For Macy Gray, the Grammy Award–winning musician best known for her simple, emotive hit “I Try,” performing the song that catalyzed her fame never gets old.
“It’s a groovy song,” she told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. “I’ve had people say, ‘It was my wedding song,’ and ‘That’s the song I played for my boyfriend when I was gonna leave him.’ I think it just means different things to different people.
“When I wrote it [...] it was just my way of saying what I wanted to say. I’m surprised it lasted this long, and that people gravitated to it they way they did. I had no idea it would be so popular. Then and even now, I’m still surprised when I go to shows and everybody knows the words.”
Gray sings with measured emotion, in a style that seems at times practiced, at other points completely off-the-cuff. “My smiles are just a front. Just a front,” she croons along with the music, before interjecting, “Hey!”
Her approach to singing blends the styles of a number of artists who inspire her; when she was young, she admired Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson. But in the early days of MTV, she gravitated towards the rock hits that dominated the channel; David Lee Roth and Kurt Cobain were among her favorites.
Then and even now, I’m still surprised when I go to shows and everybody knows the words. Macy Gray
“I kind of learned how to scream from him,” Gray said. “And then I learned a lot from rappers. Especially Biggie, because he has that rhythm. He kind of invented rhythm in the voice. From him I learned the importance of singing on a beat. You know what I mean? Instead of wailing all the time, hitting the beat.”
For all that she’s borrowed and remixed, Gray has added her own voice to the chorus of pop music, with her singing style that’s at once raspy and bubbly. The sound is a singularity, but Gray wasn’t always confident in how she came across ― both singing and speaking.
“I used to be really shy about my voice, really quiet, because it was peculiar,” Gray said. “Kids used to make fun of my voice. And I still get imitated all the time. But until I realized it was my blessing, I was super quiet. I still kind of think twice before I speak up sometimes, because I got so used to being quiet. Of course, all that changed. But I do catch myself sometimes, especially when there’s a lot of people around. I have to think before I can speak.”
Thankfully, she’s overcome her reticence. In fact, Gray’s newest album, “Stripped,” is about as impromptu as it gets; it was recorded over the course of two days in a church in Brooklyn. It’s a departure from what we know her for ― a full-on jazz album, featuring a buoyant, snappy recording of “I Try.”
“It wasn’t a lot of orchestration, it was more like, that’s cool, let’s do it,” Gray said, adding that she hopes jazz will make a comeback on Top-40 charts.
“It’s such a freestyle, do-whatever-you-want kind of thing, and I can’t imagine people wouldn’t want to incorporate that in what they do,” she said.