American singer Macy Gray tells Lydia Jenkin how she has expanded her musical horizons and what to expect at Raggamuffin.

Macy Gray's breakthrough single, I Try, swept round the world in 1999, clutching at hearts with its lovelorn lyrics and tantalising ears with her husky, passionate voice. She became a household name, went from strength to strength, releasing five original studio albums over a decade.

In recent times Gray has remained mostly out of the spotlight, but she's continued to tour and make music, releasing her first album recorded as an independent artist, The Way, in 2014, and grabbing attention late last year with a topical, conscious single, All I Want For Christmas.

This week she's coming to New Zealand to perform at Raggamuffin, bringing her full band, and brimming with enthusiasm for performing some favourite old tracks and sharing her latest creations, particularly songs from The Way, which have marked something of a turning point in her career.

"I guess working on The Way kind of reminded me of what I did on my first two albums, you know, I listened to all this great music, and I had wonderful musicians, and we could experiment with lots of different sounds, and we kind of went crazy. It's a gorgeous record that I'm really proud of.


"It's about how everybody has hopes and dreams, and about all the things that happen on your journey that get in the way of where you want to go. And it's about overcoming those obstacles, and everything that happens in between while you're making your dreams come true."

Gray's speaking voice is unexpectedly higher and more youthful than her singing tone, and she remains just as playful at 48 as she was in her younger days. One track, Bob, is particularly indicative of her sassy style and forthright attitude.

"That song is really a comment on how, when it comes to sex, how quiet women have to be. You know you have to lie and say you've only been with two guys, and you have to be so proper, and not be honest about the things that you want or the things that you think about. We're just as much part of the animal kingdom as men, but women have to be cool about it. I've never really understood that, and so I wanted to write a song about that."

Prior to recording The Way, Gray decided to step away from her solo career for a little while and expand her musical horizons by touring with some other acts. First was a world tour with blues and jazz saxophonist David Murray, complete with his big band.

"That was insane. My first band was a jazz band, so it was cool to do that again, on a different level. Because he's a whole different level of jazz, you know, he's a legend, and it's wild, it's a whole different world, and a different perspective on music.

"You know jazz can be a lot more narcissistic or selfish than pop or RnB in some ways, you know people can do 13-minute solos and songs go for half an hour, but they don't get nervous about having to make it a big show, and have dancers in the back, and try to please everyone. It's all about the music and the musicianship. I learned a lot about live performance."

Then she went on tour with a New Orleans-based band called Galactic.

"They're more of a jam band, I guess. They're like The Grateful Dead, you know, they do instrumental sections and horn solos, and they're experimenting. I really enjoy touring with all these different people because I learn a lot and I see a different style of doing things."

Both those experiences highlighted many different aspects of music for Gray and helped to engender a real feeling of freedom when it came to writing her own music again - and that feeling is something she really appreciates at this point in her career.

"I do get a lot of criticism for not being as commercial as I used to be, but actually I've really got into going in the opposite direction. I want my next record to be way more experimental, so yeah, I feel like I'm embracing that opportunity for freedom now. I need to keep things fresh and exciting for myself, try things I've never done before, so that's what I'm doing, and if it doesn't work out commercially then it doesn't, but at least I'm doing what I want to do."

It's a philosophy she's embraced when it comes to live performance, too - she's not interested in simply replicating the songs as they appear on her records, but rather taking their essence and creating a great atmosphere and experience for the audience, which is what you can expect from her Raggamuffin set. "It's pretty spectacular, you don't wanna miss it!" she laughs "It's definitely a party. We have a really good time up there and I have the best musicians. I really believe that in my heart and soul, they're brilliant. They give a whole new sound to my song, because it's their take on it, their feel for it - it's a whole different energy."

Who: Macy Gray
Where and when: Performing at Raggamuffin Festival at Trusts Arena in Auckland on Saturday, February 20
Listen to: The Way (2014)