Like so many artists with downtime during the COVID pandemic Macy Gray explored many things, from cooking to starting her own toilet paper company (which failed quickly she points out).
But being a singer/songwriter the Grammy winning Gray eventually found her way back to making music. She has a new album, the very aptly named The Reset, due at a date TBD.
The album is appropriately named because it is her first as an independent artist and her first as the official leader of a band, Macy Gray And The California Jet Club.
She has offered a few previews of the new album and the new band with the singles, the dramatic and striking “Undone” and “Thinking Of You,” vintage Gray with a torch song feel.
I spoke with Gray about the new music, the dishes she learned to cook during her break from music, the life-changing advice she got from Prince during an incredible two and a half hour meeting, meeting Oprah and Elton and more.
: Did you do a lot of work during the pandemic? I know you have the two new songs now, but were you pretty prolific during this time, or were you more enjoying the rare downtime?
Macy Gray: When it first happened, everybody said to take time off. I was like, “Oh, you mean I don’t have to go anywhere? I can’t go anywhere? That’s great news.” So that was cool, but then that got a little old. And it wasn’t like you could go on vacation ’cause everything was shut down. So yeah, I got busy, I got into things and started doing a whole bunch of stuff.
: So what was your favorite thing that you did?
Gray: For the first time in my life, I really got into cooking. I just never knew that I would like cooking ’cause I can cook, of course, but I never enjoyed it or took time to learn new things or anything like that. And then I bought a bunch of bartender books ’cause I thought, “If the world explodes, people will still drink.” So I learned how to make some drinks, and mostly domestic stuff. I started making my album, and I was working on an idea for a TV show, busy stuff. I started a toilet paper company, that bombed and flopped in about two seconds. With stuff, anything, whatever I could think of.
: What is the meal and what are the drinks you are making for your first dinner party, now that you have these new cooking and cocktail skills?
Gray: Alright, so I nailed steak. I could be a steakhouse, like my steak is better than any steak I go out and get. That, and then I got really good at spaghetti, and my daughter taught me how to make macaroni and cheese, but that’s not my best dish. And I’ve always been good with fish and stuff, ’cause fish, it’s just not rocket science. You put it on, you flip it a few times, and you have fish. But I got good at how long to cook it, and my mom taught me how to crust it and stuff like that, a little like restaurant-type stuff. But my spaghetti is out of this world, I’d kill every Italian restaurant with my spaghetti.
: So now, next important question, what are the cocktails that go with both the steak and the spaghetti?
Gray: Okay, so we did get into that. Margaritas are sweet and go with neither, but I make really good margaritas. And then spaghetti and fish and steak, that’s all wine, ’cause that stuff is so heavy, your drink has to be light as possible. Yeah, I didn’t get into what goes with what, but I make really great margaritas. My favorite liqueur is Cointreau, and I discovered that goes with everything. You can put it with a Coca-Cola, a diet cola, a coffee, a hot chocolate, delicious, and you’ll get a proper buzz. That’s my recommendation for today, Cointreau.
: What was your favorite meal growing up?
Gray: What was my mine? McDonald’s.Double cheeseburger and a large fry. That actually lasted up until my 20s, and then I fell more in love with pizza. So if you’re looking for some great gourmet health answer, I don’t have it for you. I’m a terrible eater.
: Were there one or two songs or albums or artists that were your early introduction into music?
Gray: I grew up in ’69, so I had all those big influences. When I was coming up everything was cool. You still had classic rock, you still had all the Motown going on, you had the Jacksons, even jazz was really popular. Then I got to be a kid in the ’80s, so you had the ’80’s music, you had reggae. So it was lucky to come up at that time. And then hip-hop. I was in the fifth grade when I heard my first hip-hop song, I think. Anyway, so I got access to all that. Plus my mother was taking me to piano lessons once a week, and I had to practice every night for 30 minutes. So I was really connected to all that. And my mother was a big Elvis [Presley] fan, so I knew every Elvis record. And my dad was a James Brown fanatic, so I learned how to dance like James Brown. But as far as me just choosing someone, my first big [one] was Prince. Yeah, beyond, I painted my walls purple and everything. I think I was probably 12 or 13 when I first heard Prince, but when I painted my walls purple, that was Purple Rain. So that was ’84. And then you remember MTV was the ’80s. So and then all MTV played when it first came out was heavy metal and Rod Stewart, and so I knew all those records too. For my family and the city I was born, it was just black music. But what MTV did was it introduced everybody to everything. So I know all those metal bands, all that stuff, Sade, everybody from her to, I don’t know, I remember Cinderella, all those bands. Poison, I knew all those songs. So I came up at a good time to have influences.
: Did you ever meet Prince?
Gray: Okay, so I’m playing the government in Toronto, and I look up, and I swear to you, nobody believes me, but I looked up and all of a sudden there was this light shining, like it was coming from the sky in this balcony, looked like God was coming down. And then we had a little break in the set where I step off to change clothes, and my tour manager said, “Prince is here.” He came to see my show in Toronto. And then after the show, I got on my tour bus ’cause I was actually too nervous to meet him. And he sent one of his guys out to my bus, and we went up, they gave us this private room at the club, and he talked to me for two and a half hours. I’ll never forget one thing that he told me, and I didn’t get it then, but I get it now, he said, “Just know that they’re not coming to see you, they’re coming for answers.” And I didn’t know what he was talking about it. I’m thinking like, “No, motherf**ker, they’re coming to see me.” But he was just saying, “Just know that it’s not you that they come to see.” And now, years later, I totally know what he’s talking about, and I’ve never been given better advice than that as far as my career. If I had known that back then, things would be a lot of different.
Baltin: So for you, what are the answers that they’re coming for?
Gray: People just want to feel something. They show up and you make them cry, or you make them scream, or you make them take their shirt off, or they meet the girl of their dreams, or they sweat too much and then mess up their favorite shirt, they’re coming for that moment, and they’re paying you to give it to them. But he’s right, it’s not about you. It’s about “For my $50 to come and see you, what are you gonna give me? ‘Cause I already heard your songs, what else do you got?” And they may scream for you and post and tell everybody they love you, and they dream about you, but it’s really just what moment can you give them while they’re here, and if you don’t got no moment for them, they’ll go home and listen to your records, but they’re not coming to any more shows.
: Do you remember the first shows that you saw that you had that feeling as a fan?
Gray: Yeah, my first show I ever went to was Jackson Five, and that was way back. He was still, I think, a teenager maybe, and they used to perform and then run through the aisles and let all the girls chase them. And I remember Michael running up the aisle, and my mom is the one who caught him, and she pinched his cheeks. Meanwhile she’s in her 30s, catching some little 10-year-old.
I don’t know how old he was, but I remember that very specifically, every minute of that, I remember. And then I went to see Prince a bunch of times. And I remember watching his band, and after I saw his band, when I had a real, real band, I made them do steps like he used to do. Remember the Revolution had all those little steps? And I remember going to see Lenny Kravitz. I went to see him backstage, and he said, “We rehearse six hours a day for six weeks straight. I give them Sundays off.” And so I had my band, we started rehearsing six hours a day for six weeks straight. Once you become a musician, you just want to learn stuff. Not that you’re immune to feeling things. I’m trying to think who made me actually feel something. Oh, in that same Lenny Kravitz show, his guitar player, Craig Ross, played a solo, and I cried. I’ve never cried on a guitar solo, but it was so moving, I literally sat down and cried. And then I was at a Coachella show where Tupac came down in a hologram. That was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen on stage. Because even though we knew it was a hologram, everybody just lost their s**t, in ways that I’ve never seen. And I did too, that was an amazing moment. That was probably my favorite show ever.
: Who would be your dream hologram to play with?
Gray: I’d like to talk or sit next to Nina Simone, and just pretend she’s real and just stare at her and just watch her do her thing. She was pretty awesome live. I never saw her, but just the videos and movies and stuff, she’s pretty intense.
: Was there a first show for you that you played that really blew your mind?
Gray: Yeah, the first time I headlined a huge festival was Glastonbury, in the UK. And I remember there were a lot of really crazy moments in that show. People compare it to Coachella, but it’s not like Coachella. I remember walking through the grounds, and this kid had made a pillow for himself with a stack of paper plates, and all the paper plates were like dirty. He literally walked around the field and picked up some paper plates and then made himself a pillow and just was knocked out in the middle of the field. That was the first time I had seen anything like that. And then the next day, it was pouring rain, and that was the day I was supposed to play. And so I get on stage, and it must’ve been a good 100,000 people. They knew every word to almost every song.
I was playing my first album, and they knew. I didn’t even have to do the show. And then in the middle of the show, this old couple, they had to be mid-70s, somehow they got on stage and they ran across my stage butt naked, not one thread on. And they just waved at me, and then they ran by, and the audience went crazy. That was probably the biggest teaching moment I’ve ever had, ’cause you just learn that when they’re up there, they’re all yours. So it’s really important what you do with that. So that’s why I love festivals. It’s just like where you can go, and anything goes, as long as you’re not hurting nobody. But that’s probably the best place in the world to be at a given time, is at a festival.
: Who was the last artist that you got really excited meeting?
Gray: Oprah. Oprah, I’m like a stalker. She comes in the room, and I don’t know what to do it myself. It’s very strange. I got really excited when Elton John came to my show and he took me out to dinner. That was pretty cool. But that’s stressful because you’re sitting next to Elton John, and now that he’s invited you, you want to keep your little friendship going, so it’s like pressure. And we had a ball back then. I’ve had a lot of those, but probably Oprah, that’s the last one I can remember where I just couldn’t contain myself. Oprah and Prince, for sure.
: Take me through the new record. How much stuff have you gotten done? There are the two songs out at the moment. Do you have a full album on the way?
Gray: So, the album is completely recorded, it’s not done being mixed or mastered. We put out a song called “Thinking Of You,” that’s doing well. But the catch is, it’s my first independent record, and I’ve never done this before. So we’re getting all the clunkiness together and getting it on what it rolls, like a machine. That’s been the challenge, ’cause I’ve never done this on my own, but I know in my heart I can do it. And I didn’t want to do this with a label, so that’s where that is. I know every artist has to say this, but the album is extraordinary, it’s beautiful, it’s me and my band. It’s a reinvention, it’s Macy Gray And The California Jet Club. So it’s me and my band that I’ve been touring with for the past few years, and we made it official and we went in and we made an album and it’s all live, and it’s really, really great, it’s way bigger than what I imagined. And it’s not just another record by Macy Gray, it’s a thing, it’s cool.
: This is your first record with a band, and like you say, “This isn’t just another Macy Gray record.” Are there artists that you really admire for the way they’ve been able to evolve and continue to grow in their career?
Gray: I think Dave Grohl did a pretty awesome job of coming from the drummer to the man to the Foo Fighters, and I think Madonna, of course. There’s a lot. I love what Childish Gambino has done so far. I think Puffy is probably the king of it. He’s taught us all that you have to try all kind of stuff, ’cause if you just rely on your record selling, you’ll probably be borrowing money any day now. There are a lot of artists who do that very well, but probably, I would say the best one that I’ve seen in all my life is probably Madonna. She’s not around as much as she used to be, but I think she did it better than anyone, probably.
: Did you find that working with this band on this album really inspired you?
Gray: Oh yeah, because I didn’t know what to expect. I had never really written with those guys. We were always buddies, but I didn’t know what I was gonna get out of them writing. And they turned out to be these really amazing writers, and then one thing having a band does is you don’t want to be the weakest link. So it does this weird thing of keeping you on your toes, keeping you competitive, and you don’t even realize it’s happening. But it’s independent, and it’s my label, so I’m still the boss. So I win both of those.
: What are the one or two songs from The Reset that you are most excited to play live?
Gray: “Undone,” which is the next single, and “Cop Killer.” We did a cover of “Cop Killer” that’s amazing.The lyrics to that song are genius, and they explain what goes on when a cop pulls you over better than any politician or any cop or anybody that’s been pulled over has ever put it out there. Like he explains what happens when you get pulled over, or when you’re ready to go out and you might get pulled over.I kept the lyrics ’cause those are probably some of the best lyrics I’ve ever read, ’cause they tell a story and they put you in a place and a vibe like a story is supposed to, but it’s in a song. And it’s about a real issue, and without trying to be political or anything, he just tells you what the vibe is, what’s going on in somebody’s mind when something like that happens. I don’t think anybody, anyone could’ve said it better.