Honoring a music legend with a cover of a classic album 

Macy Gray was on a mission to honor her personal hero, Stevie Wonder, by covering his iconic album Talking Book. The new record—which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the original’s release—features Gray interpreting classics from “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to “Superstition.” But don’t call it a tribute record. “It’s a love letter and a big thank you,” says the Grammy winner. “Stevie practically created pop music, and I don’t think we do enough for him.” Produced by veteran Hal Willner, the album capped a busy year for Gray, who also acted in the film The Paperboy and released the album Covered.


Why choose Talking Book?

It’s one of my all-time favorite records. I knew it really, really well and felt I could sing it from the heart. That album also had “Big Brother” on it, which is so relevant to today. I also found out it came out in 1972, so being the 40th anniversary, it all made sense. My label wanted me to do Blue by Joni Mitchell, but I just couldn’t do it. Joni’s songs were really specific to where she was coming from, the way she grew up, and who she was. It just wasn’t me.

Were you nervous taking on such a legendary album?

I was mainly nervous about how Stevie would feel. He called me and said he’d heard the album and was really flattered by it. For me, it was a labor of love, something I wanted to do in his honor. I just get tired that he doesn’t get honored more.


Could that be because R&B has changed so much?

R&B is completely different—it’s not even in the same room anymore. He did all his stuff live. It’s a different sound. And the things he wrote about I don’t hear a lot in R&B. Radio gravitates toward sex and smoking weed, because hip-hop has really taken over. I don’t know when it changed so that you can only talk about one or two things, but Stevie wrote about everything from black history to true love to Big Brother. We definitely don’t have an artist out there like that.


How did you meet Hal Willner?

He invited me to sing “God Bless the Child” at an event for the 30th anniversary of  the Polish Solidarity Movement. We just hit it off. He did a record as soon as we got back, and he asked me to be on it. Then I started my record about a month later and I asked him to produce it. We got along so well. I loved his old records, and he knows everything there is to know about music. He’s just really cool to be around. He produced some stuff on my next album, too.


What can you share about the direction of your next album?

It’s all original, no covers. The whole time we were doing those covers we were writing, so I have quite a bit of songs. I’m trying to put together the right album where everything goes together. We were really looking for a sound that stuck out, something nobody was doing at the moment—and I think we found it. It’s very raw. Most of my albums have like 50 gazillion tracks on them. We could have done this entire album on an eight-track tape recorder. It’s all live instruments. I didn’t want to do what everybody else is doing. But that’s not the only reason; I also definitely wanted to take a step up from what I usually do. I wanted to step out of what comes easy to me. –Amanda Farah

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