Perfectly, Tragically Gray

It’s a tragedy. It’s an ongoing moment of national shame that needs to be addressed. Macy Gray is amazing, and she should be a consistently top selling artist.

Though neo-soul/funk singer songwriter Macy Gray has achieved a level of fame that many artists could only dream about, and though she has won numerous Grammy awards and other accolades throughout her career, she is far from the superstar that, in every conceivable right, she absolutely ought to be.

We should have done better by Macy Gray. We could have done better by Macy Gray. She deserved more.

In 1999, Gray released her first album On How Life Is. At 32 years old, a single mom with three children, she did not align with preconceived notions that likely many potential listeners had. Released alongside monster albums by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and TLC, Macy Gray was older, her voice was raspier, and her songs were a bit more challenging. On How Life Is is filled with beautifully funkified songs about freedom, God, dancing and sex. It’s a joyous, rousing album that is perfectly sung and performed.

The first release off her first album was “Do Something,” a quasi-inspriational song that was not quite a dance tune, not quite a ballad. It peaked at number 43 on the US Billboard charts, and then slowly petered away.

The record label then released “I Try” as the next single, even though Macy Gray strenuously begged them not to. She thought there were stronger songs on the album. She thought it was not really representative of what she could do. She thought its release would bring an early end to a career that was struggling to even begin.

Boy, was she wrong.

Macy Gray wrote the lyrics of “I Try” about trying to leave her boyfriend, the father of her children. She wanted to forget him and start her new life. But she couldn’t leave his memory behind.

The song starts with the low, foreboding sound of a double cello note, soon joined by the lonely, hollow wail of a Hammond B3 organ, and then the voluminous sound of a full string section. All of this happens in the first seven seconds of the song, and then we hear that voice.

“Games, changes, and fears
When will they go from here?

When will they stop?
I believe that fate has brought us here
And we should be together, babe
But we’re not”

The music falls in to a traditional 4/4 beat. There is a great chugging conversation between guitar and bass, driven by a percussive shuffling rhythm of high hat cymbal and snare drum. And then her voice, a voice of age and experience, experience and pain, pain and regret, sneaks in. Her voice sounds smokey and raspy, and yet beautiful, and she pushes and pulls the lyrics and adds color and tonality to every word she sings.

Halfway through the first verse, the music comes to a complete stop, at the word “stop,” and only Macy’s voice is left. Left as a whisper. Left as a silent command. The piano plays descending notes, leading us to the bridge.

I play it off, but I’m dreaming of you
I’ll keep my cool, but I’m fiendin

Macy Gray is a wonderful lyricist, and it is easy to find examples of joyful, creative wordplay throughout her catalog. I had never heard the word “fiendin” before, and would love to know if it has ever been used in before in the history of popular music. I doubt it has.

“I try to say goodbye and I choke
I try to walk away and I stumble
Though I try to hide it, it’s clear
My world crumbles when you are not near”

It’s not important to know who broke up with who here, I don’t think it matters. What matters is the pain of the break up, and how that pain is reflected in the chorus of “I Try.” It’s not that she “can’t” say goodbye, it’s not that she “won’t” say goodbye, it’s that when she say’s goodbye she chokes. When she walks, she stumbles. These are not passive sentiments. Her world is literally crumbling around her.

I may appear to be free
But I’m just a prisoner of your love
I may seem alright and smile when you leave
But my smiles are just a front, just a front”

Before a final repeat of the chorus, she confesses that which we all already know. She loves him. She will always love him. She may be leaving him, but she will never be without him. Whether it’s due to their children, their life together, or just the love and passion that brought them together in the first place, she will always be his. She will be his possession.

Here is my confession
May I be your possession
Boy, I need your touch
Your love kisses, and such
With all my might I try
But this I can’t deny, deny

Macy Gray is an artist. She continues to release amazing, sometimes challenging albums (Check out Ruby from 2019, a truly enjoyable album). She has acted and appeared in movies as diverse as SpiderMan and Training Day, and she continues to push herself and her audience to new, imaginative places.

She is famous, but she should be more famous. She is well respected, but she should be the subject of our ongoing awe and amazement. She is Macy Gray. We need to be listening.

“I Try”
Performed by Macy Gray
Written by Macy Gray, Jeremy Ruzumna, Jinsoo Lim and David Wilder
Released September 27th, 1999

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