Q&A: Macy Gray brings signature sound to Bethesda Blues & Jazz

Grammy winner Macy Gray performs a pair of shows this weekend at Bethesda Blues & Jazz.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Macy Gray at Bethesda Blues & Jazz

Jason Fraley

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WASHINGTON — She has one the most unique voices in recent music memory.

This weekend, Macy Gray brings her signature raspy sound to Bethesda Blues & Jazz.

“We’re going to have a great time this weekend in Bethesda,” Gray told WTOP. “My band, we’re going to have a ball. It’s going to be like the biggest party you’ve ever been to. I can’t wait.”

Growing up in Canton, Ohio, she always knew she had a different voice from the other kids.

“When I was younger my voice was super high-pitched, so people were always knocking me and calling me names,,” Gray said. “I knew my voice was different. I didn’t think it was unique where I could do something with it until much later. But it was always a peculiar sound to it.”

Born Natalie McIntyre, she randomly discovered her stage name during a childhood bike ride.

“I was riding my bike, I fell down, I looked up and the mailbox said, ‘Macy Gray.’ That was it!” Gray said. “All through school, we would have to write stories and stuff and I would always name one of my characters ‘Macy Gray.’ Then when I joined this band in college, this rock band, everybody had to make up a name to be in the band, and so I said, ‘Macy Gray.'”

She studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California, where she also began writing songs for her musician friends. One fateful day, one of her colleagues failed to show up for a recording session, allowing Gray to step in studio and record her first real song.

“I was writing lyrics to songs, so I would write the lyrics and someone would come in and sing them. But she stopped showing up, so I had to sing the songs just to show everyone how the song went. So I already had little tapes with my voice on them, so that was the beginning.”

Promoting your band was a much different task in the era before social media.

“Back then, it was all like playing clubs, mailing your demo tape out to labels, going all over town and putting stickers of your band all over the place,” Gray said. “It was a different kind of hustle because there wasn’t all of that internet and Instagram and stuff like that.”

Soon, she was spotted at a nightclub in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip.

“They had all these venues on Sunset that a lot of new bands would play because all the labels hang out there. Me and my band were always over there. One day, we played a space called the Roxy and a guy from Atlantic came. He was coming to see another band, but he came early and we were playing. He talked to me after and I got a record deal two weeks later.”

Wouldn’t you know it? Her debut studio album “On How Life Is” (1999) went multiplatinum, selling over three million copies on the strength of the single “I Try,” which owned the radio.

“I think lyrically everybody could relate,” Gray said. “Everybody has that situation or that relationship where they’re always talking about they’re going to leave it or they’re going to change it, and you wake up the next day and you’re not going nowhere.”

The song won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and was also nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, making Gray an international sensation.

“It changes everything,” Gray said. “Suddenly you’re on the radio and people know who you are. I had never been out of the States before, except to Canada. So I went all over the world and, I don’t know, it just opens (your eyes). You just see all of this stuff you never saw before.”

The worldwide fame got her cast in her first movie, “Training Day” (2001). Director Antoine Fuqua cast a number of musicians, including Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, rubbing elbows with Hollywood movie stars like Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington, who won the Oscar.

“I was a huge Denzel fan, so to be sitting there talking to him like he was my boy … that was wild! I wasn’t expecting that. I think it was my first movie and I had no intentions of becoming an actress. It’s different when you don’t put all that pressure on you like you want to be the best actress in the world, or when you go do it because it’s fun. … It was that kind of vibe for me. I was loose and that made it doable for me because it wasn’t all intense at the time.”

More film projects followed, starring in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” (2002), contributing to the soundtrack of “Chicago” (2002) and appearing in Netflix’s “Fuller House” (2016).

“I love acting, I just tour quite a bit with my music and I’m constantly making records in the studio, so that’s my No. 1. I’ve had to pass up on stuff because I’m doing stuff with my music.”

That focus on her music led to her upcoming tenth album “Ruby,” due out in September.

“It’s my favorite album,” she said. “I can’t wait for you to hear it. You guys are gonna play it like crazy on the radio. You’re gonna hear it, trust me. It’s amazing. You’re gonna love it.”

Find more details on the venue website. Hear our full conversation with Macy Gray below:

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