The voice of Macy Gray is a wondrous thing. It can be as intimate as the wee small hours or as exciting as a packed nightclub: disarmingly sweet on one song, harsh and raspy on another.
The obvious comparison is to the post-war Billie Holiday, but there are traces of other singers both legendary and little-known: Abbey Lincoln, Betty Davis, Nina Simone, Karen Dalton, Tina Turner. Yet in the end, Macy Gray sounds like no one but herself - within eight bars of any given song on her Epic debut album, 'On How Life Is', the voice is unmistakable. Over the course of ten tracks, Macy creates a musical melange of old-school soul, hip-hop, R&B, funk, and rock. She seems to shrug off format, genre, and market.
Macy Gray's music grew out of countless jams and listening sessions in living rooms, studios, rehearsal spaces. Eventually, Macy created her own after-hours hang, which she called 'The We Ours'. This Hollywood coffee shop became an extension of the singer's circle of friends new and old, and a place to polish her live show. "I started it because we would get out of the studio real late and there would be nowhere to go," Macy begins. "Word spread and it grew. People like The Roots and Tricky came just to hang out, but it wasn't like a superstar thing. It's more like a ghetto superstar hang-out, people who are big locally. We used to play there every week, but because the place was so small - only 100 people - we stripped down our 12-piece band to a four-piece, with new arrangements."
"I was fortunate in that I was open to everything. I just developed a real appreciation for all kinds of music just by being exposed to it."
The unique blend of straight-up soul and modern hip-hop which characterised her first album is a product of Macy's own upbringing. Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, she grew up on her parents' record collection: Sly Stone and James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder ("I just loved Stevie Wonder"), Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. Her junior high years brought the first wave of hip-hop. Then, during two years at a nearly all-white boarding school, Macy acquired a taste for rock: "because that's all they listened to, and I didn't have my own radio. I was fortunate in that I was open to everything. I just developed a real appreciation for all kinds of music just by being exposed to it."
Macy loved music and had seven years of classical piano training, yet it was years before she ever sang a note in public. In fact, she barely spoke. "When I was little, I had this real funny voice. Every time I talked, the kids would make fun of me - so I stopped talking. Everybody thought I was shy, but really I was self-conscious of my voice. It never occurred to me that I could sing."
Macy moved to Los Angeles to enrol in the screenwriting program of the USC Film School. Eventually she hooked up with a few musician friends, who asked her to help them write lyrics. When it came time to record one of the tunes for which she'd penned the words, the singer didn't show – and Macy was asked to fill in. When the tape began to circulate, it was Macy's voice that prompted calls. The leader of a jazz band playing the L.A. hotel circuit asked her to join. "I thought he was out of his mind, but I did it because I thought it was good money," she admits. "Sing old jazz standards and Sinatra songs for an hour for a hundred bucks!"
Macy Gray was signed to Epic Records in April 1998 and, in June of that year, began recording 'On How Life Is' with producer Andrew Slater at several Hollywood studios.
Her six subsequent albums haven't achieved the same commercial success of her debut, but Macy Gray has developed a loyal fan base and remains one of the most interesting women in pop.
Gray was married to Tracy Hinds from 1996 to 1997. The couple had three children: Aanisah (in January 1995), Tahmel (in December 1995), and Cassius (also known as Happy, in 1997).