Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Macy Gray's London Gig Set To Be A Real Christmas Cracker

Macy Gray
Macy Gray Macy Gray

Macy Gray is a brave lady. We already know her artistic output is varied and never predictable. But this time; she could well have bitten off far more than she could chew, with her latest CD; re-creating the entire 10 tracks of Stevie Wonder’s iconic “Talking Book” album and releasing it on the 40th anniversary of Mr Wonder’s wonderful work.

Not content with that, she is about to perform the whole inspirational and timeless classic as a live showcase of what she achieved, and chose London’s Koko to do it. Macy promises a night to remember and some surprises, including a special guest or two.

So, did she pull it off or make a big mistake tackling such a monster project, in covering Talking Book in its entirety? Well, my verdict is simple: Once your head has got over the chutzpah of anyone thinking they can deliver something worthwhile by revisiting anything Stevie did, let alone one of the biggest albums of four decades, when your ears are in receive mode, one thing is crystal clear: It is a triumph.

As Macy says, it is not meant to be a tribute. It is a “love letter” to the man who she says is her biggest influence and a thank you for what she learned from him.

But she herself is sure there will be some who hate it. As she told me: “I know some people will just not get it. They’ll think I am mad. What is she doing? Why does she need to do this? I know that will be the case for some. But this is me being me. Macy being Macy, and I like to do things people would not expect.”

So does Mr Stevland Hardaway Judkins, aka Stevland Hardaway Morris aka Stevie Wonder, know she has opened up his famous book? Over here to appear on the BBC's Children In Need TV programme, Macy spoke to me from her hotel room and revealed how her friend Stevie reacted.

“He is a friend of mine and I tried to get hold of him on the 'phone to tell him what I was doing, but didn’t get him. So I waited until it was finished and got it to him. I spoke to him recently and he said he really liked it, he said he was honoured I had wanted to use his songs from Talking Book for my new record, and he said he always liked my music.”

So how did it come about for you to re-make Talking Book? “I was talking with my producer Hal Willner about covers for the last album, and he said you know what you should do, re-make an entire album; it has never been done before. He pulled out all these Nina Simone albums. But Talking Book is one of my all-time favourite albums, so we went back and forth to it and eventually settled on re-making Talking Book. Then we found out it was the 40th anniversary of that album, so that was the decision made.”

I ask 45-year-old Macy how she approached such a daunting project, as regards the inevitable comparisons people will make to the original. “It’s a huge undertaking and hugely respected album which won a lot of awards, and a lot of people grew up on it, so I would imagine a lot of people will not appreciate it or don’t understand why I needed to do that. Don’t get why I wanted to re-make an album, specially that one. I don’t think anyone has compared it yet to the original, but it’s not really up for comparison."

"He is Stevie Wonder. I’d never want to go toe to toe with him. A lot of people aren’t gonna get it. They are gonna ask ‘what is she doing,’ you know?"

So what is her message to those how “don’t get it? “Ummm…..I’m making a lot of music, and I want to put out as much music as I can, and do the things I wanna do. Things I like, and this was something no one has done before, and I wanted to do it. I have always been doing stuff I wanna do, you know?”

So this is just Macy being Macy no matter what then, eh? “Absolutely,” says Macy, as she laughs loudly at that suggestion.

The album contains such classics as (my favourite ever single, Superstition,) and my late Mother and Step-father’s fave song, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.”

Macy does a great job on re-interpreting all the songs, including the biggies. But my personal favourite of the set is her version of “I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever. “ Quite beautiful and exposing a vulnerability to Macy’s usual raspy vocal style.

I tell her, that no matter what she does and no matter how different each project is; turn on the radio or the CD player, and we always know it is Macy Gray.

Grammy-winning Macy was due to appear at Koko in Camden High Street in November, but the date was shifted to Thursday 20th December. All tickets bought for the original date are still valid for the new date. “Macy Gray Presents Talking Book Live at Koko” promises to be one of those gigs where, in years to come, those lucky enough to have got tickets will be saying: “I was there.”

She will perform many of her own hits and tracks on the night, as well as all of "Talking Book." She tells me more about the thinking behind the project. "Talking Book is one of my top five favourite albums of all time, and Stevie is my favourite. Released October 28, 1972, 2012 marks the album's 40th birthday. This is my own personal birthday gift to Stevie Wonder, for all that I learned from him and for his miraculous songs that change my life everytime I hear them. This is not a tribute album or concert, it's a love letter and a big thank you card on record and on stage.” The CD is released by 429 Records.

A quirky fact about "Talking Book" - which was multi-platinum, won several awards and is a career-defining album for Stevie - original pressings contain Braille lettering of Wonder's name and the album title, along with a message from Stevie which was not transcribed until the 2000 pressing. It says: “Here is my music. It is all I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps my love strong. Stevie.”

Back to Macy; a gifted songwriter and dazzlingly singular singer, the mother of three teenagers has been overturning fan expectation and industry formula since kicking off her music career with her debut 1999 CD, On How Life Is. That musical calling card spawned the classic single “I Try,” and both the CD and single were massive global hits. They kicked off a career that includes two Grammys, two MTV awards, over 25 million units sold, and a thriving acting career.

What all her awards and the huge sales figures fail to illustrate is the depth and breadth of Macy’s artistry. In an industry that is increasingly stifling of real artists, she’s forged her own vision, creating music that leaps genre barriers from experimental soul to alternative rock, from retro-disco to hip-hop. Her artistic integrity and innovation has won her fans across the world, including artists such as John Frusciante, Erykah Badu, Outkast, Mos Def, Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake - all of whom have collaborated with her.

Macy Gray's "Talking Book live," a love letter to Stevie Wonders' 5-Star masterpiece on it's 40th Anniversary, takes place at London's KOKO on December 20th.

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