When Macy Gray hit the scene in summer '99, I was a pop music critic intern at a paper in Dallas. I remember Roz, a writer-editor I befriended there (may she rest in peace), couldn't stand her. "Oh, I just wanna choke Macy Gray," she said once. "That voice gets on my nerves."
But I liked it. I thought Gray's woozy, scratchy vocals - backed by the dense, trippy arrangements coloring her debut, On How Life Is - were wonderfully unique. I also dug her left-field style: the funky clothes, wild hair and intense, mess-with-me-if-you-dare stare. On an imaginary musical family tree, I thought of her as the nutty niece of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.
"I don't get her," Roz said, pursing her lips. "She's just the new flavor for now."
But the artist born Natalie McIntyre has managed to stick around. Although she hasn't repeated the multi-platinum success of On How Life Is, which spawned the Grammy-winning, pop smash "I Try," she has continued to push her alt-soul approach, albeit with mixed results. After fumbling with two unfocused albums - 2001's The Id and 2003's The Trouble With Being Myself - she returned in March with Big, her most engaging set since the debut.
"We wanted to make a raw album about melody and beats," says Gray, who headlines Lyric Opera House tonight. "But it turned into this other thing. I love it, though."
With production by Gray, will.i.am and Ron Fair, Big places Gray's attractively frayed voice in slick, sweeping arrangements without sounding contrived. As I absorbed the album, it became clear that Big is supposed to be the Ohio native's diva moment. The cover art certainly suggests that: Gray's face is wreathed in black feathers, her makeup immaculate. She's also stylishly coiffed in the CD booklet art.
But I miss the wild 'fro.
"Man, it was time for a change," Gray says of her new glam look. "I'm a sexy goddess."
Gray's confidence sells her music. On Big, she's supported by a few marquee names, including Fergie, Justin Timberlake, will.i.am and Natalie Cole.
"I love Natalie Cole, love her," says the friendly Los Angeles-based artist, calling from her tour bus outside of San Diego. The pop-soul veteran shadows Gray on Big's well-received first single, the rousing "Finally Made Me Happy." "She's a pro, man. She came in and did it all in one take. She was in the studio for, like, two hours tops."
One of my favorite songs on the new album is "What I Gotta Do," an openhearted midtempo number Gray dedicates to her kids, ages 12, 11 and 9. Without being too precious, the song explores the rigors of being a single mom with an extraordinary job that keeps her away from home months at a time: What I gotta do/There's no place that I'd rather be than there with you/It's what I gotta do to take care of you/Make it right.
"Sometimes they get to go on the road with me," Gray says. "They've been touring with me for so long they know how to hang out and get on the bus, pack their stuff."
For the Big tour, Gray, whose concert performances early on were sometimes disjointed and a bit loopy, has refined her show.
"It's more theatrics and dynamics," she says, sounding animated. "We crafted every moment of the show. We managed to put every song from Big in the show, three songs from Id and one from Trouble With Being Myself. I change four times. They're props. It's awesome."
I push for specifics, wanting to know exactly how she plans to dazzle the crowd.
"Can't tell you everything," she says with a throaty chuckle. "It's all pretty cool. You have to come."
See Macy Gray and the Brand New Heavies at 8 tonight at Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $50-$60 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.