Macy Gray and her debut album, "On How Life Is," are suddenly everywhere.
The 29-year-old soul singer is all over MTV, and the video clip for her first single, "Do Something," has been selected as an MTV "Buzzclip." The New Yorker, which rarely dedicates much space to contemporary pop stars, covered her debut with a five-page feature. Talk magazine chose Gray to be the sole performer at its launch party; beneath the Statue of Liberty and a starry sky, Gray performed for the likes of Paul Newman and Madonna.
With all the places she is, it seems the only place Gray isn't these days is at the top of sales charts. According to Soundscan, Gray's debut sold just under 20,000 copies in its first two weeks of release. That's no shabby figure for a debut artist, but it pales in comparison with the roughly 500,000 copies that chart-topper Limp Bizkit sold during that same period.
So why has there been so much buzz?
One possible answer is that Macy Gray is truly an exceptional talent. It is unusual for an artist with a unique voice--Gray's rasp has been compared to the voices of Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner--to emerge with such a strong vision. Gray wrote all the lyrics for the album, and at a time when the charts are dominated by assembly line pop-rockers, uninspired hip-hoppers and smokin' hot country babes, Gray's thoughtful songs ruminate on hurt and self-destruction and love and the Lord. Her music is an earthy amalgam of influences from the funk and soul canons--Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin--with modern updates like deejay sampling and lush production.
Another, more telling explanation for all the buzz is months of careful marketing by Gray's label, Epic.
"We actually started seeding the marketplace in January, before we even had a mastered record," says CeCe Kurzman, Epic's vice president of worldwide marketing. "Getting 12-inchers out to various tastemakers, club kids, college deejays, just to get an idea of what we had, and how people would respond to it. The response we got was overwhelming. We had the broadest cross section of people responding favorably."
Gray had been honing her live show for months in Los Angeles, where she held a Sunday night residency at the trendy Viper Room in February and March. She also regularly performed at her own after-hours club, the We-Ours. "Like 3 o'clock in the morning, you'd go down there, there'd be a live band," says Gray. "It was pretty hot. We had open mike. People would come and freestyle, read poetry, get on the mike and sing with a deejay. It turned out to be a really good place for me and the band to work out, really get used to crowds and see what worked onstage."
Epic did everything it could to position Macy for success. One strategy was a series of industry showcases. Performing mostly for handpicked tastemakers in major media markets such as Washington, New York and Atlanta, Gray made fans of the cognoscenti with a tight but effortless show. Her performances had all the sass and attitude of a classic soul revue. Gray filled the stage with her band, complete with horns and two Supremes-style backup singers, and worked the crowd like the seasoned performer that she is.
At a performance in Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom in June, Gray had the crowd swaying and singing along to the ballad "I Try"--due out in September as the next single--a full two months before the album was even to be released. "Whatchall doin' here?" she teased the crowd as the local Knicks were playing in the NBA Finals. "Dontcha know there's a basketball game on?"
Lewis Largent, vice president of music for MTV, attended one of the earlier New York shows. "It was one of the most crowded things I've ever seen," he says. "And whether we were into it or not, you couldn't argue that there wasn't a legitimate buzz about this thing. It was there, whether you liked it or not. We heard people talking. We saw it."
Epic provided Gray with Luke Burland, the power-publicist who previously worked Fiona Apple's heralded--and multi-platinum--"Tidal." Epic President Polly Anthony also called in producer Andrew Slater (who produced "Tidal" and now manages Apple) to listen to some of Gray's demos.
Slater, who also produces and manages acts such as Jakob Dylan's Wallflowers and former Red Hot Chili Pepper and Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, signed on to produce that same day. "The first thing I thought when I head the demos was, 'Listen to that voice! It sounds like a muted trumpet!' " says Slater.
Slater pushed Gray to round out and update her sound with modern production elements such as orchestral bells and deejay tactics. And he persuaded director Mark Romanek (who had directed Apple's steamy video for "Criminal") to come out of semi-retirement to film Gray's futuristic video for "Do Something."
A buzz in motion tends to stay in motion. Gabe Doppelt is editor at large for Talk magazine, a publication that knows a little something about buzz itself. Doppelt, who formerly worked at MTV and VH1, was charged with finding the entertainment for what was intended to be the buzziest of all buzzes: Talk's launch party. She was looking for the hottest talent available.
"We were originally thinking about Latin American music," says Doppelt. "Ricky Martin, you know? But once it hits the morning shows, what else is there to do?" In other words, once the Latino heartthrob appeared on Rosie O'Donnell, he became passe.
After Miramax chief (and Talk progenitor) Harvey Weinstein suggested Gray, Doppelt called MTV, looking for the hipster take on Macy Gray. "They told me how much they were supporting her," she says. "They said there is a serious future in her and she's incredibly talented, and if we wanted to be on the cusp of the next greatest thing, this was the way to go."
Radio is the last major media domino to topple for Team Macy, and it seems to be a stubborn one. Gray is tough to fit into neat genre boundaries, and radio doesn't always know what to make of those it can't pigeonhole. "On How Life Is" combines elements of funk, soul, R&B, hip-hop and rock, and brings them all together in a pop-oriented package. "It's not something that you can compare to everything else on the radio," acknowledges Kurzman. "Sometimes that works for you, because it's fresh. Sometimes that works against you."
"The first single falls in this middle ground in terms of radio formats," says Slater, who now also serves as Gray's manager. "I think radio is going to be the most difficult of all the aspects. The limitations of format for something like [music magazines] CMJ or Spin or Rolling Stone are not as narrow as the limitations for certain formatted radio stations."
Slater is banking that "I Try" is a good enough song that it will force radio to find it a home. "You just feel like you've heard it before, the first time you hear it. It's one of those songs," says Slater.
Kurzman is optimistic about the future of Macy Gray. "We expect to still be working hard on Macy this time next year," she says. "We can go really deep on this album."
Gray herself seems pleasantly unfazed by all the scrambling around her. She's happy with the album, proud of her writing and happy to finally be succeeding (she was dropped from an earlier recording contract, and had moved home to Canton, Ohio, just two years ago, resigned to becoming a teacher).
She talks about how if she's as successful as everyone keeps telling her she's going to be, she's going to record the four albums she's contracted for, and move with her three small children to France.
"There's all this drama about the next video," she says matter-of-factly. "That's probably what's going to break me, is the next single, so that's really important."
Gray speaks with some of the same curious phrasings she sings with. Some syllables get stretched, some are cut short. "Everything is a big to-do," she muses. "It's a really big company and my manager is really large. There's a lot of egos stirring around, and everybody wants to do what they want to do."
"You can be one of those artists that's like, '[Expletive] the record company. I'm going to do this and do that.' But if they have the money . . . you kinda got to play the game, but you don't want to be a sucker and compromise all the time."