Macy Gray: The soul survivor who refuses to compromise

Macy Gray tells Elisa Bray how female artists over 40 have to persevere, so much so that when a fifth album was rejected, she kept her nerve and released it herself
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The Independent Culture

Loitering in the lobby of one of London's premier hotels, it's hard to know what to expect from a meeting with singer Macy Gray.

She is, of course, customarily late – and unapologetic – when she emerges from her room, having been up until the early hours DJ-ing at the exclusive nightclub Mahiki, one of her favourite London spots. With her shades on, you can't tell if she's looking at you at all when in conversation. I'll hazard a guess that she's not.

But the first thing that strikes you is that voice. It sounds just like her singing, though higher than expected, a raspy voice that sounds like no one else's and saw her storm into the charts 11 years ago with the hit "I Try". It won her a Grammy, beating the likes of Christina Aguilera, and became the soundtrack to a Hollywood movie. Her follow-up album, The Id, was another No 1 success but, since, things have never reached that initial peak – not even with her new optimistically-titled album The Sellout.

Recently Gray wrote an article for American website The Huffington Post on how women artists have no hope for success in the music industry when they reach their forties. In it she quotes the powerful record-label executive who rejected her fifth album: "I don't know how to get a 40-year-old woman on the radio. If she was 20, 25. This record would be incredible", before Gray ruminates on the music industry's bias, asking: "And who would fault her [the executive]? Everybody knows that a 40-year-old female recording artist is 'geriatric'. While a 46-year-old president is the 'new kid on the block,' a singer over 30 is just a few songs away from the nursing home of music."

Gray, born Natalie McIntyre, is now 42 – and on her fifth release. So how did she manage to stay in the business? "There's this idea that only teenagers buy records and watch videos, so I think the industry is just becoming really accustomed to catering to younger audience and therefore older artists have a really tough time," she says. "But, you know, I really believe in perseverance and I think that if you stick with it your audience will find you and you can keep going. It's something I have to be really tenacious about and want really bad. And I really think if you're a musician and as long as you don't quit I think you'll always find somewhere to show your art."

It's not bad advice from someone who herself had to rap at the doors of the hip producers she hoped would work on her fifth album, only for them to not call her back. Having sold 15 million albums and worked with such huge names as Santana and Justin Timberlake, it must have been tough and unexpected. But she wasn't going to accept defeat.

"I just went with the ones who called me back. It's nothing, it's alright. You know, rejections are really popular in the world and the secret is you just go to the next door – you know, like those people who sell vacuums door-to-door. You've just got to keep going and eventually someone says 'yes'."

Having left her label after the last record, Big, which fared worse commercially in the UK than the previous albums (she blames it on there being too many "cooks in the kitchen"), Gray set out to make The Sellout on her own, financing it herself. It meant that she was free from any record-label intervention, and even the relative lack of superstars involved on the album (Bobby Brown and Velvet Revolver are the two star guests here), is to her advantage, allowing her to return to what she does best, reflected in the smooth R&B of the catchy "Lately", and build on her sound with the boogie stomp of "Kissed It".

"[Big] is probably more affected by other people than any of my other albums and I didn't feel it was totally mine. Usually when you have a label they get really hands-on with your album. You play your record and they say 'we like it, but you need it to be a little more like this'. So you get in this rut of trying to please your label which definitely affects your creative process and the honesty of it. [On The Sellout] I made all the decisions as far as what record was going to make the album and how it was going to ultimately sound, and I said what I wanted to say – what ever it is to everybody else it's very pure, honest and really natural."

For someone who has lots of advice to give, what useful advice has she taken along the way? "My dad gave me the best advice. The first time he came and saw me at a concert he goes, 'sometimes just let the music play, you don't have to sing over every bit of it'. A lot of singers over-sing, they fill up every space and just from him saying that I learned to give things space. And it makes all the difference in the world, especially live." As for advice from others in the music industry, and older singers before her: "Not good advice", she dismisses. "People say stuff. But not that I can, or would, use. Nah." After all, when she did take advice to compete in Dancing with the Stars she was the first female celebrity to be knocked out of the 2009 series.

She feels there is enough advice out there pushed on people whether they like it or not. It's the subject of her new single, "The Sellout". "Every other book is about how you can change yourself and make yourself thinner or make yourself smarter and when you constantly think about changing you can lose sight of what you have and who you are. At some point you have to take what you've got and make the best of that. I just think there's way too much pressure on us to be other than what we are. But it definitely took me a long time to figure that out, that's for sure."

Towering at 6ft, even higher with her trademark hairstyle, Gray was always going to stand out from the crowd. It's why she has her clothes custom made by a designer, although she admits that it is also because of her obscure taste in fashion. "It's actually pretty practical. I am tall and I don't wear size six and I live in LA so a lot of stuff I can't find – there's a lot of stuff that they don't make in my size. It's weird because in America the average size is 14, but the most common size clothing they make is a size eight."

When her UK tour to promote The Sellout is finished, Gray will return home to LA where she is mother to three teenagers. But, for now, she is here to give something back to her fans, many of whom have stayed with her since that first album.

"I want to make music that makes people feel good. It's for the fans and people like me that are grown up and have kids and have issues with love and their career and I just want to make records that they can relate to and that can help them through things.

"I know I'm going to make records for the rest of my life and some of my records a lot of people are going to like and some nobody's going to like. And that's great."

'The Sellout' is out now. The single of the same name is out on 30 August