[MUSIC: Interview] Macy Gray
Frank Zappa – prolific iconoclast and king of weird, multi-genre music – built his own studio, The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, for many of his recordings before his death in 1993. A small and innovative space, which housed the famous ‘echo chamber’, it is still operating to this day under the management of Zappa’s widow Gail and son Dweezil, whose dedication to authenticity has ensured much of its set-up is just the way Zappa senior left it. It was in this studio that Macy Gray, five-time Grammy Award nominee (and one time victor), recorded her latest album, Covered. The distinctive and highly respected artist is heading to Australia to promote the release, which sees her presenting 16 of her favourite songs in her own matchless way, and she’s pretty excited to be playing two of the biggest venues in the land: Sydney Opera House, and Melbourne’s newly gussied-up Hamer Hall.
“The last time I was there I think we performed on [Australian Idol], and we rocked around a few radio stations. But I didn’t do a live performance,” Gray explains over the phone. “Before that was way back, like 2003.” Since then, Gray has released four studio albums, collaborated on multiple tracks with a myriad of other big names, acted in a number of films, opened her own music academy and raised her three – now teenaged – children. Not exactly putting her feet up. On a reel of behind-the-scenes footage taken during Covered’s recording, she mentions how fabulous Zappa’s studio was to work in, and it’s this that I ask her about first.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” she says warmly, with that same slow, overstated articulation of her singing voice. “It’s just, like, a perfectly built studio. You get the sound from the studio, the wood inside; the way [Zappa] built it, it’s so perfect. You’ve got to see it, it’s pretty amazing.” Hal Willner, who produced the album, is a devotee of the way Gray prefers to record: with all musicians playing live together in the one room, as opposed to the more common method of isolation. “Well [recording live] is how they used to make records,” Gray explains, “so it’s the natural way to do it. You actually get a way better performance because you’re live, and you don’t want to be the one that messes up. It’s a way better way to record for me. It’s way more immediate.”
Gray had wanted to record an album of covers for a long time, but no label she’d been with had ever considered it a viable project. It wasn’t until she signed with 429 Records last year that her plan could be realised. “They thought it was a good idea, and I played them some of the music that we were going to record and they liked it. It’s kind of the right people, who want to do what you want to do.” What Gray wanted to do was rearrange a pretty eclectic bag of tracks, including Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’, and Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’. The instrumentation and approach to vocals and their phrasing is markedly different from each original, making these tracks true reinterpretations rather than just rehashes. ‘Wake Up’ in particular, the song which accompanied the recent film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s gorgeous story Where The Wild Things Are, is very apt for Gray; she’s always encompassed something of a childlike bearing. “Oh, I love the lyrics to that song,” she says. “What it’s about and the way [Win Butler] sings it is so awesome; it was really the lyrics of that song for me. It has that rebel yell in it. I just like it,” she concludes.
The openhearted mien extends to Gray’s behaviour; she connects with her fans in ways some musicians would never dream of. During recording for Covered she put her telephone number up on her site, so that admirers could ring up and chat. The idea came from the studio’s father himself. “I was out with Frank Zappa’s wife, and she said that he got a hotline in the studio. He’d put the phone number on his records and whenever he wasn’t busy he’d pick up the phone. And I thought that was the coolest thing, that people would just call through,” she says with real wonderment. “So I put up a Skype number. I was doing it for like two weeks straight; I would set an hour aside during the day to talk to people.” It’s almost like ChatRoulette, but less dicey… one would hope.
In addition to her upcoming tour dates, a major studio film which Gray has narrated is due to be released in October. “It’s called Paperboy,” she says. “Nicole Kidman’s in it, and John Cusack… It’s a pretty great movie!” With the cross-medium work continuing to roll forth, Gray certainly doesn’t look to be resting on her laurels any time soon – and her upcoming shows promise to be a lush affair encompassing all of the soul, humour and verve that her fans have come to love.
What: Covered is out now on 429 Records
Where: Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
When: Sunday September 16