Ahead of her Dubai gig, things are still black and white with Macy Gray
Macy Gray is honest. Brutally honest.
“It’s in my living room – I used to hide it because I thought someone would take it,” she said flatly of her 2001 Grammy Award.
Before I had time to decipher whether she was joking or not the distinctive gravel tones unapologetically justify the statement. “I have pretty crazy people in my life,” she adds, this time with a gruff chuckle. “But now it’s back in my living room, right out front. I put it really high up in a cabinet. When I’m watching TV I can see it.”
In a world where we’ve all been robotically-trained to think before we speak, a conversation with Gray makes for a mighty refreshing change.
She speaks when she has something to say and words fall from her mouth without much thought or pre-processing.
In the space of just five minutes we’ve covered her “not very good” acceptance speech, the people she “p***** off” in the process and the disappointment of not getting a love scene with either Matthew McConaughey or Zac Efron in her latest movie The Paperboy.
The triple-platinum-selling singer is notorious for her rudeness in interviews and having already experienced her monosyllabic answers — apart from when talking about the world’s roller-coasters which strangely unearthed a passion — I was less-than hopeful this time, 12 months on.
To begin with the signs are not good. She doesn’t care for small talk and words slur into one another. A tense silence is then broken only by a more favourable question. Turns out if the question is the right one your prize is Gray, open and honest.
Aware not every sentence made complete sense — I considered her well-being, something I also remember doing this time last year.
The topic of Stevie Wonder was cause for excitement. Having recently releasedTalking Book — a re-worked version of his 1972 classic album in its 40th anniversary year — Gray was unstoppable.
“It was like a decision to do something else,” she said. “Talking Book is one of the best records ever made to me. The best I’ve ever heard. And I knew it inside out already. I felt like it is Stevie Wonder,” pausing briefly. “But I thought I could break it because I got it so bad. I was recording and working five days straight.”
She wasn’t done. “I flipped the songs because you don’t wanna do the same because otherwise it’s just like karaoke you know?” her voice clearer. Words more eloquent. “So all the songs I kinda re-imagined but they are still his songs. We still kept the melody and the core meaning of the songs — that’s still there — but it’s definitely a different take on those songs. It’s the closest I could get to making them my own but still staying true to these classic records.”
Gray’s Talking Book is billed as a “love letter” to Stevie Wonder’s classic album and the man himself agreed.
“Finally, I talked to him about two weeks ago on the phone and he said he was really flattered,” she said.
Wonder said he was “honoured” to have been paid such a tribute by someone he also shared mutual respect for, according to Gray.
“He was just really like ‘wow, wow, wow’ and he was surprised more than anything. I’m a massive, huge Stevie Wonder fan. It’s actually so weird to talk to him on the phone coz you know, it’s Stevie Wonder? It’s weird to dial his number and talk to him for like an hour. I’m kinda a bit of a groupie.”
Gray crashed on to the music scene in 1999 with her monster hit, I Try. The song was on repeat on most international radio stations and her debut album, On How Life Is, went to No 1 all over the world.
The 31-year-old single mother-of-three from Canton, Ohio, ended up taking home a Grammy Award for Best Female, seeing off competition from the chart-topping pop princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
The Grammy she cherishes. Memories of the awards night she doesn’t.
“You kinda have this huge knot in your stomach because you wanna win but if you do you also know you have to go on stage and say something,” she said.
Where others play down both their desire and deserving to win, Gray again tells how it is.
“I’m not real confident speaking in public,” the American country accent slipping through. “I was just really nervous. I wanted to win so bad. I got up there and I forget what I said. No – my acceptance speech wasn’t very good. A lot of people were annoyed with me because I forgot to thank them. But that’s just life. But I deserved it, she said. “All these people tell you that you’re good enough to be nominated so you have to believe it. Modesty’s cute sometimes but you have to know you deserve it.”
Gray was born Natalie McIntyre and as a child was mercilessly teased and barely spoke because, she said, “every time I opened my mouth someone would ask why I was putting on such a stupid voice”.
A fall from her bike, aged six, left her lying beneath the mailbox of Macy Gray, which would later become her stage name.
The 6-ft (1.83 meters) tall singer has dabbled in music, film and television, finishing third in a reality show, which took her back to her poker-playing roots and all in the name of charity.
“So I had someone show me around the game but I loved playing cards anyway,” she said. “I’m from Ohio — it’s very flat with lots of farms. It’s basic life. No superstars roaming around. No Porsches. Everyone there is really good card players. It has a stigma where everyone thinks if you play then you’re a degenerate but it’s actually lots of fun.
Gray, now 45, cites second album The Id, another No 1 album in Britain that sold more than a million copies, as her favourite.
But it’s here where things took a turn for the worst. Gray was booed off stage in Canton for forgetting the words to the Star-Spangled Banner, her third offering The Trouble with Being Myself bombed and by her own admission she was “doing a lot of indulging in excess of everything” which started to catch up..
Non-stop partying didn’t just affect her dedication to music, but also began to alienate her fans, now slurring her way through distracted performances or just cancelling concerts altogether.
The woman who once had the likes of Carlos Santana, Outkast and Justin Timberlake queuing to work with her turned things around and set out on her own to produce The Selloute — an album she describes as “a love letter to my fans”.
Suddenly she was modelling for Calvin Klein and appearing in Hollywood blockbusters.
The Paperboy stars a stellar cast including Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman to name a few. Set in the 1960s the film is a drama-fuelled murder mystery.
“There’s lots of sex and boy violence,” says Gray. “Sex [for me] – no. Violence [for me] – no. I’m one of the good guys unfortunately. What an absolute disappointment that there was no love scene considering the cast,” she laughed. “But I’d love to go to the Golden Globes and have a great night. The glamour of it. All the beautiful men of the world in one place at the same time.”
In 2007 Gray attempted a new identity announcing plans to change her name to Nemesis Jaxson. It failed but Gray’s determination is ever present .
“This is Jaxson,” comes the signature rasp as I begin this interview. She pauses adding “Nemesis Jaxson” down the secure hotel line.
Quiet honesty but with great determination.