Singer, songwriter, actress and two time Grammy winner, Macy Gray, is back with a powerful new album, “The Way,” released on October 7th, 2014. She was getting ready to go on stage but took a moment to talk to me about her life, motherhood and her music.
Your career came on strong in 1999 with your smash hit “I Try.” At that time you were 30 years old and a single working mom to three young children. How did you handle juggling young children and your career?
It’s just motherhood. You get up and do the best you can balancing their needs, your career, and personal life. There is no instruction book for this and if there was I wouldn’t bother reading it anyway because there is no possible way to give advice. I couldn't imagine anyone telling me how to live my life. So, there isn’t a specific blueprint but a lot of improvising; especially with such young kids. Every day you wake up and it’s always something different. I just did my best, I worked hard, and focused on making sure my kids knew they were important. The only advice I can give is to know your kids, how to help them when they need it, and try to get everything done the best you can. It all balances out. My hats off to all moms because it’s very difficult and we just do the best we can.
Did your kids travel with you?
They did when they were little. I didn’t trust anyone but my mother or very close friends to take care of my kids. If my mother could not take care of my kids when I was preforming, I would bring them on the road with me. My mom is a teacher, so she is a working mom too. But I felt better knowing they were with me. As long as they were with me, I knew they were safe.
I read when you were at school you were ostracized because you were so tall and your unique voice. How did you overcome this and how did it help you as an adult?
I grew up in Canton, Ohio and as a kid I was teased a lot so I hardly spoke. Every time I opened my mouth someone would ask why I was putting on such a stupid voice. Even in my 40’s the residual effect of that teasing in elementary school is still there. I still think twice when ever I have to speak in public. To this day, people make fun of my voice.
Also, my mother was very demanding about keeping me active and involved. I was really shy but she made sure I was around people and always encouraged me to be social and proper. She is very social so that helped and she is the most talkative person you’ll ever meet. Looking back; I think keeping active and social saved my life. My mother had me participate in things that kept me involved and made me proud of myself.
It’s so different when you get out in life and interacting with people and going after the things you really want. You learn to accomplish things. For instance, if your daughter gets an A in science class, it may look like just an A to everyone but she’s now learned how to be successful, how to win and that carries on in life no matter what else is going on. But if all you have is negativity coming at you constantly you never get to say I can do that. Then things can go really wrong as you get older. Parents always want to protect their kids but you never know what it is doing to their hearts and minds. I credit my mother for helping me get through this rough time. When I was young, I didn’t understand what was happening or why I was being teased, but in the long run, my mothers support and keeping busy helped me.
You are public about being bipolar and such an inspiration to many families struggling with the stigma of mental illness. What can you recommend to a child or parent diagnosed with mental illness that has helped you?
Learning how to live with it takes a lot of time and a lot of maturity to grasp what is happening. I was diagnosed with bipolar when I was 19 and I met all kinds of doctors and took all kinds of pills. Mental health is not an exact science. There is a lot of experimenting and finding the right balance because there are so many levels of depression, so many varieties, and treatment plans. The key is having the right doctors. Not all doctors are a good fit and you don’t want to spend time with the wrong person. But it can be really debilitating if you go undiagnosed. It’s very complicated and only the individual really knows what they are going through.
Also, for a kid, there is nothing better then distraction when they are having issues. Personally, I kept busy and exercised. Living with bipolar is a lot of learning what works for you. Get involved with something that makes you feel good, anything that distracts you from bad thoughts. Be aware of triggers and keep kids away from negativity. Every little bit helps. I couldn’t give advice because it really is very individual to the person. You can’t just say you’ll get through it so someone who is bipolar because we don’t process things in the same way. It is a learning process, it's a hard and complicated disease to have. There is not a lot you can say. Keep a kid active and involved and engage them with questions.
If you can go back in time, what advice would you give to the 12 year old Macy?
I don’t know what I would tell myself. I have teenagers and I don’t know what to say to them now. I am lost with teenagers - they're a whole different species. I would say my mom did the right thing by keeping me active and staying positive. Otherwise I would have seen things from my favorite artists that look great and aren’t great, like smoking weed. I can tell you as a parent to teens, you have to say what is right and wrong. They may not seem to take you seriously but keep on them and they never forget. With my kids I feel the need to be really hard core about what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s acceptable and not acceptable. There is stuff they are going to do anyway. But you keep talking to them, they never forget your message.
Your voice and style is so unique. Have your kids inherited your music talent?
My son, Mel, is an artist and goes to a musicians institute and plays in a band. He's really good and focused. But he is 17 and is good at a lot of things so he may not go into music. Happy, my youngest daughter is 17 and plays piano. She’s not sure what she wants to do but she’s good at a lot of things. When she figures it out she has options. My oldest daughter, Aanisah, is a very talented artist in drawing and painting. She sold a couple of pieces and does a lot of graphic design for people. She is pretty sure about what she wants for her future. They all play instruments inspired by how my mom raised me.
Can you tell me more about your new album “The Way”?
It’s raw but some of the best songs that I’ve ever done. Lyrically, it’s from a career woman’s perspective, who has had kids and is now grown up. It’s where I am at now. I feel like there is not a lot of records that speak to my generation and speak to being a woman who has lived life and a lot of the songs on this album that speak to that. It’s definitely an album for grown ups, not specifically women but since I am a woman it is from my perspective. I’m really proud of it. It is awesome musically and we have some great songs; 3-4 that I think are the best songs I’ve ever done. I think a lot of people are going to really like it.
What is next for you?
Everything is great. I’m excited about my new record and for people to start hearing it and I’m touring the country now.
Originally published October, 2014.