“Don’t Look Down” is a solid offering — a beat-driven pop album with a flair for the dramatic. While early 2000s Dido and Paramore are clear reference points, it also draws upon, but does not overemphasize, Grey’s reputation as a gangsta moll who has served as the angelic-voiced foil to rappers like Dr. Dre and Lupe Fiasco. Eminem, Grey’s mentor, serves as one of the album’s producers.
Although “Don’t Look Down” is her official debut as Skylar Grey, the singer, born Holly Brook Hafermann and raised in Mazomanie, Wis., has been making albums since she was a tween. Grey and her mother sang as a folk duo under the name Generations; they released three indie discs. “I learned a lot about professionalism, how the show must go on even though I feel like [expletive] sometimes,” Grey remembers. “I have a lot of experience in the studio, performing onstage, talking to an audience. I learned most of that stuff when I was performing with my mom.”
After Generations, Grey, now 27, dropped out of high school, moved to Los Angeles and soon released an album under the name Holly Brook on a label run by rap-metal stars Linkin Park. The album went nowhere, but Grey found success with “Where’d You Go,” a 2006 song by Linkin Park singer Mike Shinoda’s side band, Fort Minor, that became a hit.
It was the first of many successful hip-hop collaborations: Grey co-wrote and performed on the Eminem/Dr. Dre smash “I Need a Doctor,” Fiasco’s “Words I Never Said” and Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home.” She was tough enough to hold her own with superstars and pliable enough not to pull focus. Grey isn’t sure this is what rappers like about her (“I honestly don’t know. I’m too close to it”), but she knows what she likes about them. “I liked the cast of characters that went along with it. It was a whole different world, a lot more rugged than the pop world. The music I was making was soft and melodic, and hip-hop was aggressive. I liked the combination of those two things.”
It’s this combination that informs the new album’s best track, “Final Warning,” which plays out as a sing-songy, goth-pop murder ballad (“Good morning, gorgeous/I drove your truck in the lake last night/Hope she was worth it”).
Grey wrote “Final Warning” in a cabin in the Oregon woods to which — out of money and at war with her then-record label — she had retreated. That same week, inspired by the same unhealthy relationship, Grey wrote its sister song, “Love the Way You Lie,” which would bring her a unique type of stardom.
The song was a global smash for Eminem and Rihanna, one of those hits big enough to change the lives of everybody involved. “I didn’t even sing that song, but I had so many doors open because of that song,” says Grey. She soon felt under siege from artists who wanted her to write them a hit just like it. “I think people get confused. It doesn’t work like that. I turned down a lot of [songwriting] sessions. I walked out of a lot of sessions. It just doesn’t happen. A song like that just doesn’t happen every day, for anyone.”
At Eminem’s invitation, Grey and her producer/co-writer Alexander Grant contributed to the rapper’s 2011 collaboration with Dr. Dre, “I Need a Doctor.” Grey provided lyrics and vocals to the song, which was nominated for two Grammys. The song’s success, and Grey’s widely seen performance at the Grammy Awards, relaunched her career as a singer, much as “Love the Way You Lie” ignited her career as a songwriter.
As Grey has recalled it, while in the studio with Eminem, Grant suggested replacing her with a then-peaking Lady Gaga; Eminem refused. The episode quickly became fodder for tabloid headlines (”How Much Does Eminem Really Hate Lady Gaga?”).
“It didn’t go anywhere, it was just talking in the studio, like, who would be good for the song?” recalls Grant, in a separate phone interview. “It wasn’t like Gaga was on the song and they took [Grey] off of it. It was just basic chitchat. A lot of ideas get tossed around, and some of them stick and some of them don’t.”
For Grey, it was surely a traumatic episode. These things happen, Grant says. “I think one of your main jobs as a writer is to detach sometimes, to know what you’re there for, which is to write.”
Grey agrees that thick skin is a necessity in her business. And a strong will doesn’t hurt, either. “I’ve been through a lot in the music industry, in life,” she says. “I’ve learned that I have to be tough in this world. There are people like Shirley Manson and Gwen Stefani, who I see as tough girls who don’t take [sass] from anyone, and I’ve always admired them for that. I guess there’s a part of me that feels that I belong in [that] world. With all the things that have happened to me in my life, I can’t sit back and be passive.”
‘Didn’t feel natural’
“Don’t Look Down” has been retooled multiple times. Grey says this was her own idea, and unlike most artists who say that, she seems sincere. “There was too many people surrounding me and having ideas of what they thought it should sound like,” she says. “At a certain point, it seemed like I was working too hard to get an album out. It didn’t feel natural. I had to take a step back from it.”
Grey’s record label has already released several of the album’s best tracks, including the piano-driven teen alienation ballad “Wear Me Out” and “C’mon Let Me Ride,” a catchy, dumb-on-purpose hip-pop song featuring Eminem singing the hook from Queen’s “Bicycle Race.” “He did that [himself]. I thought it was genius,” says Grey, who doesn’t want anybody taking the song too seriously. “It’s a spoof on pop radio, on pop songs. It’s sarcastic.”
None of these new tracks have made much a of chart impact, which may explain her label’s reluctance to release the album. Grey has come to terms with the idea that, despite having helped create two of the decade’s biggest hits, she might not be a singles artist. She just hopes everyone else will be okay with this, too. “So let it be a slow grower,” she says. “I’m not nervous at all. I’m just excited that there’s going to be music out there, instead of sitting inside my computer, where it’s useless.”
Performs at U Street Music Hall on Sunday, July 14.