We all know the music industry is a little crazy. Consider, for a moment, the industry's relation to cover songs.
Time was, the industry was completely reliant on one artist writing a song, and then everyone and their cousin recording it. Where would shows like American Idol and The Voice be without the concept of the cover song? But when a recording artist, even a hugely successful one, asks to put out a cover album, record labels usually respond with a resounding NO.
That's the response Macy Gray kept hearing every time she proposed the idea of doing a cover album. "It's something I've been wanting to do, but labels aren't really a fan of cover albums," she explained over the phone.
Usually, she continued, record labels don't say yes for a number of reasons. "I think in today's market, they aren't the most successful—they don't jump off the shelves, most of them," she said. "There have been a couple of recent really successful cover albums, but I think the general idea is that it's for much later in your career when you get older, like Tony Bennett or something, and then generally, they're not expected to do quite as well as an original album."
Which is strange, given the history of the music industry and the fact that a well-executed cover can be its own kind of art. How else can one explain the success of Glee?
So Gray kept persisting. "We finally got into a situation where they were down into it, so we did it," she said. "That's really what the timing was—it was the first time someone said yes."
Macy Gray's cover album, Covered, released on 429 Records this past March, offers case after case of how interesting cover songs can be when done thoughtfully.
"I just thought it would be cool to take these songs from completely different arenas—like, most of the songs on there are rock songs—so I thought it'd be cool to take these rock songs and turn them into proper soul songs," Gray explained.
Gray's version of Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" becomes quietly dramatic with strings, while her take on Karen O's "Maps" speeds up and slows down playfully. For Arcade Fire's "Wake Up," Gray minimizes the instrumentation and adds an African beat. And on My Chemical Romance's "Teenagers," Gray rewrites the lyrics from the point of view of a mother of teens. (Gray has three teenage children.)
"I really love the whole album," she said. "I really like 'Nothing Else Matters,' because it's just so different from the original, and I like 'Maps' a lot, and I like 'Bubbly' a lot, because we turned it into a duet (with Idris Alba), and then Colbie Caillat said she liked it. That made me like it more when she said she liked it. It changes every day; I have different favorites along the way, but those are probably my consistents."
Interspersed between the songs are brief comedy skits featuring Gray's friends, like Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls, which show more of Gray's personality and make the whole album more fun.
"That's another thing I've been wanting to do, and I (couldn't) do it," Gray laughed. "Ever since I heard The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill ... you know, she used the skits in the most clever way, so I've been trying to come up with something that cool, but I never do, and it always gets scratched, because they're so terrible. But this was kind of an album where we were all just doing whatever we wanted to do, so we kept these. I don't know if they're not terrible, but we kept them."
Gray has always been one to do whatever she wants to do. Her musical career has been largely guided by her own hands, and she has also been enjoying a steadily growing career as an actress. She has a role in the upcoming film The Paperboy alongside Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey, as Anita, a housemaid who narrates the murder mystery. "It's actually a really significant role. It takes place in the '60s in the South, and it's very dark," she said.
And Gray's reinvigoration of the cover doesn't stop at Covered. She's currently finishing up work on an album-length cover—a remake, of sorts, of Stevie Wonder's 1972 album Talking Book.
"I was talking to my producer, and we were talking about the Covered record, and he said, 'You know ... nobody ever covers albums.' So we were going through these really famous albums that might be cool, and that's just one of my favorite albums. I know that record inside and out, so it was just natural to do that one. And then it just happened that it was the 40th anniversary after we looked it up," Gray explained. "... They remake movies and TV shows, so we thought it was just something we wanted to try. It's coming out really good. I'm actually really proud of it. It has some of my favorite songs on it, and I love the way he writes, and he did it pretty early in his career, and it's just amazing for someone who was as young as he was at the time."
If the concept of a cover album seems like too much of a gamble for record labels, then the idea of a whole remake of an album must seem terrifying. But if Covered is any indication, Gray's take on Stevie Wonder will be nothing short of brilliant—and she just may start a whole new trend.