Macy Gray is philosophical about slumping sales


John Soeder
Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic

Whatever happened to Macy Gray?

"Hmm? I don't know what you mean," the neo- soul singer in question said when the question was put to her point-blank.

A few years ago, when her 1999 debut "On How Life Is" landed Gray aboard an express elevator to superstardom, her Betty Boop-on-helium voice was all over the radio. You couldn't watch television or pick up a magazine without seeing Gray and her skyscraping Afro, either.

Lately, however, she hasn't been nearly as difficult to avoid.

"Oh, right - well, everything changes, you know," Gray said during a recent phone interview.

Born and raised in Canton, where she was known as Natalie McIntyre, Gray was back in her hometown for Christmas, visiting family. She'll perform Wednesday at the Cleveland State University Convocation Center, opening for David Bowie.

For Gray, dwindling album sales and diminished airplay are sound ing a wake-up call. Her overnight success is over.

Taking the reversal of fortune in stride, Gray is branching out beyond music into film, fashion and other areas.

"It's important for me to go through ups and downs in my career," she said. "I'm a much better artist because of it."

Her third CD, "The Trouble With Being Myself," came out in July.

If nothing else, she still has a major fan in Bowie. The legendary rock 'n' roller handpicked Gray as "special guest" for the first North American leg of his latest world tour.

"I love Macy Gray," Bowie said in a separate interview. "I can relate to the outsiderness of what she does and who she is.

"She's a damn good songwriter, too. I thought her second album was enormous."

"The Id," Gray's follow-up to "On How Life Is," sold 592,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It was by no means a bomb, although it was a far cry from the multiplatinum sales of 3.4 million copies racked up by her debut, which earned five Grammy nominations. Gray won the best female pop-vocal performance award for her breakthrough Top 5 hit, "I Try."

"Now she's having a real tough time getting people to listen to her third album," Bowie said.

Despite favorable reviews, "The Trouble With Being Myself" has sold a humbling 108,000 copies.

"When you don't sell a lot of records, people call it a failure," Gray said. "You just got to keep doing your thing."

Poor timing didn't help her last CD. When "The Id" arrived in stores one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the funkadelic album's upbeat mood was out of sync with the somber times.

"War doesn't do anything for anybody," Gray said. "But I'm the type who doesn't like to give excuses, you know?"

All the same, she pointed a finger at her record label, Epic, for not promoting her last two releases as heavily as her first. "They're not as supportive of my music as they used to be," Gray said.

Her career certainly hasn't suffered for lack of self-promotion. At the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, her dress (now hanging in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum) bore the message: MY NEW ALBUM DROPS SEPT. 18.

She's happy to plug "The Trouble With Being Myself," too.

"It's a great album," Gray said. "It's more sophisticated, more elegant than the other two. It shows another side of me."

"When I See You," the new CD's first single and a not-too- distant cousin of the Jackson 5's "ABC," went nowhere on the Billboard charts. Ditto the second single, "She Ain't Right for You, " a lush, lovelorn ballad.

The album title refers to the occupational hazards of life in the limelight, Gray said.

At times, part of the trouble with being herself seems to be coming off like a world-class space cadet. Gray made headlines when she fumbled the lyrics to the national anthem before the 2001 Pro Football Hall of Fame game.

"I will say this: I'm not ditzy, and I'm not druggy," she said. "If you're honest with the press or you reveal yourself, sometimes people exploit it or take it the wrong way.

"I've stopped reading my press. . . . A lot of it was wrong."

When it comes to her age, she only has herself to blame for some misinformation.

Gray claims to be 34. But Ohio drivers-license records indicate she was born Sept. 6, 1967, making her 36.

Downward CD sales notwithstanding, money apparently isn't too tight around Chez Macy. The MTV series "Cribs" recently gave viewers a tour of her mansion in Encino, Calif., complete with color-coordinated "Chocolate Room" and a poolside water slide.

Gray declined to reveal how much her crib is worth.

"I'm doing all right," she said, giggling coyly. "I do other stuff, besides music."

Gray has landed parts in several films, including the blockbusters "Training Day" and "Spider-Man." Later this year, you can catch her in "The Crow: Wicked Prayer" and a remake of "Around the World in 80 Days," starring Jackie Chan.

Before music beckoned, Gray studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California.

She is co-writing an animated TV series, "A Pretty Good Life," currently in development. Gray is working on a script for a movie about her family, too.

Her stepfather died of cancer in 2002. Her mother still lives in Canton.

Gray is divorced, with two daughters and a son. In private, she still goes by her married name, Natalie Hinds, which soon will double as the brand name for her own fashion line of glamour wear for working women.

The clothes are due in stores this summer.

"We'll also have a line for tall women like myself," said Gray, a 6-footer.

"I've created opportunities for myself, so I can get into other things. With the economy the way it is, you have to maximize your brain. Whatever ideas you have, if you can make them happen, you should."

She has been talking to Bowie about recording a duet for this summer's Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

In the meantime, you can hear Gray's update of "Santa Baby" on the "Mona Lisa Smile" soundtrack.

Between her own studio projects, she also has collaborated with the likes of Santana, Stevie Nicks and Fatboy Slim.

"I want to do a lot of other things," Gray said. "But I still love music the best."

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© 2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

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