Macy Gray's meteoric rise to the top and equally spectacular fall from grace is the stuff of celebrity crash-and-burn legend.

Gray seemingly popped up from nowhere in 1999 as the fabulous singer with the out-of-control afro, quirky vocals and one hell of a debut album, On How Life Is.

By 2001, however, Gray was simply "Spacey Macy", the disgraced singer notorious for rudeness and non-stop partying who committed America's closest act to treason by forgetting the lyrics to the national anthem at a pro football match in her hometown of Ohio. The performance drew laughter and booing from the crowd and Gray later described it as "life's most embarrassing moment".

A string of ho-hum albums followed, as did concerts where she would slur her way through the lyrics or cancel altogether. It appeared Gray was a victim of her own demons, struck with the dreaded curse that so often befalls artists who raise the bar so high with their debuts that they spend the rest of their careers trying to top it.

But that was then, and this is now.

At 42, Gray is determined she won't be defined by her early mistakes. She's back with new album The Sellout and, although she's hungrier for success than ever, it appears this time it's different. The album, she explains, is the story of how she found her salvation in just being herself, instead of who other people thought she should be.

"I had got to a place in my career where I tried everything that was asked of me and in doing so I lost sight of who Macy Gray really was," she explains.

The Sellout follows 2007's Big, the singer's so-called comeback which flopped miserably in the charts and left her questioning her next move. Gray desperately rang around the hottest producers and writers in America - "but none of those people called me back", she says.

With her ego badly bruised, Gray pulled together a group of select friends and musicians and rented a cheap studio in the San Fernando Valley. Over the course of a year the mum of three children aged 12-15 regained her confidence and songs for the new album slowly began to take shape.

"I wanted to make sure I had something to say. It's cool to go into the studio and do a bunch of songs, but I wanted to do something that was different and refreshing; something that would make people stop and pay attention to my lyrics."

It was the first time Gray, a two-time Grammy Award winner, had worked without the backing of a label. And although a terrifying prospect at first, she says it enabled her to make the record she wanted.

"I was unaffected. I didn't have some guy telling me what to do or who to work with. It's like being alone in your room; you do totally different things when people are not around," she says.

"I think that's what being an artist is all about but sometimes in this industry you get put in a position where you have to consider a lot of compromises. On this one, I didn't compromise at all. "I did my own thing and I had a good time. I think it's my best record."

While Gray may have overcome the rejection that followed her last album, and has learned how to protect herself from the corporate powers-that-be, she's unashamedly and refreshingly honest about the fact that, commercially, she's expecting big things from the album.

"It [the title] is a prediction about how all my records are going to sell out in stores and how I'm going to see out all my concert tickets."
Much like her first album, which spawned the hits I Try and Still, The Sellout defies genre. There are touches of classic Gray at her soulful best on vulnerable ballads such as Still Hurts, which sits perfectly against the pop/funk of Lately, her favourite track on the album. Then there's the driving T-Rex-style rock of Kissed It, which features her long-time friend Slash on guitar, and the 80s-flavoured That Man.

On paper it is a lot to fit in one album, but for Gray that's where the magic lies.

"You know there's a saying that we're influenced by everything that we hear, and we really are. You know what I mean? If you go into the studio and if you let all of that come out, you'll find that you come up with all kinds of stuff," she says.

"I would hate to only do one kind of song. That would be horrible. You know when you listen to a Prince record he'll do R'n'B ballads and have a hard rock track next to it, and he'll do a funk tune and rap on the next. I really admire that because there's so much music out there. It's asking a lot, to ask artists to do only one thing."

Gray admits she is also driven by always being "in need"; by always wanting to achieve something she hasn't achieved before. She's not ruling out making "all sorts of records in future". Her next, she says, may even be an album of house music.

"The most important thing in life is to be hungry and to always be wanting things. If you don't want something then you won't get it, and if you don't want anything then you won't have anything."

Her hunger could be read as a desperate attempt to rekindle the success of a decade ago, which she let slip through her hands. But it's a theory best left to the cynics because Gray's new album really is something quite special. Besides, she says, music is all she knows.
"This is what I do best and it's my livelihood and I love it. I can't imagine life without it."

*Macy Gray's new album, The Sellout, is released June 21.