On the surface, neo-soul diva Macy Gray appeared to have it all a few short years ago: the multi-platinum 1999 debut disc “On How Life Is,” a Grammy-winning single “I Try,” and a burgeoning big-screen career with cameos in “Training Day,” “Spider-Man” and “Scary Movie 3.”
But inside, she was falling apart. “I knew I was in trouble, I knew I wasn’t doing very well, and I knew I was crippled on a lot of levels,” says the singer, who’d developed a post-fame drug habit and ensuing enfant terrible reputation.
But all’s well that ends well. After losing her Sony contract and waiting nine months for a new deal to materialize, Gray has returned with a new album, “Big,” and a new imprint, will.i.am Records, owned by the Black Eyed Peas frontman of the same name. Meanwhile, she’s on a comeback tour that hits the Fillmore in San Francisco tonight.
Gray also has launched her own Hollywood arts school, the M. Gray Music Academy, as well as two new lines of clothing, the Natalie Hinds Collection and the size-12-centered HUMPS, which will spawn its own design-themed reality show next year.
All stem from her optimistic new drug-free outlook on life, summed up in thankful “Big” testimonials like “OK,” “Slowly,” and an ode to her three children, “What I Gotta Do.”
They were made possible, Gray says, by the day she hit rock bottom. She says, “I looked in the mirror and saw that I looked about 120 years old. I remember realizing what it (her habit) was doing to me, and doing to me psychically. And I remember a lot of people I once knew not being around much anymore, and instead being around a bunch of people who I didn’t know that I didn’t like, and being around ‘em a lot. Every day I was waking up and feeling very uncomfortable with myself. So I looked bad, I felt terrible, and everything was going wrong. …”
Gray was devastated when she lost her label. An exec, she says, had insisted she do an album of ‘60s standards; when she refused, she was dropped. But casting directors pointed her in the right direction, offering her singing roles in “Idlewild” and “Lackawanna Blues.”
Heartened by the success of soul-steeped acts like Gnarls Barkley, she was emboldened to sing her own brand of blues on “Big.” Now, she says, “I really admire artists who can ride the waves and survive.”
So what she learn about herself through the whole sordid ordeal? At first, Gray stammers. Ten minutes later, she calls back with an answer. “This is something I put in my diary when I was feeling down that sort of sums it up: “I wrote ‘I want to be as famous as midnight, as powerful as a gun, as loved as a pizza, and beautiful like no one’s ever seen.’ It sounds corny, but God really did make us capable of doing anything — you could make a hit record, you could shoot somebody. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do the right one.”
IF YOU GO
Where: The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. today
Contact: (415) 346-6000 or www.thefillmore.com