Can Covering a Song Be Just as Powerful as Creating One?

Macy Gray opens up her creative process.

Among the most memorable highlights of any TED conference are the musical performances that happen on the same stage as TEDTalks. On the end of day one of TEDGlobal 2012, Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter Macy Gray—probably best known for her blockbuster 1999 debut album, On How Life Is—brought the TED audience to its feet and got them shimmying and swaying (and singing) just as she was.

Over the course of her career, Gray has sold 15 million records; her two most recent ones, Covered and Talking Book, both consist of her interpretations of other singers’ work. In Covered, released in March 2012, Gray sings songs by Radiohead, the Eurythmics, and numerous other artists with voices very different from her own soulful, raspy style. And in Talking Book, released in October 2012, Gray performs Stevie Wonder’s entire album of the same name on the 40th anniversary of its release. She recently spoke with TED’s Ben Lillie on the idea of the cover song in two contexts: what it means to borrow creative material fairly and creating a fresh new work that also happens to pay homage to another artist’s music.

BL: Who do you think most influenced your work and your art? Who do you look to as having shaped what you do? 

Macy GrayMG: Prince is definitely a big influence, the way he mixes so many different styles of music in his songs. His songs, and the way he writes it- he says things differently. He'll talk about art and sex on the same album. He's open to other musicians, not confined to one type of music or one way of doing things. And, that he plays 19 instruments- he's like a consummate musician. He’s the real deal.

BL: When you're writing your songs do you consciously think about pulling in that kind of influence?

MG: No, not conscious, just you know listening to someone over and over again and then you go to do something and it's there. You know, I don't think about what Prince would do, it just kind of flows out of you. I think you're really subtly influenced every time you hear something- it's based in your brain.

BL: When you are creating your art or just in general, how do you think you honor the people who influenced you? Is there anything in particular you try to do to keep them in mind?

MG: I think it’s like if you're a doctor and you go to school for like a thousand years and then you go to surgery. You don't really think about all the books you read, you just know how to do it. You know what I mean? 'Cause you listened and studied it for so long it's just there for you. You don't really have to go look for it.

BL: A number of years ago you recorded Covered, an album of cover songs, how did it feel different as an artist recording a cover of a song versus one of your own?

MG: Oh, it's wild. It's definitely--it's on the artist, it's not easy. It's your own interpretation so it's still art and you're still creating. It didn't take as long as my other albums, because you don't have to do the process of writing it, but it was difficult.

I learned a lot from the songs and the artists- the way they write. I did "Here Comes the Rain Again," and originally it's this kind of upbeat eighties song but if you hear it's a really tragic. It’s more about longing. So it was cool to kind of discover what the songs were really about.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson, courtesy of TED
Illustration by Christian Egea, senior interaction designer at frog

Ben Lillie is a writer at TED and is the co-founder of The Story Collider, a storytelling project that presents scientists sharing accessible narratives about various scientific fields to general audiences in cabaret-style performances as well as via online essays.

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