At the beginning of Ariana Grande's most recently released Dangerous Woman song, "Leave Me Lonely," you can hear Macy Gray singing ever-so sadly and sensually, a combination that has you yearning for an absent lover. Gray brings her signature rasp—the one that won her a Grammy in 2001 for "I Try"—to the forlorn track, giving it an air of mystery and heartbreak.
Gray got on the phone us to talk about the collaboration, and how it's led to the "freshest stuff" she'll be putting out with her upcoming album. We chat about her work with bringing local young musicians onstage and her three-hour-long conversation with Prince.
FUSE: How did your collaboration with Ariana Grande come together?
Gray: Long story short: I went to meet with a writer name Wendy Goldstein. She’s the head of A&R at Republic Records, the label that Ariana’s on. I just went in to play her stuff. They were just in the middle of finishing the album, and they had that "Leave Me Lonely," and at the time, the person who wrote it was just singing on it, just to show whoever was gonna sing it how it would go, and so it was kind of a demo. And Wendy asked me to do it, and said ‘Let me check with Ariana,’ and then two days later we were in the studio and I went and cut it.
What kind of direction did you get from Ariana and the producers?
I really just sang it. It was almost kind of like it was written for me. It was right up my alley. I didn’t have to work too hard.
I love the memes you’ve been posting after Ariana performed the song live for the first time in Las Vegas. Do you get into the whole meme game?
She has hardcore fans. I had no idea. They’re hilarious. Some of them just make me crack up. I don’t even know how people do that stuff. I’m totally in awe.
I like the one you tweeted with the blurry GRAMMY and then it turned out to be Ariana holding the track's title. I hope you get a second GRAMMY for this!
I know, right? That’d be awesome.
Do you think there’s a lot of crossover between fans? Like Macy Gray fans become Ariana fans and Arianators become Macy Gray fans?
I hope so. I think everybody knows who she is. I think people know who we both are. Her fans are a way lot younger than mine. It’s a cool crossover that way—two different generations. Well, would that be a generation between me and her? I guess so. Fuck! I’m getting old. It’s two generations coming together on this song. I was really flattered that she was down and that she was a fan of mine. That goes both ways ‘cause one of my favorite songs is "Love Me Harder." Remember that song?
Oh yeah, of course!
I know, I went crazy.
And your kids are kind of like her age too, right?
A little big younger.
I just went back and read this op-ed piece you wrote for Huffington Post in 2010. You’ve spoken about age discrimination in the music industry before and how being 40 is like "geriatric" and it’s harder to get on the radio. What I love about this song is that you have two people singing about the same thing, romance and toxic relationships—showing that women of all ages go through the same things.
That’s a great thing about music: It doesn’t discriminate age and color. I think people like what they like but they don’t really care who’s singing it. I think the industry cares and makes that important. Like, my daughter yesterday, she’s blasting "Borderline" by Madonna. Of course I knew she knew who Madonna was, but I didn’t know she knew her records and stuff. I think kids are a lot more hip to where music came from. They all have parents who blast their music during the day too. Yeah, I think the music industry is kind of hung up on things like that, but I think people just want to hear a song they can dance to or cry to or sing along with.
“That’s a great thing about music: It doesn’t discriminate age and color.”
You’ve been working with the GRAMMYs on bringing local musicians into your shows, right?
It’s a City Winery tour and we’re doing four cities and we’re going to get kids, like music students to back me up each night. The GRAMMYs are helping with MusiCares and music camp because they have access to kids who are coming up. They’re doing the whole show with me. It’s gonna be crazy for me, but we’re gonna do it! I think it’s important to involve that generation and give them the sense that they can do this too. It makes a huge difference in your future and what you think of yourself.
It’s gonna be crazy for you just because you’re going to be vibing with different people each night?
Yeah, with kids, you know. Like, literally they’re going to be kids. Actually, on my jazz album, there’s a 19-year-old who played bass and he was really extraordinary. I’m not nervous; it’s just gonna be wild. It’s something I’ve never done before.
What’s your new album like?
I wish I could describe it. It’s like something totally new, like, people don’t understand. It’s like stuff you never heard before. When I went it to do Ariana’s song, me and the producer, Tommy Brown, we really hit it off. It was me, him and Tommy Parker. We’ve been writing ever since. We came up with the freshest stuff. It’s blowing my mind. I can’t wait til people hear it. Ariana kind of hooked me up.
I saw that you tweeted about talking to Prince for three hours once. What did you talk about?
We talked about—god—all kinds of stuff. I mean, we talked for three hours, so we talked about all kinds of stuff. It was after my show. He came to my show, which I was really blown away by. In Toronto. I was playing The Guvernment, it’s like a big rave place. He sent someone to my bus. We met somewhere in the club and the lights were out. It was so bizarre, but it was Prince so I didn’t really say nothin’ about that. It was weird sitting in the dark. Yeah, we talked about all kinds of stuff—music, he was talking about his girl at the time, and he gave me a bunch of advice. He asked me where I was getting my music style from and all this stuff. It was crazy that he was interested in me because I was a massive fan of his, like everyone else. I love Prince.
No. 1 fan?
Yeah, that’s me. For sure.