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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
In the closing tenth track of her newest album, “The Way,” our Grammy-Award winning guest sings “Life is Beautiful,” and it’s true no one grooves listeners like the artist who graces us today.
The “I Try” sensation, Macy Gray is an Old Soul dawned anew. R&B legend, Billie Holliday disciple, single mother of three, she is Queen of the Rasp…a bitingly honest vocalist unafraid to reveal our sexual and intoxicated realities.
As an actress, too, Gray’s portrayal of a drug-dealer’s wife victimized by urban crime and police corruption in the Oscar-winning Training Day was compelling.
The Wall Street Journal praises Gray’s “ ‘The Way’ as new music and a social statement by an artist of considerable talent and admirable vision.” Mature, modern and ever resonant, her work transcends and combines genres of jazz, soul and funk.
Let me first thank this soulful star for joining us today…and now pose a question. In the album’s penultimate track, she sings: “Where’s the life, where’s the love you promised…I’ve been waiting for a long time, for the world to change, to get it right.”
Macy Gray, how is your music – that distinctive rasp –changing the world?
GRAY: (Laugh) I hope, I hope I have some kind of impact on the world. You know that’s what everybody wants while they’re here, you know. But I think, I think music is as … really what it does is … it’s good for the soul, you know, it gives you a, a break from whatever you’re going through in life. You know … when you hear a song … whatever is going on in your life … when you’re favorite song comes on … for, for three minutes you get to forget, you know, all you worries and, and I think, I think that’s music’s like most important place in the world. You know you give people like at least a few minutes of joy. You know. Or if you go see a movie that you like you get an hour and a half … you know what I mean.
HEFFNER: Well, you give us joy.
GRAY: Thank you. But, that that’s probably what I do best, you know.
HEFFNER: As a performer …
HEFFNER: … how have you evolved?
GRAY: Oh, crazy ways, you know. I’ve grown up as a person finally and … but music is incredibly important to me, so I’m always working on it. I always want to be better and work, still work on my voice a lot. And, and my show and … you know, you learn about the business the longer that you’re in it, even when you don’t want to, that happens.
So, it’s been a while since I started out, so hopefully, I’ve, I’ve come a long way, you know, that’s what I’m hoping. But like from the inside looking out I don’t … I couldn’t … I don’t really know exactly how far I’ve come … but …
HEFFNER: Well, introspectively, what is the rasp to you? I mean people think of Macy Gray … they think of that distinctive rasp … what is that?
GRAY: That’s just my voice … that’s not … nothing to do with that.
HEFFNER: You were born with that.
GRAY: … yeah. (Laugh)
HEFFNER: But, what’s there’s an idea behind that … I mean it, it connects to people as a healer … it has a healing effect.
GRAY: Yeah, I hope so. I hope, I hope my voice is a … is soothing. You know I listen to certain singers and, and, and just hearing their voice, you know, makes me feel better.
Like a … like when you hear Sting’s voice … you know, it’s so sweet … and you just kind of want to lay in it … so I hope I do that, you know. At least every once in a while.
HEFFNER: And is there any particular contribution you see “The Way” making? Have you tried to do things in this newest album that you haven’t done before?
GRAY: Yeah, I think mostly “The Way” is just … it just offers a perspective and a, a level of music that, that a lot of artists may not be able to offer at this point in their careers, maybe because they haven’t been around as long as I have.
Or maybe because that’s not what they want to do, or maybe that’s not their purpose, you know. But, ahhh ..
HEFFNER: What, what do you mean?
GRAY: … but it’s definitely … just that … it’s a record for grown ups. It’s a record for … especially lyrically … for people who’ve, ah, you know, grown up a little bit and know a little bit more about life and, and a little bit further along, you know, as far as what they want to do and, and where they’ve been and stuff like that. Lyrically. Musically I think it’s, it’s for everyone. You know. Everyone could dance the hands off? Or … I mean it’s really sophisticated musically. You know, there’s lots of life … really great orchestrations and arrangements and sonically it’s awesome, so … I think whether you’re 2 or 92 you can always … you know, you always know good music when you hear it.
HEFFNER: Well, it’s a universal language, right … you don’t …
GRAY: Absolutely, yeah.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you … in terms of your music, one of the things that’s most characteristic of it …
HEFFNER: … is, is just pure honesty. When you were talking about incarceration and, and intoxication
HEFFNER: … and, and these things that exist in society well before gay marriage was accepted. Well before …
HEFFNER: … we understood the realities of our criminal justice system …
HEFFNER: … have we progressed as a society since you started talking about drugs, drug abuse, some of these issues in your music.
GRAY: Ahemm, I think, I think as far as on the topic of drugs … that’s just something … that just a necessary evil that, that’s down to medicine. I mean Tylenol is a drug you know what I mean. So when people do things that, you know, the government considers illegal, and a lot of times that’s, that’s for them to feel better in a certain way. And that’s, you know, that’s their own personal desire or need at that moment. That maybe no one else can understand. You know what I mean?
GRAY: So I don’t, I don’t want to judge people who get attached to oblivion ’cause it’s, it’s … sometimes … you know, it’s what you need.
I’m not saying go out and do a bunch of drugs, you know. But … Ahemm …
HEFFNER: But we’re more open about it than we were … in a, in a …
GRAY: Because you have to be, it’s, it’s just such a part of society. I mean like even just the pharmaceutical business that’s like the biggest business that we have. It’s bigger than technology, I think. So that’s just … that’s just a part of being human. We have all kind of flaws all kinds of things about us that go wrong … things in life that go wrong that are out of our control and, and sometimes, you know, just … you … your natural, you know, anatomy can’t, can’t handle it and it’s not always your fault.
HEFFNER: There definitely are artists who say that it assists in the creative production.
HEFFNER: Is that true?
GRAY: Honestly, it does (laughter) …
HEFFNER: It does?
GRAY: Unfortunately, there have been some really awesome songs written on … people who were on a lot of drugs. And that’s just a fact of life. Now does it … is it … you know is that something you need to do to go create? No, it’s not. It …
HEFFNER: But it’s not specific to musicians, too? Writers …
GRAY: Well, you, you just can’t deny that there’s a lot … a lot of like your legends, you know, were known … you know habitual drug users and they did really incredible things. And you just can’t, you can’t get around that. Did they do it because of the drugs … we’ll never know, you know. But, but there’s been some pretty awesome art, music, movies, acting, broadcasting (laugh) done while people were under the influence, you know, and, and … it’s just what it is … it’s just … it’s really a part of, of life and its global, it’s not just the States, it’s, it’s … I think it’s just part of being human, you know. And if you feel like you need something to boost you whatever … it’s like people drink coffee so they can wake up.
Sometimes you think, if I go do this, I’ll write a better song and hallelujah, it happens, you know. So that’s just … it might be mental, but, but it’s just, it’s just the truth. You know.
HEFFNER: As long as we’re safe …
HEFFNER: … concerned about our own welfare … what’s the disadvantage?
GRAY: Well, the disadvantage is your health. It does horrible things for your health. I mean even coffee’s not good for you.
GRAY: (Laugh) Tylenol is not good for you, but it’s, it’s … it fixes other things. You know like those funny commercials when they say, “Take this for your sore foot, you know. After effects, suicidal thoughts, you know, lip chapping … I mean it’s like, it’s hilarious but it’s just what it is, you can’t … sometimes you can fix one thing, but it ruins the other and vice versa.
HEFFNER: You live in LA, right.
HEFFNER: What is LA like today?
GRAY: LA is an awesome, awesome city, I’ve been around the world and that is one of the best cities I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful … it has … you can get anything in LA at any hour. It’s full of all kind of personality and some of the best food and doctors in the world live in LA. That’s it, that’s just a great place.
HEFFNER: Is it still a tale of two cities, though? Because I think, reflectively, on your performance in “Training Day”.
HEFFNER: And I wonder if that film still epitomizes that other side, that underworld?
GRAY: Oh, of course. That, that will always be. I mean LA is legendary for, you know, all kinds of crimes and, ah, but you know I’m pretty sure that’s part of every city. You know, there’s, there’s always going to be that, that side of it.
I mean LA’s just full of culture and all kinds of people from all kinds of walks of life. Because a lot of people migrate there, you know, because they want to do certain things in life. And see, you get all kinds of people from all over the world and then you have, you know, we’re right on the coast, so there’s all kinds of people that like come in via … I mean into the country via Los Angeles, you know. So it’s just … it’s a awesome, awesome place, I could never say anything bad about LA.
HEFFNER: And musically?
HEFFNER: How do you conceive of your, of your lyrics? What’s your creative process?
GRAY: Just inspiration, you know. I can write at any time, like I can write you a song right now, but just … it would just be a matter of whether it was exciting or interesting or not, or whether I really had something to say that would last, you know. But I can, I can write anytime. I can write in my sleep.
HEFFNER: Someone said recently on this program … Richard Blanco, the Inaugural Poet … the first ever gay Poet to speak at President Obama’s Second Inauguration that “art will never meet the promise of sort of the ideal of our politics, that we’re striving for …” Do you agree with that? There is something that is intangible and fleeting about art, unfortunately, that’s not going to transcend into how we live. Is … can it be more than momentary? Because that joy that you define …
HEFFNER: … people experiencing, listening to music …
HEFFNER: … loving your music …
GRAY: I don’t know if it changes politics, I don’t if if a song is going to decide whether, you know, we go to war again. But if it … definitely … on an individual level it inspires people, you know, to be better or, or to have that moment of joy and that kind of a … that affects the choices that you make. So I think, I think music is integral in, in politics. You know any kind of entertainment, I think that, that’s what it’s for. So, you know I, I just think that, that it definitely has something to do with politics. It doesn’t, you know, if I sing you song … you’re not, you many not go vote differently. But the fact that I sang you this song, you might feel differently about, about certain issues, you know, all of a sudden. I mean that’s just … that’s how I think of it.
HEFFNER: And what issues? What issues are important to Macy Gray?
GRAY: In politics?
HEFFNER: In life. (Laugh)
GRAY: Oh, in life.
HEFFNER: Politics. In life.
GRAY: I’m really big on freedom. I think freedom is the most important thing someone can have and, and it’s the most important gift. And anyone who doesn’t have that is the most unfortunate person to me. People who live in countries where they’re not free or anybody who’s incarcerated … that’s, that’s awful to, to just not be able to do or say or, or express yourself the way that, that your mind is telling you to or your heart, you know. That, that to me is the worst thing that can happen to someone.
HEFFNER: And when you speak with your contemporaries. Obviously you transcend generations now and your music does as well …
GRAY: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Do they … do they … do they feel that? Do they feel that same direction towards freedom. They want their music to lead in that direction?
GRAY: Most, most artists are, are, are very conscious you know. I think we kind of get a bad rap when it comes to politics. People don’t take artists seriously. But, they forget that, tat we’re just humans and we have strong opinions and, and things that we care deeply about just like everyone else. And, and, you know the fact that we have some kind of celebrity or popularity might, might help things or impact things. And some people choose to use that, but it’s not just that you’re an artist that will you, you know, not feel things aren’t important or, or have opinion or things that you’re really passionate about comes out of music.
HEFFNER: MmmHmm. You have teenage children?
HEFFNER: And have they listened to your albums?
GRAY: Oh, yeah, they’ve heard all my albums. They’re in the studio when we record them. (Laugh)
HEFFNER: What’s … how old is the oldest?.
GRAY: My oldest is 19 and she actually, she goes to Pratt University. She’s home at the moment. And then my 18 year old son, he goes to MI and then I have a 17 year old graduating in June. In high school.
HEFFNER: And what inspiration do they carry from the great tradition of soulful vocal cords.
GRAY: (Laugh) I don’t know, they’re teenagers, I, I couldn’t, they’re so hard to figure out …
GRAY: …I don’t know they’re thinking …
GRAY: I mean if you’d asked me that 10 years ago, I could say, “She does this and he thinks that”, but now, you know, it’s a whole different world to me, when they, when they turn 13.
HEFFNER: Well, your music really encapsulates the, the whole body of human emotion and experience …
HEFFNER: … romance, sex … anyone in a relationship knows Macy Gray …
GRAY: Well, I love really hard so my, my relationships are genuinely, usually difficult. Not, not by design, you know I don’t mean to make them that way. But I find that every relationship I have is a little complicated. And that’s even the ones that aren’t romantic, you know.
So I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but, but that’s what I sing about and I think that your average person probably is a bit complicated, because we all come from, you know, all kinds of things you know. As, as a parent, I’m learning that … like even the little things that you don’t realize that you do affects your children, you know, like crazy, you know what I mean. So we all come from parents, like imperfect people, so we all bring all this chaos to our relationships and, and me being an artist, that’s, that’s what I talk about because I’m the same way.
HEFFNER: What are the greatest commonalities though. I mean so people from all walks of life, all creeds, all colors can appreciate your art because it seems that they do.
GRAY: Jezz, that I, I just think I talk about things that, that we all have in common and, and that’s it really. It’s just really simple. It’s just. It’s just … you know my hero is Bob Marley and he’s Bob Marley because he just was so … everything he said was global. Like it was, you know, everybody could … relate to what he was talking about. He didn’t say anything like … I don’t think he ever cursed on a record … nothing. Not even think he talked about marijuana that much. But I don’t think he ever did, actually, but he just, he just always had things, great things to say that we could all sit and talk about. Because we … we knew what he was talking about. You know what I mean, and really that’s the art of reaching a lot of people. Michael Jackson did the same thing. Frank Sinatra … you know.
HEFFNER: Mmmm … no, it’s … is it frustrating at all when you see artists who don’t have the same caliber of … both intelligence and artistic integrity, who, who are just throwing out the explicatives. I mean does that annoy you?
GRAY: Well …
HEFFNER: I mean as a, as a radio listener, I think American’s by and large …
HEFFNER: … can weed out …
HEFFNER: … who are making real contributions and who aren’t.
GRAY: Right. No, I, I think that’s the whole point of being an artist … is so you can say whatever you want to say. But you can … if you feel like cursing and that’s your excuse you had an …
HEFFNER: And maybe a higher standard though if you don’t curse because you’re not going to get people’ attention. People have … no?
GRAY: I don’t know if I buy that. I know some pretty awesome artists who, who curse constantly …
GRAY: … it’s just a, it’s just lot of what you want to say ands how you want to say that. It’s really up to you, you know
HEFFNER: In the Wall Street Journal Review of “The Way” the writer says, “Ms. Gray has an adult perspective on sex, a refreshing change from from the salacioius boasting found in pop songs, targeting the young. In “I miss the sex” her man has left her for another woman.
HEFFNER: Talk about that.
GRAY: The song?
HEFFNER: Talk about the song and talk about sex is not something that’s stigmatized in your music.
GRAY: No, it’s … “I Miss the Sex” is specifically about when you, when you break from someone and then you might not have the mental or the, the heart in it anymore, but your physical is still attached to how that person made you feel, you know. So that’s just … that’s just a song just about like, what it says, … I miss the sex, you know. I don’t miss you, but I really miss … you know … your booty.
HEFFNER: (Laugh) I’m sure they’re laughing in the control room.
HEFFNER: But, let me, let me …
HEFFNER: … dig a little deeper on that because when you first were publishing albums, producing albums … was there any direction that was given to you … “don’t talk about this, don’t talk about that.”? Did, did you get those or was it just … I asked Aloe Black recently the same question on the show. Was there just an open opportunity to say really what you wanted.
GRAY: Yeah, I mean that, that’s actually never come to me. Actually, no it has. I’ve, I’ve had stress to like do things that are more commercial and, and like make more dance records and stuff like that. But no one’s every told me what to talk about.
HEFFNER: What do you think the commercial interest is?
GRAY: That’s just labels. You know, how, you know owning a business and needing that artist … to, to do things that, that … that make money … that’s …
HEFFNER: That’s why I found this Journal article intriguing because it really demonstrated the importance of breaking through to a mature audience, with mature concepts for your music.
HEFFNER: And how are you finding that to resonate so far …
GRAY: I think I think people who get, are, are latching one. It’s been, it’s been a, it’s going to be a climb and it’s going to be a mountain that, that I’m prepared for, but … because it’s not popular at the moment, but I’m all about, you know, doing what I want to do and doing things that, that everybody’s not doing. I think that’s important. It’s important to me, any way and some … I’m up for that fight, but I think, I think it needs to be had. I just think so many people in the world who are neglected musically. Most of my friends listen to old, you know, like all of these ratio stations and, you know they’ll buy an album here and there, but most of the stuff … like the stuff my kids listen to, I’m cool to listen to, but I’m not going to buy it, you know what I’m saying? And that kind of speaks to the lack of record sales in our business … the lack of like how, how we’ve taken such a huge downslope in like, you know, selling records and, and I think the biggest reason is that they, they kind of ostracize … “they” meaning like radio stations, labels, they ostracize anybody over 17, really, it’s awful.
HEFFNER: And you think that’s injured the quality of the music?
GRAY: Oh, yeah, it, it’s … well, it obviously in everybody’s defense, there was a moment like, like everybody remembers the Recession, so and as much as they talked about how it affected the banks and the auto industry, you know I don’t think any body was hit, you know, more than, than the entertainment industry … especially music.
HEFFNER: And the arts.
GRAY: Yeah, and we didn’t get any kind of, what do you call it, …
HEFFNER: Bail out?
GRAY: No, we didn’t get a bail out. But in response to that a lot of labels, radio stations, everybody started scrambling for the easiest sale, you know, what, what could go over the quickest for the least amount of money. And that really affected the quality of music that people made, it affected the studio business, a lot of people stopped going into the studios … started making music at home and I mean, it killed us. So, so, so, so I think we’re recovering from that slowly, but it definitely set, set back the quality of music and the type of artist that get signed, set it back … way back and we’re, we’re still not back on our feet from that.
HEFFNER: And if you’re not back on your feet, or the industry is not back on its feet …
HEFFNER: … think about all the school children, who …
GRAY: Oh, I know. No, it’s … I listen to my kids and the music that they’re growing up on and it’s … not to take away from that … like you know … my kids … like Marvin Gaye is … I don’t know … songs, I guess … I don’t know … and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just a different, it’s just a different quality, you know, kind of music. You know what I mean … it’s just a different thing where … you know, you had a man who sang about “war is not the answer” and then you have a, you know, this generation’s guy sings about, you know, bending over in the club … it’s just different.
HEFFNER: (Laugh) It, it’s …
GRAY: And, and it’s what it is …
HEFFNER: So there’s a qualitative difference in terms of the social ethic behind it.
GRAY: Totally. It, it’s completely … it’s a whole new day.
HEFFNER: And maybe in part that’s because we’re not teaching the arts in enough public schools, in enough …
HEFFNER: … schools, period.
GRAY: Yeah, that’s, that’s another thing that got hit really bad, too. I don’t, I don’t know where it got translated that, that the arts weren’t as important as, as having a car. It, it’s one of the most important things in the world.
HEFFER: So, if, if Macy Gray were advising Arnie Duncan …
HEFFNER: … Education Secretary …
GRAY: Yeah …
HEFFNER: Don’t laugh … what would she say about the value of the arts? Why do we need the arts, at this moment?
GRAY: Well, just on a intellectual level … it’s been proven that kids who study the arts are less likely to go to jail …
HEFFNER: And that’s probably your experience, too …
HEFFNER: … I mean you find people who gravitate towards pursuits of artistic endeavor, who are engaged.
GRAY: It’s just like playing sports, you just engage … you have something to work for, you have something that people are telling that you’re good at. That, that’s the main thing to me … is you have kids who go to school and as, as much as school is necessary … most kids are not academically inclined … like they say the average is a C … so your average kid is not … your average kid is not an A student. So when they go to school and they can’t get an A and they take a test and they study all night and they still get a D, they go home feeling like they’re no good, they’re failures … but if they have … if they can play basketball, if they’re good at that, you know what I mean? Then they have that one thing in their life that, that they can feel good about. Or if they can play the piano, or if they can swim … anything. But you need, you need kids to have other things to fall back on. Because everybody’s not go to go to school and do well. And it’s not about how hard they work, it’s … you know, some kids just don’t … math, like algebra just doesn’t click for them. You know what I mean and just having kids … you know I have daughter who got straight A’s, I never had to tell her to study and then I have another kid who … you know, had all kinds of issues at school and it really wasn’t his fault, it was just the way his mind worked differently. Do you know what I’m saying?
HEFFNER: I know what you’re saying.
GRAY: And then you have a lot of kids who, who … you know, a lot of kids have … I mean a lot of schools have … you can’t play basketball unless you keep a 2.0. So you have kids who go home and do their homework just so they can stay on the basketball team. I mean it’s … or, or just so they can stay in marching band. You know what I mean … it’s, it’s crucial … it’s just as necessary as taking chemistry or any of that.
HEFFNER: Macy Gray …
HEFFNER: The album is “The Way” …
GRAY: Thank you.
HEFFNER: It’s soulful, beautiful, one of a kind, as always … thank you for being here.
GRAY: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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