Tom Sinclair
July 25, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Would you take a pill from Macy Gray?

Sitting across from Gray, age 32, in a conference room at the New York offices of her label, Epic Records, I am wondering just how to respond to the singer’s offer of a Benadryl. Though my allergies have been acting up something fierce, I’m torn. After all, hair-raising tales of Gray’s adherence to the derangement-of-the-senses method of artistic creativity have been making the rounds for the past couple of years. Hey, there’s no telling what this blowsily dressed neo-soul hippie chick with a reputed fondness for hallucinogens is gonna pull out of her pocket stash…

As it turns out, Gray — whose third album, The Trouble With Being Myself, hit stores last week — professes to have outgrown her better-living-through-chemistry phase. ”There’s something to be said for oblivion,” she says, ”but I like being clear and being awake. A lot of artists think they get creative when they’re high, but the most interesting things happen when you’re not. When you’re high you’re so out of it, you think you’re actually doing something hot when you’re not. I write my best stuff when I’m clear.”

It may be a good thing that Gray — who was born Natalie McIntyre in Canton, Ohio — is on Straight Street. She’s going to need her wits about her as she attempts to reinvigorate a career that’s been on a downward trajectory ever since she won that Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal for ”I Try” in 2000. Like Joan Osborne before her, she’s finding out that Grammy’s imprimatur does not necessarily ensure massive record sales in perpetuity. In fact, her sophomore album, 2001’s The Id, sold dismally compared with her quadruple platinum debut, 1999’s On How Life Is. (In fairness, it didn’t help that The Id, with its loosey-goosey party vibe, came out one week after 9/11.) Her first single, ”When I See You,” came and went this spring with little fanfare. (A second single, ”She Ain’t Right for You,” released two weeks ago, has yet to chart.) And, of course, those reports of erratic behavior — which led at least one industry wag to dub her ”Crazy Gray” — have also taken a toll on her public image.

Gray claims that she ”didn’t know when [The Id] came out that people judge you so much by how many records you sell. That’s wild to me. The record business is changing so much; it’s just a different animal now. So I have to prepare myself for what’s gonna happen if I sell a lot of records — or what’s gonna happen if I don’t.”

Back in 1999, when ”I Try” was all over the airwaves and Gray’s surprising, Minnie Mouse-on-soul-steroids voice was first enchanting listeners, it seemed as if an oddball Aretha for a new generation had arrived. Yet four years later, in a pop marketplace characterized by what Chris Rock has called the ”here today, gone today” school of stardom, the buzz surrounding Gray’s initial splash has dissipated. Fairly or not, some cynics are already dismissing her as a flash in the pan.

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