Macy Gray Taps Into Her 'Id'

Macy Gray admits that she was an irresistible force, if not an immovable object, when it came to weaving the words and music that would evolve into her sophomore album: She just refused to be told wha

Macy Gray admits that she was an irresistible force, if not an immovable object, when it came to weaving the words and music that would evolve into her sophomore album: She just refused to be told what to do in the studio anymore.

"It was time for me to take charge of my music in a way that I hadn't before," she says about the process leading up to "The Id," due Sept. 18 from Epic. "It was time for me to get over my insecurity and show that I've grown up. This album was not going to happen unless it was a complete reflection of where my head is at right now."

It's not that Gray has qualms with her hugely successful 1999 debut, "On How Life Is" -- which spawned the Grammy-winning worldwide smash "I Try." She is steadfast in her pride in the album's final outcome, but she admits that there are now moments on the recording (which was produced by Andrew Slater) where she can detect an "undeniable nervousness" in her voice. "I don't think anyone else can hear it, but it's definitely there. I was unsure of myself during that time."

Everything changed once the artist hit the road. With each successive gig, Gray became increasingly relaxed and confident. She also found herself more inspired than she'd ever been.

"If you're paying attention, you can pick up a lot while you're on the road," she notes, adding that absorbing the "sounds and vibes" of such European cities as London and Berlin, in particular, began to shape the direction of her new songs. "I started getting into a lot of garage and electronic music -- music that we consider obscure here, but music that's completely mainstream there," Macy says. "After a while, I started to imagine how these sounds could factor into my music."

In the end, "The Id" remains largely steeped in the vintage soul sounds that have become Gray's signature, but it has a decidedly, if subtle, Euro-pop undertow. "One of the first lessons I learned in production is that you don't have to -- and you probably shouldn't -- stick to one idea or concept. You can stir the pot with different ingredients. I prefer for there to not be one dominating idea in music."

The creative philosophy carried Gray through the final leg of her tour supporting "On How Life Is," during which she started drafting lyrics and recording sound snippets for new songs. The flow of ideas was so strong that she was itchy to get cracking on the new set within days of wrapping up the tour.

"We unpacked and just got down to jamming," says Gray, who eventually enlisted respected gospel musician Daryle Swann to share production duties. She executive-produced the project with Rick Rubin, who, she says, became a "mentor" in the studio.

"I was flattered that he wanted to be a part of this record. Everybody respects him. He's a cool guy to have on your side. He was also a lot of fun to hang with. It made for the most encouraging, exciting environment to make music in."

Contributing to that environment was a revolving door of such high-profile guests as Erykah Badu, Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, Sunshine Anderson, Angie Stone, Slick Rick, Billy Preston, and Mos Def, all of whom stopped by the studio to add their two cents to various tracks. The result is a collection that Gray accurately describes as "funkier and freer" than her debut, adding that "every day felt like the sky was the limit. It was beautiful."

Every day was also a chance for Gray to purge the many thoughts and stories that had long been swirling around her brain.

"I'd accumulated a lot of things that I really wanted to talk about. After finishing the first album, I thought, 'What will I say next?' I was empty. Of course, I could've done what a lot of artists do and written an album about being on the road and being famous, but how boring would that be?"

Instead, "The Id" comprises earthy, often empathetic explorations of love, sex, family, pain, and forgiveness. Gray's talent for dousing deep thoughts with her now-familiar growl and raucous, funk-fortified instrumentation is stronger than ever-as is her ability to occasionally bring the roar of her music down to an intimate purr. This is best exemplified during "Sweet Baby," the set's first single.

"That's a cool little song," Gray says of the tune, which features harmonies by Badu. "It's about my first true, true love. It's about being in that unique space where it's only about you and him. The rest of the world is secondary. I wanted to capture the essence of that special time in a relationship."

On the polar opposite of the emotional and musical spectrum of "Sweet Baby" is "Sexual Revolution," a jam that the artist says is about physical awakening. Swathed in classic disco rhythms, the song is about "finally letting go of all your hang-ups and inhibitions."

Gray continues, "You build up all kinds of repressions and fear from childhood. You grow up and you find that you have all of these limits on sex. But then you wake up one day and you realize that it's OK to get naked and get wild. That's where 'Sexual Revolution' comes from -- and doesn't it just make sense that it takes place in the middle of a hip-bumpin' groove? It just feels like sex is going on right there in the middle of the chorus."

"Sexual Revolution" is among the new songs that Gray is itchy to start performing. "Actually, the whole record feels like a gig, right from 'Relating to a Psychopath' -- which has a wild rock/hip-hop techno beat -- to 'Forgiveness,' a ballad that has some of the best lyrics I think I've ever written. These songs are going to slam onstage."

But don't expect a simple concert from the Canton, Ohio, native. "It's going to be huge this time," she says. "I've got a million ideas in my head. I can't reveal anything specific, but it's going to be a Superwoman/Spiderman type of show. Your eyes are going to fall outta your head when you see the sh*t I've got planned."

Gray got to preview her new material in a more subdued setting on Aug. 22 when she played a showcase at London's hallowed Old Vic Theatre.

Before hitting the road for a lengthy trek of the U.S. and Europe at the start of 2002, Gray will spend the fall season performing on a string of concert events and TV programs, both home and abroad. Among the early spots confirmed is a Sept. 14 slot on NBC-TV's "Today" show's Summer Concert Series.

"The interest in Macy is extraordinary," Epic president Polly Anthony says. "There's a lot of curiosity to see what she's come up with next. They know that if it's Macy, it has to be fresh and different."

What began with the single release of "Sweet Baby" in mid-August, has been supplemented through several unique opportunities. For starters, Epic has linked with VH1.com to pre-sell the CD. Upon pre-ordering the album on the site, customers can listen to the entire album via streaming audio.

Also, Gray has been tapped by Mountain Dew to appear in a Paul Hunter-directed commercial for the soda company's new product, Code Red. The ad, which began airing Aug. 19, prominently features the artist singing "Sweet Baby." It's slated to run through the end of 2001.

All of this activity suits Gray fine, but she admits that she's currently "a little preoccupied" with another project that she hopes to have launched by the end of the year. "I'm developing a Saturday-morning cartoon about me as a kid," she says with a squealing laugh. "It's going to be a Bill Cosby/Fat Albert thing. It's going to be so cute. I can't wait to see how it turns out."

Although it's still in its early stages (network affiliation is still pending), Gray is planning to lend her voice to her animated counterpart, as well as compose songs specifically for the program.

In the meantime, Gray is pleased that "The Id" is complete and ready to hit the street -- if only because she's "so ready to talk about something other than 'I Try'" and the rest of "On How Life Is." She's also happy to relinquish her crown as the proverbial next big thing.

"I've traveled around that block so many times in the past two years, my feet hurt," she says. "Let someone else deal with that. I'm also ready to kick it as the seasoned veteran that people respect and know is going to be around for a while."