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More than 20 years have passed since Macy Gray won a Grammy for the career-defining hit song, "I Try."
Reaching No. 5 on the Billboard charts, the track propelled the album, "On How Life Is" to sales of seven million copies worldwide.
Known back home by her real name Natalie McIntyre, the Canton area native made a splash on the national pop music scene, her voice distinctly soulful and her personality originally spunky.
That was 2001. Superstar acts of the era included Destiny's Child, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. N' Sync had released its fourth and final studio album. The band Creed was still an arena rock act. And Jennifer Lopez had scored both a No. 1 album and No. 1 movie.
A lot has changed since those days, when compact discs were still sold in large volumes. Pop music, however, has withstood technological advancements and trends, and remains a lucrative mainstream commercial force in 2023.
Gray, meanwhile, wasn't able to stay on top, despite winning the MTV Video Music Award in 2000 for best new artist, and twice appearing as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Another hit song has eluded the singer − a fact she acknowledged with a sense of befuddlement.
"That keeps me up, too, because I know I make great records, and it sucks that people miss out on it for me and for them," she said during a recent telephone interview from her home in the Los Angeles area.
Reflecting further on the subject, the 55-year-old musical artist said, "Yeah, that has always haunted me."
"So many things have to line up," she said of achieving chart success. "There are a lot of great songs that people have never heard. I'm not the only one.
"The record business, it's a little chaotic, and so many things have to go right for a record to come out and get to the maximum where it should be," Gray said. "I've just been a little unlucky with records and labels, and sometimes, I think in the long run, in the scope of my career, people will discover what I do more."
More than 10 albums later, "I Try" remains her signature song, both a musical blessing and a sonic shadow impossible to outrun. But it hasn't kept the vocalist from striving for another big song and making new music. She released “The Reset" in February.
"I want people to hear it so bad because it's so refreshing and it's different than what I've done before," Gray said of her latest album. "And it does lift me up and it does make me feel better.
"I'm already thinking about my next record because that's what I do."
Created amid the turmoil of the pandemic, the 13-song collection is a varied soundscape, from neo soul and R&B to hip-hop influences and glittery pop. Shining brightest are a core of upbeat, party vibe songs − "Mercy," "Every Night," "Bottom to the Top" and "The Disco Song."
"Alien" is excitingly atmospheric and synth-accented while "Undone" and "You Got Away" are ballads showcasing Gray's inspired singing, her one-of-a-kind rasp and grit never sounding more gorgeous.
The singer said she wanted to "lift everybody up and make everyone dance again and party and sing songs again ... that was the idea."
Gray's tenor, however, turns socially conscious on "PTSD (Intro)," "Mr. Policeman," "America" and a cover of "Cop Killer," the controversial protest song by Body Count in 1992 featuring rapper Ice-T.
Along with the inspiration for her new music, the amicable artist also chatted about an expected tour, her nervousness before singing the national anthem at the 2022 NBA All-Star game in Cleveland, taking acting advice from Sharon Stone, her longtime friendship with Slash of Guns N' Roses, a new movie Gray is working on, a future project with MTV, and her unending affection for her hometown.
Here are excerpts from the rest of the interview.
From dance songs to police brutality
"I made a record with my band, The California Jet Club," she said. "It was interesting because we're all very different individually, but during COVID, everybody was kind of feeling the same way ... everybody had a lot of questions and nobody knew what was going to happen next.
"It was just very different, but it put everybody on the same page," Gray added. "That was really the most interesting thing about COVID to me."
Challenges of the pandemic, along with social strife, are addressed lyrically in a few of the songs.
Weren't we all supposed to be happy? In the home of the brave and the free. And I have tried to make sense of it but I can't. I see the brave around me − but free we ain't. You make me cry, America.
Musically peppy with a catchy chorus, "Mr. Policeman" is a lyrical commentary on police brutality against Black citizens.
Mr. Policeman I don't wanna die. Just cuz you don't like my kind don't make my mother cry. I made a mistake and I would take it back if I could. ... I see you reaching for your billy club or your gun. Oh my my officer, at least give me a chance to run. And when I get home I'm going to thank the Lord for my life.
"I think (the song) 'America' was really everybody's story at that time, and 'Mr. Policeman,' of course, that's been an ongoing issue, obviously," said Gray, who co-founded the nonprofit MyGood in 2020 to help families who have lost loved ones to police violence.
"It was just things that ... were on all our minds at the time," she said. "There was so much going on."
Will Macy ever play a Canton concert?
"We're going to go everywhere," she said of touring behind the new album. "I think I'll make it to Canton this time. I always need to go to Cleveland (during tours).
"I would love to play Canton," said the 1986 Canton South High School graduate. "We just haven't done it yet. I don't know why."
But "I don't have any idea what the dates are going to be," she said of the tour. "I'll be so surprised when everybody hears about it."
Macy was crazy nervous before singing anthem at NBA All-Star game
Gray sang the national anthem at the 2022 NBA All-Star game in Cleveland, accompanied by an acoustic guitar player.
"I've never been so nervous in my life, and it was very nerve-racking. I definitely prepared for it properly, and I just got up there and went for it...
"I didn't sleep for a while. I kept singing the song. I was singing the song every chance I got because I wanted to get it on autopilot so I didn't (forget) the words. That was my biggest fear, and then it was all about how to do it. I didn't want to do it a cappella − that's not my forte.
"… It was really wild, but I think we did great," Gray said. "I was very proud of it, and when it was over, I let out the biggest sigh."
Meeting Michael Jordan was another highlight of the event.
"I still get excited when people know who I am, so when Michael Jordan said, 'Hey girl,' and gave me a hug, that was really cool. Yeah, I'm a big basketball fan, and I still say he's the best player ever ... and for him to be so nice to me, it definitely made it a good night."
Macy is longtime friends with Slash
Although Gray's music is typically anchored in R&B, pop and soul, she takes an occasional detour such as with her 2010 song, "Kissed It," featuring Velvet Revolver, a former rock band that included guitarist Slash of Guns N' Roses.
Gray said she has a long history with Slash, and she's also a big fan of Guns N' Roses.
"I've known Slash a really long time. We actually knew each other before everybody knew who we were. I was his grandmother's personal assistant. He was an artist. I was still in school at USC. I answered an ad in the classifieds, so I met Slash ages ago. I remember (his grandmother) say her grandson's band is really starting to make a name for itself, so she was giving me fliers to go see his shows and stuff. We go way back."
Gray said she's also friends with drummer Matt Sorum, formerly of Velvet Revolver and Guns N' Roses. So she sent them a demo of her song, "Kissed It."
"They really came through. I love that record. That is one of them (where I think), 'Why isn't this all over the radio? That record is beautiful."
Back when she first knew Slash, Gray said she didn't listen to his music because "I lived in LA and every other person (had) a band, so I was like, 'That's cool.'
"... Even (Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose) used to crash over there, so I would see them," Gray said of where the band lived in the 1980s. But "I really didn't get into it until the (first record 'Appetite for Destruction') came out. ... And I love that first album; I know every single word to every single song."
Sharon Stone is Macy's new acting coach
"I'm shooting a movie; it's supposed to be (in March or April), and that's really exciting. And my acting coach is Sharon Stone, and I'm going to her house tomorrow," Gray said.
She laughed. "How cool is that?"
"I'm not supposed to talk about (the movie)," said Gray, whose screen credits include "Training Day," "Scary Movie 3," "The Paper Boy" and "Cardboard Boxer." "It has a very eclectic cast. When you hear the cast, you're going to go like, 'What?' I'm really happy to be a part of it, (and) ... you'll probably hear about it in a couple of months."
"I did an event; it was a (Guild of Music Supervisors) awards show (in March), and (Stone) was there to present, and we kind of made an exchange. And she wants to do a song, and I said (I would help her) ... if you want to give me acting lessons.
"She writes, and she said she wrote these lyrics that she thinks would go good with my voice. (Stone) was talking, it was loud … so you're kind of half-listening. I didn't even know everything she said … (and) I didn't think I'd ever hear from her again..."
Gray said she's also excited about a planned project with MTV, although it was too early for her to elaborate.
'The beauty of Canton: Either way, you win.'
The entertainer is among the Canton area celebrities depicted on sprawling murals created by local artists, including one at Condado Tacos at Belden Village Mall and another at the Visit Canton Welcome Center at the Hall of Fame Village in Canton.
"That's cool, I didn't know that," she said of the new artwork. "... It's amazing to be honored like that, and those murals take quite a bit of time, so for somebody to think enough of me to do that is really flattering."
And "I think Canton has a lot to do with the things that I'm proud of about myself," said Gray, who lives in Tarzana, California, a suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles. "... Everybody in Canton knows how to roller skate and play cards because at one point, there was nothing else to do.
"I realize now that I'm older, how substantial that was, to have a simple life. That's where I grew up, that's where my family still is, and also ... one thing about Canton, it's not a town, it's a small city. Either you want to stay because you love it so much ... and make a living for yourself and start a family and own a house, or you can't wait to get out of there. That's the beauty of Canton. Either way, you win."
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and email@example.com. On Twitter @ebalintREP
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Macy Gray talks new music, Sharon Stone and meeting Michael Jordan