“These were songs that I would’ve probably written in another life,” says Macy Gray in her trademark rasp. She’s been asked to identify the common denominator linking the wildly varied songs on Covered, her stunning new collection of cover songs. “And,” she continues, “they’re almost all these kind of dark love songs, which is the mood I’m in right now – to sing these I-wanna-slit-my-wrists-but-I-love-you songs. They already said what I want to say, perfectly.”
To the casual music fan, Macy Gray tackling a covers album might seem wholly out of left field – especially since the material she chose to reinterpret is largely drawn from indie rock tunes made over the last decade or so. (Exceptions are Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again,” from 1984, and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” from 1992.) But Covered is not your typical covers album. It deftly redefines what such an undertaking is and can be, which makes it very much a Macy Gray project.
A gifted songwriter and dazzlingly singular singer, the mom of three teenagers has been overturning fan expectation and industry formula since kicking off her music career with her debut 1999 CD, On How Life Is. That musical calling card spawned the classic single “I Try,” and both the CD and single were massive global hits. They kicked off a career ride that includes two Grammys, two MTV awards, over 15 million units sold, and a thriving acting career.
What awards and sales figures fail to illustrate is the depth and breadth of Macy’s artistry. In an industry that is increasingly stifling of real artists, she’s forged her own vision, creating music that leaps genre barriers from experimental soul to alternative rock, from retro-disco to hip-hop. Her artistic integrity and innovativeness has won her fans across the world, including artists such as John Frusciante, Erykah Badu, Gang Starr, Mos Def, and Pharoah Monche, all of whom have collaborated with her.
And Covered shows her at a creative peak.
Where many such albums are safe, formulaic exercises in reviving standards or jumpstarting jazz warhorses, Macy and producer Hal Willner (Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, Laurie Anderson) opted for more biting, contemporary fare. But though they had (and have) a marvelously smooth working relationship, the making of Covered wasn’t without its pause-inducing moments, especially at the beginning of the process.
“Before we started recording, recalls Macy, “I got obsessed with Nina Simone’s version of ‘My Way.’ She didn’t worry about what people would think or how they would compare it to anybody else. I saw how she just took that song and every song she ever did, and made them her own. So, I went in with the confidence that we could do whatever we wanted.
The result is a collection that wittily reimagines songs that are already much beloved by their target demographic fans. Covered manages to retain the emotional honesty of those songs while artfully reconfiguring the musical contexts, and clearing space for Macy to place her indelible stamp on them.
Willner’s and Gray’s “Here Comes the Rain Again,” replaces Eurythmics’ familiar chilled despair with a more palpably vulnerable ache as the music sweeps along moodily and cinematically. Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” starts off plaintively, and then slowly unfolds into a rousing, genre-bending anthem whose indie rock inflections give way to African flavored percussion and a swooping choir. My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers” has been subversively overhauled, transformed from an angry adolescent joust about the ways society hamstrings and abuses its youth, to the ways teenagers torture everyone around them – especially their parents.
“I remember when ‘Teenagers’ first came out,” says Macy, “and I was struck by this kind of Duke Ellington feel to it. The melody was always such a jazz thing. So when we were talking about this album, I immediately thought about that song. But when I read the lyrics, they didn’t have anything to do with me at all. I got the idea to switch it up and make it more relevant to something that I would say. I re-wrote it from a mom’s point of view. It worked out perfectly; it makes sense both ways.”
Sublime’s cover version of “Two Joints” is the inspiration for Macy’s take on it. It’s given a soft reggae undertow and is now (at least in part) a sly, tongue-in-cheek nod toward Macy’s own public persona, and there’s a clever interpolation of the Rare Earth classic, “I Want to Celebrate,” at the song’s end. Radiohead’s iconic “Creep” was lifted by Macy a few years back and integrated into her live set, so longtime fans already think of her as co-owner of it. The studio version takes the tune’s self-flagellation to a new level of emotional brutality.
While Macy’s mastery of these songs (and others, including Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown) may surprise people who haven’t been playing close attention, the artistic triumph won’t come as a surprise to longtime fans with discerning ears. They know that the singer-songwriter long ago proved she was capable of everything from moody pop to exuberant disco. But Macy, while justifiably proud of Covered, is also characteristically modest and low-key when assessing it.
“It’s cool,” she chuckles. “Everybody just went in and poured their hearts out. It was a really relaxed atmosphere when we were recording, and good things come out of people when they’re in a good atmosphere.”