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."

Jillette Johnson

For Jillette Johnson the journey has been as integral to her musical experience as the destination. Jillette, who began taking music lessons and penning songs as a child, has been performing live since she was 12, captivating audiences with her sultry, thoughtful piano-driven tunes. The musician, now 23, has spent the last decade cultivating her sound and defining her unique perspective. When she moved to New York City from her small town of Pound Ridge, NY at 18, Jillette was already familiar with the city and its clubs, from Sidewalk Cafe to The Bitter End to Rockwood Music Hall.

In early 2012, Jillette inked a deal with Wind-Up Records, who were drawn in by her standout track "Cameron," an inspirational number that explores the struggle of a transgendered person. The song appeared on the singer's five-track EP, Whiskey & Frosting, which came out in August 2012, a prelude to her debut album Water In A Whale, out June 25, 2013. Culled from six months worth of recording sessions at Wind-Up's New York studio, the album traces Jillette's experiences and ideas about living in the city and being young in today's society. She finished the album fall 2012, just before going out on tour, and as it turned out those weeks on the road shifted the musician's sensibilities.

"There's this funny thing that happens when you go on the road," Jillette says. "Because you're not around the people that you're normally around and you're in a different environment and you're constantly being creative and putting out things. Your voice starts to change, both literally and figuratively. I just started growing really rapidly and my perspective started changing a lot. I got back two weeks before Christmas and I knew that we had to have everything done by the first of the year. So I had six months to make the record and two weeks to change everything. A lot of artists don't get that opportunity, to be able to have the album that they made and come back and make tweaks. That's pretty rare and I got to do it."

The final album, which features the five tracks found on Whiskey & Frosting, centers on Jillette's soaring vocals and the sparse, haunting piano lines she wrote to accompany them. Produced by Peter Zizzo (Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne) and Michael Mangini (Joss Stone, David Byrne), the album reveals Jillette's pensive reflections on the world around her, all of which lead to a deeper understand of self-identity. "Cameron," the disc's lead single, was written both from personal experience with someone the musician knows and from the idea of what it means to grapple with who you are. The glowing number focuses on what it means to be authentic to one's self, a universal theme.

"I do have someone in my life that's transgendered and I've learned a lot from this person," Jillette says. "But I think I actually wrote 'Cameron' more about myself and about that feeling of being alien in your own skin. It's been really awesome to play that song around the country and meet people who share stories that may have to do with being transgendered or may have to do with feeling a little bit different."

The real power comes from those songs about the musician herself, however and the rest of the album follows in tone. "When the Ship Goes Down," a hushed ballad, plays with the idea of the immortality you feel when you're young while the sultry "Bassett Hound" offers an unbalanced account of unrequited love, based on, as Jillette says, "every time I showed too many of my cards and wanted someone too much." The ethereal "Pauvre Coeur" treads similar ground, excising the anger the singer felt about a relationship that started to "devour" her. "True North," a soaring and epic number written in that urgent two-week period last winter, touches on what it means to return home, a fulcrum for the musician's ideas about her identity. "It's about coming home and accepting the failures that you endure along the way," Jillette says. "And realizing that you're gonna have a place to come home to, and that's the home inside your own head when all the other voices go away. Because they're not you so they don't care enough to stay that long. You're still going to have your own voice and that's what coming home means to me."

Jillette, who's toured with Delta Rae among others, brings her impassioned live aesthetic onto the album, infusing each number with a sense of intimacy and fervor. The songs shift from light-hearted buoyancy of "Bassett Hound" to the heavy urgency of "Cameron," showcasing a viable array of musical – and lyrical – inspiration. For Jillette, whose years of experience and practice have set her up for what's to come, the goal is to bring these songs to life for as many people as possible.

"The next year or two I think are wide open, in terms of what amazing things could happen," the singer says. "And I think it's just up to me to work hard every day and have a lot of luck. I hope to really build my live show. I can't get to hung up on what exactly will happen. It's really just about every day playing my heart out and connecting with fans over human experiences."

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