’s been the biggest challenge for you in your career?
MG: To be honest, it’s been putting out this album. You get to a certain point, if expectations are high for you and you don’t do as well as people expect you to, that everybody stops returning your calls. They act like there’s something wrong with you, like you went back to your day job. And when you’re trying to put something together that you really feel, when you’re trying to do the best work you can, you need to have the best people you can get along with you. You can’t just believe in your work. You have to convince other people to believe in it too. And that’s a real challenge.
AVC: What was the most important lesson you learned in the process of recording The Sellout?
MG: You have to do your best on everything you put your mind to, and you have to take advantage of your situation. A lot of people are never going to have the opportunity I have, to get their art out in front of so many people, to have so many people pay attention to what they’re doing. If you have that opportunity, you can’t waste it on doing what you think people expect from you, or what someone tells you they think people will like. You have to do what’s artistically important to you, to do what moves you and has the most passion and meaning to you. Because you might not get that chance again.
AVC: Have your kids expressed any interest in following you into show business?
MG: They’re all still pretty young, so there’s plenty of time for them to decide what they want to do. My youngest son, though, he doesn’t do anything but make beats all day sometimes, so I’m sure he’s going to want to do something with that eventually.
AVC: What advice would you give him if he decides to do it?
MG: I’d just tell him, whatever it is you do, learn to do it as best you can. Work on your craft, get really good at what you do, because that’s what people are going to remember. They’re going to want you for what you can deliver, not your intentions. Being good at what you do, whether it’s singing or producing or playing an instrument, is the one quality that is indispensable. You can learn everything else, but you can’t fake skills.