Though Macy Gray is a multi-platinum/Grammy award winning pop artist, she thinks of herself as a jazz singer. Performing with jazz bands is how she got her start, and it’s what Gray does on her new Chesky Records release Stripped, a collection of reimagined songs from her catalog, three new originals and two covers.
“My style of music is really jazz, even if you listen to ‘I Try,’” she says, referring to the Grammy-winning hit song from her 1999 debut, which made Gray a household name. “That’s how I learned to sing, in jazz bands with a piano player and a drummer and a bassist, playing brunches and little jazz rooms at 3 in the morning.”
She brings that intimate, late-night feel to Stripped, opening the album with the subtly searing new tune “Annabelle” and turning “I Try” into a glimmering study in muted guitar, anchored by an authoritative upright bass part. It’s one of five previously recorded songs that Gray and an ace band reinterpret. “Sweet Baby” becomes taut and urgent, “Slowly” unfolds into a slow-burner, “The First Time” has a torchy elegance and “She Ain’t Right for You” bobs along on an airy reggae backbeat.
It’s not the only reggae touch on Stripped: Gray sings with aching sensitivity on a cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which she calls “the best song ever written.” She drew from a very different sensibility for the other cover: Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” A brooding statement of defiance as recorded by the heavy metal band takes on a different resonance through Gray. “The arrangement of it is in three, so it’s got this kind of gospel backbeat to it, which is so far away from heavy metal,” she says. “The instruments are stand-up bass and piano, so you get at that really sad thing. It’s a whole different song in that arrangement. I think it’s really beautiful.”
The musicians who perform on Stripped arranged the songs. Gray first met them — drummer Ari Hoenig (Joshua Redman), trumpeter Wallace Roney (Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis), guitarist Russell Malone (Diana Krall) and bassist Daryl Johns — when the band assembled to rehearse with the singer. They began recording the next day in a deconsecrated church in Brooklyn, where everyone played live around a single microphone. It took just two days to record the 10 songs on the album.
“There’s no overdubs, there’s no mix, so there’s nothing you can go back and do over and make it sound any better than what it is,” Gray says. “I didn’t realize that while we were doing it. I thought, ‘OK, I’ll take it home and if I hear something I don’t like, I’ll sing over it.’ It was kind of a culture shock, but it was fun, and everybody in the room was more than capable of handling it.”
The idea for the album came from label co-founder Norman Chesky, who pitched it to Gray. The singer was intrigued. “I like pushing things, doing things that I don’t know if I can do, or that people don’t know that I can do,” says Gray, who diverted “Annabelle” and another quietly moving new song, “The Heart,” from a different project she had been working on. (She and the band wrote the other new tune, “Lucy,” on the spot during the recording sessions.) “I like experimenting a lot. It goes with who I am as an artist.”
Stripped is Gray’s ninth studio album. The Ohio native started singing while she was studying screenwriting at the University of Southern California. When another vocalist didn’t show up at a session to record demos of some songs Gray had written, she sang them herself, and, after a few years (and plenty of late-night jazz gigs), had released her three-times platinum debut, On How Life Is. She has released seven studio albums since, including a 2012 collection of Stevie Wonder songs, Talking Book; and her most recent, The Way, in 2014. In addition, Gray has landed roles in movies including Training Day, Idlewild and Shadowboxer. She was also a contestant on Season 9 of Dancing With the Stars.
The process of making Stripped was different than anything Gray had done before, but she enjoyed it enough that she’s open to doing it again. “I had a genuine interest in doing something like this,” she says. “I hope people get into it for what it is. I hope people get into making records like that — it’s a really wild way to make a record.”