Some people were just born interesting. Macy Gray is one of those people. Everywhere she goes and everything she does, you just know Macy will always go her own way. She makes her own decisions, she admits to her own mistakes and she is just one of the coolest as well as the quirkiest artists you could wish to see.
And of course, no one else sounds like her. That voice is just about the warmest, softest, most soulfully smoky, throaty thing you will ever hear. It’s like someone singing with a dream caught between their vocal chords. There really is nothing quite like it out there. It’s the perfect vehicle for her bitter sweet lyrics.
But it’s not just the music that makes Macy interesting. In fact, there is a whole lot more to Macy Gray than the minor matter of multiple awards, 15 million album sales and a list of TV and film credits as long as your arm. She is, unusually these days, a celebrity whose place in the public eye is based on that old fashioned quality of talent. Most of all, it’s a talent for being interesting.
It’s fair to say that Macy didn’t have it easy as an up-and-coming artist. She was 28 before she achieved any sort of success – although she has made up for that since. But for a long time she was holding down crummy jobs and living with her parents and wondering just what life might have in store for her. It’s hardly the classic rock ‘n’ roll backstory. But it is a reservoir of real-life experience that, you can’t help but feel, finds its way into her music.
Like so many others before her, Macy’s breakthrough was more of a happy accident than any sort of ambitious career choice. She only started singing in public when another singer – booked to perform on a demo of Macy’s songs – failed to show up. And she was only writing the songs in the first place to get close to a guitarist who she had a crush on. It’s weird to think that if her life had gone to plan she’d have been a script writer rather than a performer, and that music would have been something she simply listened to like the rest of us.
But Macy’s life has had a tendency not to run according to any sort of regular pattern. Getting kicked out of school, an early divorce and single-parenthood were the realizations of a string of high hopes that failed to pan out as planned.
There were a lot of low-key performances in small, hidden Los Angeles bars before her debut album (actually her second, but the first never saw the light of day) On How Life Is catapulted her almost overnight to fame and a fortune she had never even remotely dreamed of. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like to suddenly be taken from a workaday existence and almost overnight transformed into an international star. Dreams of winning the lottery barely come close.
In interviews, Macy is unbelievably frank when it comes to talking about her money. She admits to perhaps not being the most disciplined financial manager – she’s a compulsive shopper – but she is also pretty shrewd when the need arises. There is no danger of Macy Gray ending up on the street.
A regular pastime is playing cards for high stakes. She may not always win, but she is certainly nobody’s fool. She appeared in Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown and finished a highly commendable third playing the classic variation Texas Hold ’em in New Orleans with the likes of Christopher Meloni, Joy Behar, Andy Dick, and Robin Tunne, and when in Vegas she is a regular presence at the tables. Blackjack is also an enduring passion when she has the chance to play. She claims to have won as much as $28,000 in a single night’s sitting. She also admits to having lost a fair bit more over the years, but then, she can afford to.
There was a time when Macy’s fame went to her head a little. She would hardly have been human if it hadn’t. Around the time of her third album, The Trouble with Being Myself (2003) Macy’s personal life was a mess. Too much success too quickly combined with too much of everything that was fun about being a music star. Something had to give.
It took four hard years before she was back on track. But there is a sense that the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” never applied to anyone quite like it does to Macy Gray. There have been some notable low spots over the years. Getting booed offstage for forgetting the lines to the national anthem in 2001 takes some beating, and there are plenty of journalists and photographers who have labelled her ‘difficult’ at one time or another.
But it is precisely that all-too real, all-too human tendency to get things wrong but keep soldiering on that is so impressive about Macy. She doesn’t bother to airbrush her reputation or to rely on slick publicity people to promote her work. The honesty that is such an authentic hallmark of her music is maybe her key defining quality. When she screws up, she says so. Not everyone in the public eye has the self-confidence to be quite so straightforward.
More Than Music
Alongside her musical career she has garnered critical attention for her acting work. A leading role in The Paperboy (2012) alongside Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cusack and Nicole Kidman was a particular standout – even if the film itself failed to impress the critics.
She has a surprisingly long list of film and TV credits and sometimes it makes you just stop and wonder where she finds the energy. She admits that she is a long way from being an accomplished actor, but like a lot of late starters, she is not afraid to keep pushing herself to see just how good she could be. Fear of failure is certainly not part of the Macy Gray personality.
There is also the M Gray Music Academy that she founded in North Hollywood, California in 2005 to bring music education to children. Not all of Gray’s money is spent for kicks, and you certainly cannot say that Macy has lost touch with her roots. Then there’s the clothing label – Macy set up Humps in order to provide cutting edge design to women who aren’t stick thin.
She also famously owns a gold statue of herself naked (it’s the centerpiece of a fountain) and she was in the same year in school as Brian Warner, who went on to find fame – or possibly infamy – as Marilyn Manson in adult life. That must have been quite a school year!
Macy lives in LA with her sister and her three teenage kids. She is one of the surprising number of artists to have been diagnosed as bi-polar. At first reading, that can sound like a form of illness or disability, but as numerous artists, writers and musicians have proven over the centuries, it can also be channeled as a source of incredible creativity. It is a condition that tends to make people unpredictable, highly energetic and charismatic. It is also a personality type that makes gifted and talented people such as Macy Gray unfailingly watchable. Macy has never made a big deal of it, but once you know that she has that diagnosis, it makes sense of the deeply personal, confessional tone of her song-writing. In a way, it makes Macy and her music even more interesting.