Macy Gray

“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 them 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 1983, and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” from 1991.) 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 2000 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 multiple Grammys and MTV awards, over 25 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 (the original recorded by The Toyes) 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 paying 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.”

A Boston native, singer/songwriter Shea Rose graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2011 and has since been embraced by local fans and media for her iconic music and style. Winner of the 2012 Pop/R&B Artist of the Year and 2011 R&B/Soul/Urban Contemporary Artist of the Year at the Boston Music Awards, the Boston Globe named Rose the “artist most likely to make an impact on the national stage.” Steve Morse, former music critic at the Globe, described her as “that rare artist who can bridge diverse styles such as soul, funk, rock, rap and jazz -- and bring her unique stamp to each.” Most recently, Jay Miller of the MetroWest Daily News described her first headline show in Boston as, “a show that was as galvanizing and irresistible as anything you're ever likely to hear at mega-venues like TD Garden.” Queen Latifah even called her “America’s next female rapper.”

Rose’s first release came in 2010 when she produced the “Rock ‘n Rose” EP, followed a year later by the "Little Warrior” mixtape, both showcasing her range and versatility with songs that highlight her influences, from Kanye West and Lauryn Hill to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Jed Gottlieb of the Boston Herald describes her repertoire as “sweet folk ballads, thunderous hard rock and deep funk. She also raps with a wicked flow that belies her newcomer status.” Lauren Carter, also of the Herald, says “Shea Rose has created her own niche…a blend of hip-hop, R&B, jazz, funk and rock that leaves her virtually peerless in the urban-music world.”

The influences that color her live performance are equally as diverse. Noelle Janka of Performer Magazine says that her energy onstage “calls to mind the raw energy of Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha…She’ll get the whole crowd jumping up and down, almost yelling the lyrics,” but also notes the contrast of her acoustic sets, where “Rose’s stripped-down stage setup – sans drum kit or bass – really complements her presence.” Martin Caballero of the Boston Globe recounts her 2011 Boston Music Awards performance: “She lit up the room with a striking combination of raw energy and polished musicianship, leading her band as they fearlessly bounded through the myriad of hip-hop, rock, and funk influences that colored her 2011 mixtape ‘Little Warrior,’” adding that, “Shea Rose is now on the fast track to success.”

In addition to her 2010 and 2011 releases, Rose was featured on Terri Lyne Carrington's 2011 Grammy award-winning jazz album, "The Mosaic Project,” where she worked alongside Nona Hendryx, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves and Esperanza Spaulding, among others. In March of 2012 Shea received a SESAC National Performance Activity Award for the collaboration.

Off stage, Rose is dedicated to music for social change, working with local organizations through her social outreach project, My Angel Wears A Fro, and with Music2Life, a non-profit foundation started by Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary (www.myangelwearsafro.org, www.music2life.org).

In September, Shea and her band performed their first headline show in Boston to rave reviews and later kicked off a monthly residency at the Mandarin Oriental Boston’s M Bar & Lounge to a packed house during Boston Fashion Week. Notable performances include the 2012 SXSW Red Bull Soundstage/Universal Music Group showcase, headlining the CMJ showcase in New York hosted by Berklee College of Music, and a performance alongside greats like Gladys Knight and Take 6 at Boston’s illustrious Steppin’ Out Gala for the Dimock Center.

$40 advance / $45 day of show

Tickets

The Sinclair is general admission standing room only.
Tickets available at TICKETMASTER.COM, or by phone at 800-745-3000. No service charge on tickets purchased in person at The Sinclair Box office Tuesdays-Saturdays 12-7PM. Please note: box office is cash only.

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Macy Gray with Shea Rose

Friday, November 15 · Doors 8:00 PM / Show 9:00 PM at The Sinclair