An earthy new voice has the biz abuzz

By Rob Brunner
Updated July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

When people first hear Macy Gray sing, they get a strange look on their faces. They’re surprised. Confused. Sometimes they even burst out laughing. And can you blame them? Gray’s high-pitched rasp is so unusual it sends people reaching for all sorts of forced comparisons. Chaka Khan meets Betty Boop. Tina Turner on helium. A cat with laryngitis talking through a vocoder — which is the meanest description Gray says she’s ever heard. ”People say they want to hear something fresh and new, but when it actually comes around most people kind of freak,” she says. ”When people don’t quite know what to make of something they laugh it off or dis it.”

Or designate it the next big thing. Though her debut album, On How Life Is, has just been released, the music industry has been chattering about her for months, and not just about the voice. Life is a skillful blend of ’70s soul and ’90s pop, full of stick-in-your-head songs like the should-be megahit ”I Try” and the comfortably funky first single, ”Do Something.” Producer Andy Slater, who manages Fiona Apple and the Wallflowers, gave Gray a similarly big-budget sound (”He mixed ‘I Try’ 103 times,” she marvels) and was so taken with the results that he signed on as her manager as well.

Of course music-biz buzz doesn’t guarantee success, especially as Gray’s genre-bending music and offbeat bio — the 29-year-old single mother of three launched her singing career only after moving from Canton, Ohio, to L.A. to study screenwriting — make for tricky marketing. Even she seems a bit foggy about her potential audience. ”It’s probably like that whole modern hippie kind of thing,” she says tentatively. ”I don’t want to say artsy-fartsy, because I hate that word. But I think [to appreciate me] you have to be open.”

Like her fans at MTV, who have done something to get ”Do Something” out there, making it a Buzzworthy clip. But it’s the impassioned ”I Try,” Life‘s second single, that promises to move records — and record buyers. ”We played in Chicago recently and there was this lady in the front who cried the whole time I was singing ‘I Try,”’ says Gray. ”That was kind of bugged out. I wanted to make an album that I would really like. I didn’t say, ‘I want to make people cry.’ When people [are moved] it’s a bit of a surprise.”