Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele: Interview with Macy Gray, appearing at The Birchmere, October 7 with her ‘The Way Tour 2014’

For the past fifteen years, the unique, raspy voice and audacious style of Grammy Award winning Macy Gray has steadily released soulful, jazzy music becoming a beacon in the world of contemporary R&B. Known for her 1999 hit single, “I Try,” Macy Gray’s impressive catalog of work is filled with highlights. She has released six studio albums and has received five Grammy Award nominations (including the 2001 Grammy for the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “I Try” which was also nominated for Song of the Year).

The Way album cover. Courtesy Derrick Rogers.
The Way album cover. Courtesy Derrick Rogers.

Gray is also making great strides as an actor performing roles on several high profiled TV shows and in movies. She made her film debut in Training Day with Denzel Washington, and in 2012 Macy Gray open eyes with a nuanced, memorable performance in Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew McConaughey.

2012 was a busy year for Gray who in addition to her film work released two albums that year. On Talking Book, Gray focused exclusively on her reinterpretation of tracks from the 1972 Stevie Wonder classic Talking Book album. Then she released Covered, where her artistry was used to put her identifiable sound on the rock songs of Metallica, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Eurythmics, and Radiohead, among others.

After two albums that interpreted the work of other artists Gray returns to her own songs with her latest release, The WayMacy Gray took her time to figure out what she wanted to say on the10 songs of this new album out in stores on Tuesday, October 7 – the same day that she performs in concert at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. as a part of the Macy Gray ‘The Way Tour 2014 (Cary Nokey is the Opening Act.)

The 2014 album from the singer/songwriter reflects who Macy Gray is today as a woman, mother, and artist, reinforcing Gray’s reputation as the ground-breaking and innovative artist that she has been since day one.

Sydney-Chanele: Macy, I promise we’re going to get to your tour and your new album being released on Oct 7th, but first I’d like to talk briefly about your acting career. You started with an attention-grabbing debut in Training Day

Last year you had a break-out performance in Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy and recently had an intense featured role in The Grim Sleeper about a L.A. Serial Killer. You have two other completed films scheduled for released. What are the titles of those films and tell me a little about them?

Macy: Brotherly Love and Cardboard BoxerBrotherly Love, we shot that with Queen Latifah’s company and it stars Li’l Romeo (Master P’s son – Romeo Miller), Keke Parker, and Cory Hardrict. It’s a coming of age tale about one brother who is a basketball player and one, who is stumbling through life, and how they grew up in the same house but their lives turned out so differently. It’s really a good movie.

The other one is The Cardboard Boxer, but I don’t know when that one is coming out. We shot that a while ago. It should be really great – the script was great.

I’m glad you mentioned scripts. You had such a layered and nuanced performance in The Paperboy where you really got to show your range as an actress. Did you see a change in the types of roles offered and the quality of scripts being sent to you once people saw your talent in that film?

Hmm. That’s a good question. I don’t know… I think so. I’m not able to do a lot of things because I’m in the middle of promoting an album. I’ve had to turn down a couple of things just because of scheduling. But yeah I get good choices – not always – but sometimes it’s really slamming.

From the very beginning since Training Day, your acting has left a striking impression. What is Hollywood’s perception of you as actress?

Thank you. It’s weird. It kinda goes in spurts. I think because I’m a musician a lot of Directors and Producers don’t ever really get over that. They tend to gravitate to roles of what I do for a living. But I do good. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been given some really good opportunities and choices.

People may not know that you actually went to film school at USC to study scriptwriting and acting. You are an awesome musician but you are also an outstanding performer with a commanding stage presence. Have you ever thought about performing in the theater?

Yes. I have been offered to do some things on Broadway but again we couldn’t do it because of scheduling. I’m very interested in that, and one of my dreams is to one day do a Broadway play for sure.

Performing on Broadway would be great. How did you learn to be such a confident performer on stage? You’ve said that you grew up as a very shy and quiet child.

I’m not really sure. I used to take piano lessons (since the age of seven) and we’d have piano recitals once a month. And, every time there was a play at school my mother would make me be in it. So I’ve always been able to get in front of people, even when I felt shy. I always have had the nerve to get up and be able to perform. I think it stems from being my mother’s child, really.

Shifting our conversation now to music and your new album, let’s talk about your musicianship. Your new album, The Way, is your seventh full-length album since your first release in 1999. How has this album stretched you and expanded your musicianship?

I feel like I have become a much better musician and artist since my first album. I feel like I’ve grown a lot. The best training for an artist is to be in the room singing every night. Your voice can’t help get better. You’re around musicians all the time and you have an audience every night. It’s the best training you can get – taking you from your first album to your sixth album-you should be way, way better by then. I think a lot of it too, is just being on the road so much. I’ve learned a lot and come a long way.

What is your intention or your goal with The Way? This is an album for adults. I appreciate that.

Oh, thank you. I feel like if you are over 28 or 29 there’s not a lot of places for you musically. I don’t feel like the record industry really services adults properly. You know I find that a lot my friends listen to the old stations and are always playing their old records. Because you know when you’re thirty it’s harder to listen to a sixteen-year-old kid tell you about their problems and trying to sing along with that.

So, it’s not really anything that I am trying to do, because I am a grown up and that’s my perspective now coming from someone who’s turned forty. Of course I see life a lot differently than my kids and a lot differently than I did when I first started out. I feel like the things that I’m talking about are the things that people my age can relate to and understand, and really need to hear musically because you need that escape. You should not have to always pull out your old Marvin Gaye records, you know what I mean.

I think a lot of fans -and a lot of new fans – are really going to be able to relate and enjoy this album just because of that. Does your new album title The Way reference a purpose, a higher spiritual source, or a new self proclamation of determination?

It mostly comes from having hopes and dreams in life and whatever it is that you’re trying to do with yourself. Whatever your bucket list is – you always have to find a way to get there. Then on the way of getting there all this other flaky stuff happens that you weren’t expecting and then your way changes. Or your ideas about life change.

The Way is about all of the things that happen on the way to getting wherever it is your trying to go.

How did you decide on the beautiful film noirish look of the album cover with the black and white photography and the silhouette lighting?

It’s just really simple and it’s ambiguous. It can mean a whole lot of things. I like simple things, and I am really attached to really simple photo covers. One of my favorite covers is LL Cool J’s with the boom box on it and it’s just a boom box. And that’s one of the best records he ever made and the message is simple: “This is what I want you to hear.” But it can be all kinds of other things. I like stuff like that: a simple picture, a simple emotion.

Your cover is like that – open to interpretation with an air of mystery.

Yes. Exactly. Derrick Rogers did that picture.

You have a song on the album also called The Way that is one of the ten songs that appear. Where did this song come chronologically in the order of the songs being written? When did you know that it was going to be the name of your new album?

We were like six or seven songs in when The Way was written. We just knew.

You’re in the middle of a three-month tour that you started over a month ago. For your fans here in the DMV, it’s great that your album officially releases on October 7 – the same day that you perform at The Birchmere. Will it feel any different for you once your album is released and you perform the songs on your tour? As an artist how will your concert shift – will it be any different for you – once your album is released?

I am definitely getting nervous. Even today I reminded that the release is less than a week a way and I literally almost started crying. I still get really, really, really nervous. I’m nervous about the release of my new album.

What makes you so nervous?

I hope I did something good. I hope people like it. I’m severely nervous about it.

What can concert goers expect to hear? Will you sing all of the new songs or will or be a mix of the old and new?

It’s definitely a mix of all; it’s a mix of everything. Maybe four songs from the first album, a couple from the second and so on . . . The concert kinda sums up all of my records really well. It’s really a nice combination of everything. We do maybe four songs of the new album – so far – but you know once the record comes out and people know it we’ll probably do a lot more.

Yes, that’s what I was wondering since you’ll be in Alexandria, VA. at the Birchmere on the day when the album drops. Perhaps you’ll be doing more new songs?

Yes. It will be fun to celebrate at The Birchmere. I love that place.

Do you recall how many times have you appeared at The Birchmere?

Oh wow, I know I’ve been there at least three times . . . I know it well.

You’ve released two of the singles on The Way, “Bang, Bang” and “Hands,” and fans are responding favorably. How did “Handscome about and why were you able to write it so quickly?

I know. It didn’t come easily. The producer – he calls himself Royal Z – he actually played me that song for me a couple of years ago. I was like whatever. I had actually written something to it, just to write something, but it was lame. Then he played it for me again later. I was like, “Whatever. Do you have anything else?” But for some reason at 4AM in the morning we were working – we had just finished another song – he plays it and the hook just hit me. Instantly. I didn’t even have to think about it. It just came out of my mouth. It was super cool. You never know when that is going to come. Sometimes it just does.

That sounds like an inspired moment. It’s great when it happens like that.

At 4AM in the morning for no reason! For some reason it clicked that night. We wrote it in three hours – vocals and everything – we were done.

How does songwriting and the creative process work for you? When do you write? Do you walk around with a notebook or do you do most of your writing in the studio?

I always write in the studio. It’s hard for me to focus on getting anything done outside of the studio. I write really instantly. I’ve never spent a day or two on a song ever.

Interesting. One of the other songs I’m curious about is “Queen of the Big Hurt.” What is the big hurt in that song?

That song is about a relationship that I had. I kept hurting from one in the heart. It’s about being in a relationship that you haven’t really healed from the last one. So you’re an asshole, and you just drive the person crazy because you have all these things you haven’t worked through yet. It’s just about a relationship.

Does this new album feel more personal for you? Has all of your experience led you to your most revealing and personal album?

All my albums are really personal. I think that now that I’m a little more grown up than I used to be, I kinda have more of a hold over who I am and where I’m coming from. As an artist I can talk about the things that are genuinely real to me. You know a lot of times when you’re young you think you’re being real, but you’re really not because you don’t know what you’re doing yet. But I think now that I’m older and I have more of a sense of myself, what I have to say is a lot more genuine than it used to be because I understand myself a lot better. It probably sounds a little more personal.

What was your greatest challenge with The Way? How long did the entire “making of” process take?

It took a while for me to figure out what I wanted to do for this album because I wanted to not do what everybody else was doing. It’s easy to say that but it’s really difficult to find something really fresh that you are excited about – something that is really coming from the heart and you’re really excited about it at the same time. You can get on the Mic. and be honest and start yelling and screaming but that’s not really a record. You know what I mean. It’s the whole process of figuring out what you want to do and actually making it work and finding the right people to make it work with you. That’s the whole process. Once you have that, everything just flows. Then you can a record done in about a week really.

What do you know now about being a better performer that you didn’t know when you first started out?

What do I know…I still don’t know very much …let me think. I think the man thing is the more that you do something the better that you’re going to get at it. I think that is the main thing – the nature of doing something over and over again. You learn to hone your craft. Then you go to other people’s shows and see what they’re doing.

You want to be better and do things that nobody else is doing, and that kind of thing. It’s a lot different once you get going. Your goals change, and the things that you focus on.

How do you work that balance of doing films and doing your music? How do you navigate that balance?

Just being in the moment and doing the things that you really want to do. It’s important to do the things you really want to do. Sometimes when you do things that have other motives it translates and people don’t like it. Then you’re stuck. So I just learned if I’m on tour and I get an offer to do this great movie then I’ll have to just move things around. Or if a movie comes up that I am not really into then I definitely, definitely won’t do it. It’s not going to work.

Emotion goes a long way. It’s extremely important. It’s not always about being smart and having good advice. Where your heart wants to be is where you should be.

Macy Gray. Courtesy Norman Seeff
Macy Gray. Courtesy Norman Seeff

That is enlightened advice. It sounds like you’re right where you want to be. What can audiences expect from you on Oct 7 at The Birchmere?

Right now we’re having a good time. I’m loving being on the stage again. It’s going well. Come and forget about all of your problems and just be happy for an hour and a half. Dance, drink, and sing out loud… sweat, and scream – that’s what it’s about.

Macy Gray plays for one night only on Tuesday, October 07, 2014 at 7:30 pm, at The Birchmere Music Hall – 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, purchase them online. For future performances at The Birchmere, check their website.


Macy Gray official website

Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele is a new column that embraces the landscape of film, filmmakers, and film festivals. This will be a canvas where film reviews, and in-depth interviews into the filmmaking process will be shared, and the world of cinephiles will be celebrated. A dedicated space to cinema outside the mainstream, the emphasis of Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele will be foreign cinema, independent films, documentaries and the filmmakers who make them.

Previous article‘Wuthering Heights’ at Aquila Theatre at George Mason University
Next article‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ at Synetic Theater
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here