9:30 Club presents at U Street Music Hall. - Early Show
1115 U Street NW
Washington, DC, 20009
When describing her second full-length album Natural Causes [KidinaKorner/Interscope Records], Skylar Grey cites a quote from Robert Redford, “This place in the mountains amid nature’s casualness toward death and birth is the perfect host for the inspiration of ideas.”
Writing and recording much of the album at her Park City, UT home, which she calls Grizzly Manor Studios, the five-time GRAMMY® Award-nominated multiplatinum singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist breathed inspiration from her surroundings and exhaled songs that speak to the magic and majesty of nature.
“The title Natural Causes is a play on words,” she explains. “I’m not referring to death per se, I’m referring to the fact that nature causes everything, including how we are born, how we breathe, how we feel, and how we die. We are nature. We are animals. When you have that perspective, you start taking everything less seriously and enjoy the moment. Even death, the most serious thing of all, becomes less scary and you realize life is just a fun adventure. I feel so lucky to have been given the opportunity to experience the magic in this world…the blossoming of a flower, the feeling of love, and even the feeling of heartbreak. That’s what it means to be alive, and I love it all. A lot of my lyrics on this album reflect these ideas.”
It’s a natural evolution for Grey. Co-writing smashes for the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and featuring on anthems alongside everybody from Eminem and Dr. Dre to Kaskade and Kid Cudi, she spent the past decade quietly assembling one of modern music’s most ubiquitous and undeniable discographies with cumulative sales surpassing 25 million worldwide. In 2015, she contributed “I Know You” to the chart-dominating Fifty Shades of Grey Official Soundtrack Album and “I Will Return” to the Furious 7 Official Soundtrack Album. Along the way, she fully realized a personal style that exists in the space between booming 808 bombast and dreamy, harmonically complex vocal layering.
“I take all of my favorite bits and make my own little cluster-fuck of sound,” she smiles. “That’s what my album is. I feel like I’ve finally put together a sound that captures the essence of me. It’s almost like a debut.”
Grey began working on what would become Natural Causes shortly after the release of 2013’s critically acclaimed Don’t Look Down, which bowed at #8 on the Billboard Top 200. She made short trips to Los Angeles in order to collaborate with producers including Alex Da Kid [Imagine Dragons, X Ambassadors], Mike Elizondo [Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple] and Mark Batson [Jay-Z, Dave Matthews Band], and Symbolic One [Kanye West, Beyonce]. Throughout the process, the artist aimed to capture a feeling reminiscent of drives she used to take from L.A. to Oregon back when she still resided in Southern California. Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and Bon Iver often soundtrack the trips.
“That drive up the 101 has always been the most poignant thing in my life,” she affirms. “I love being alone, especially driving through a beautiful place and listening to my favorite records. It’s the happiest I’ll ever be. I wanted to make an album that could sit alongside my favorites I listened to on that trek.”
In order to do so, Grey confidently stepped outside of her comfort zone. Not only did she oversee every aspect of the music’s creation, but she treaded new territory. She made an album with no feature guests. For the first time, she picks up the mic and raps during key moments of “Lemonade” and “Picture Perfect”—which she dubs a “personal favorite.” Her rhyme skills even take the spotlight on a separate contribution to the Suicide Squad Official Soundtrack Album entitled “Wreak Havoc.”
“Instead of having a rapper jump on these songs, I wanted to do my own rapping,” she goes on. “It’s a totally new realm for me, because I was so scared of attempting to rap a few years ago. I sent my first rap to the best person I could send it to for approval: Eminem. His endorsement gave me confidence to keep going. I had to do this for me. How will you grow if you’re always in your comfort zone?”
The ethereal guitar picking and entrancing delivery of “Moving Mountains” introduced the record in early 2016. “It came out of me doing self-help, therapy and digging into myself to be a happier person,” she says. “For my whole life, I thought happiness was a career. Success is so fleeting though. I realized what makes me happiest are the little moments hanging out with my dog and looking at a beautiful view. ‘Moving Mountains’ is about being present.”
Veering in and out of a driving electro beat and harmonic swell, “Off Road” showcases her spirit with an invigorating invitation to stray from the path most traveled. L’Oreal even embraced its energy for a high-profile 2016 campaign. “The song itself is centered around the concept of adventure,” she explains. “It’s a summer jam, and it shows another side of this record.”
Elsewhere on the album, “Straight Shooter” blasts out a sing-rap bounce through skittering production, while “Jump” sees her breathy voice entwine with a tribal chant and tripped-out delay. Continuing a long history of collaboration, Eminem produced “Come Up for Air.” Over a jazzy noir shuffle of drums by Questlove and a bass guitar hum, her stark and stirring vocal and poetic lyrics instantly captivate. “Marshall gave me a lot of great feedback, so I rewrote the lyrics like three times, but I finally got to a place where we both really love it,” she continues. “Lyrically, it’s coming from a darker place. It’s about loving somebody so much you’ll wait your whole life for that person even if it means you die waiting. That’s the power of real love. It can hurt.”
As Grey’s music remains a product of nature, it possesses that same power to inspire in the end.
“I want everybody to take their own meaning from Natural Causes,” she leaves off. “Music is open to interpretation. I hope people are inspired to dig down into themselves and figure out who it is they want to be.”
There’s a rich history in rock of exes making beautiful music together. But what makes TeamMate’s story particularly compelling is how insurmountable drummer Dani Buncher and singer-keyboardist Scott Simons’ break up seemed. One day they were daydreaming about growing old together, and the next, Dani came out to her boyfriend. The two had been dating for a full decade.
In the four years since that gutting split, an extraordinary connection and a mutual love of music have helped them dismantle, then rebuild, their relationship. “If we couldn’t be partners,” explains Scott, “we were still going to be teammates.” Getting there took work, as chronicled in their self-produced debut album (out in 2012 on Rostrum Records), an indie-pop memoir that charts the times and tides of their lives.
If TeamMate has an anthem, it would be first single “Sequel,” a reflection on modern love that aches beneath shimmering synths. It is “the happiest break-up song ever,” says Dani, “and literally says where we are as a couple.”
The duo was all-but-fated to meet. Dani, attending West Virginia University, played the snare drum in the marching band, while Scott, an alum of the college, fronted a touring power-pop band based out of the same town. They were both young, Jewish aspiring musicians, and as such, were introduced to each other at parties so much that, says Dani, “We’d always pretend we were meeting for the first time.” They soon started dating.
As Scott branched out as a solo musician, his music was often inspired or vetted by Dani, who did A&R for major labels after college. (It was she who encouraged him to record a wistful cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”) After working for several years in Manhattan, she returned to her hometown of Pittsburgh, moved in with Scott there, and started an indie band of her own.
They shared a home for a year, until things began to unravel. When Dani finally came out, she felt a sense of relief, assuaged by Scott’s unwavering support. “It wasn’t easy. But I lost my father when I was 20,” he says. “He was the most important person in my life. So as long as I have a choice to keep someone in my life, I’m going to.”
After the split, Scott headed out to Los Angeles to test his mettle as a professional pop songwriter-producer. Instinctively, he asked Dani to help him relocate, and she joined him on that cross-country jaunt. They cultivated a platonic ideal while visiting oddities such as the dinosaurs from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, singing along to the radio, and camping in the desert. “The whole way was a celebration of our friendship,” she says. Scott adds: “When she left to go back east, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re not going to be that close ever again. That was the end of a 10-year relationship.’”
Scott has prospered in Southern California. While making strides as a solo artist, he also landed gigs as a songwriter for major-label artists and as a keyboardist for touring acts. But a couple years after the move, Dani backed him up on drums for a gig in New York City—and everything just jelled from there. “I was like, ‘That’s it. This is the direction I want to go in. We need to make this a band project.’”
At heart, TeamMate is therapy. “Sometimes, I say stuff in songs that we’d never say in person,” admits Scott. Despite his compositions’ weighty themes, the melodies are surprisingly upbeat, inspired by Dani’s drumming. Tracks like “Landline” pine after the early, mobile phone-less days of their relationship, while others such as “Velcro” explore the duo’s undeniable bond, which they can finally joke about. TeamMate’s unofficial motto: “Breaking up is hard to do.”
“It all happened in an organic way,” Scott marvels. “And we’re so proud of where we are now.”