Image Credit: Greg LaurenEven though we didn’t actually get a good look at Skylar Grey on the Grammys stage as she performed “I Need a Doctor” with Eminem and Dr. Dre, it was still a coming out party for the Wisconsin native who had 80 kids in her high school graduating class and turns 25 Wednesday.
Grey, who was also nominated for two Grammys for penning the Rihanna-sung chorus to Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” tells EW her team has since been bombarded with emails from people wanting to work together, but she declines to name names, because you never know which collaborations will actually happen. (For her Twitter followers who know Nikki Sixx reached out via tweet about writing a song together, she says he has spoken to her manager but nothing has been set up yet.)
Keeping her in the shadows during the Grammys performance—something new fan Shirley Manson questioned—was intentional, Grey says. “My whole roll-out as Skylar Grey has been this mysterious being,” says the artist formerly known as Holly Brook. (She released the 2006 album Like Blood Like Honey and the 2010 EP O’Dark Thirty under that moniker, her first and middle names.) “If you’ve seen the website, even the pictures are very shadowed because we’re slowly easing me out. I’m not a big fan of trying to be a sex symbol or any of that stuff because I really like the music to speak for itself. And so I wanted to make that clear from the very beginning.”
Grey doesn’t expect her website to be fully operational until the release of her first single — a date yet to be determined. She’s working every day on her debut Skylar Grey album with producer Alex da Kid (he recently worked with Avril Lavigne), who signed her to his Wonderland Music label. Her publisher originally suggested they work together, and “Love the Way You Lie” was the first beat of his that she’d ever written to. (Listen to her demo here.)
“I opened up the email, and I sang a melody, and those lyrics came out. I didn’t totally understand them to be honest with you. They just came out, and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s kind of cool, actually,’ and I sent it off. [Eminem] took it to a very abusive relationship place. That’s definitely where I saw it going from the beginning when I listened to it, but I didn’t know how extreme. People ask me, ‘Have you been in abusive relationships?’ No. I haven’t. But I have in the fact that I’m in the music industry,” she says, with a laugh. “I love music. I spend so much time on it. I do everything for music. And yet, it can be so hard and it can beat you down. It’s that kind of relationship, so it made sense for me.”
Something she definitely understood was the meaning of the chorus she wrote for “I Need a Doctor.” She and Alex da Kid showed up in Detroit to present the track and chorus to Dr. Dre and Eminem, who didn’t know what they were about to hear. “That was an amazing moment in my life,” she says. “They loved it. Eminem took the song back into the back of the studio and locked himself up for awhile. Alex and I were just sitting out in the studio waiting for him to come out with his verses. Two hours later, he said, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’ He brought us into the studio, and he had already laid down everything. He played us the verses, and I literally started bawling. There’s so much passion and honesty and vulnerability in his verses talking to Dr. Dre, and they were both standing there in the room, and I could see years and years of stuff — of sh– and great stuff, of their lives — just come pouring out into the song. I guess I’m really empathetic because he played it twice, and I bawled the second time, too. I had the idea that Dr. Dre has been kind of dormant in the music industry as an artist for 10 years, and people were really wanting him to come back. I didn’t know how far they would take it on the personal level. It was just in general thinking about how people want Dr. Dre to come back and do this album that he’s been working on for so long, but for some reason wasn’t finishing.”
Showing up with that chorus sounds like a ballsy move. “That’s what I do. Anytime someone basically commissions a piece, I write a song based on something personal to them. I go online and I do research on that person –Wikipedia, YouTube interviews, anywhere I can find a piece of information that kind of tugs at your heart a little bit. I feel like, especially in rap music, people have gotten so tough about it. I more come from this musical place where music is about expressing your emotions and vulnerabilities. I wanted to see some of these tough guys become a little bit vulnerable, and so every time I send somebody a chorus, it’s usually based on something that I see about them in their life, that they could actually have a lot to say about but haven’t had the chance to yet,” she says. “So, ‘Castle Walls,’ for example, the song I did for T.I. and Christina Aguilera, it’s about fame and fortune and how everybody thinks it’s so glamorous, but the reality is, it can be really a lonely lifestyle. ‘Coming Home’ is an example is being kind of lost in your life, coming to realizations, and reinventing yourself, and that’s kind of what Diddy wanted to do. He wanted to come back and make a splash in the music industry again. He’s an entrepreneur and does all these different business things, but his music hasn’t been at the forefront of this career for a long time until now. That’s what he wanted to do, and so I wrote that song.”
Her chorus for Lupe Fiasco’s political-driven “Words I Never Said” is a bit of an exception, she says. “That’s an interesting one: I didn’t write that one based on where he took it. But that’s the cool thing about being an artist: You can interpret things differently and express yourself in a way that people don’t expect. I actually wrote the ‘Words I Never Said’ chorus about somebody who passed away. But he took it and didn’t hear that in it and wrote a completely different song around that. That’s cool. That’s artistic freedom.”
Asked to describe the sound we’ll hear on her album, all Grey will say is that she and Alex da Kid are pushing each other out of their comfort zones to create a sound they’ve never heard before. “When people hear it, I want them to not have expectations,” she says. “I don’t believe in expectations. I feel like that’s a bad thing to have in life. I don’t watch movie trailers. I just go to the movie, and I don’t know anything about it, because that’s the only way I appreciate the movie fully. I go in there with expectations, I don’t end up liking it as much as I thought it would.” She says their collaboration works because of their backgrounds. “He’s urban and pop, but he’s from the U.K., and I feel like in the U.K. people have more of an acceptance of eclectic music. I come from the eclectic background, so he kind of understood where I came from and figured out a way to mix it in so that it could be commercial, but still have a little bit of an artistic emo thing happening.”
Saying Grey’s musical background is “eclectic” is an understatement. She sang her first harmonies at age 2, and was in the studio for the first time at age 5 singing background for children’s singer Ken Lonnquist. She started piano lessons at age 6, and at her first recital, she played an original song. “It was ‘Song of the Whales,'” she says. “That’s what I titled it because I was a big fan of whales.” Around that time she and her mother started the folk-children’s duo Generations. Over the next decade, they would record three albums and tour the Midwest. “Our first show was like a Mother’s Day show at a bookstore. I think my mom even made my dress to match her,” she says, laughing again. “She used to make us matching dresses for our performances for years.”
Bored with the folk and kids’ songs, she started going into Madison, Wis., when she got her driver’s license and found out it had a pretty decent jazz scene. “I would go to these shows and sneak into these bars and try to befriend the musicians and have them let me come up and sing with them on a few songs,” she says. “For awhile, I sat in at jazz nights and sang standards. I loved ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Autumn Leaves,’ and ‘Misty’ was my favorite.'” She had dreams of ending up on Broadway. “When I was young, my voice was so strong, and I would annoy people because I had such a loud little voice. And then it changed, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to sing again, because I thought you had to sing like Christina Aguilera to be a singer. And then people started commenting, ‘No, your soft tone is actually pretty cool. You should try doing some stuff with it. And then I started listening to people like Fiona Apple and Sarah McLachlan, who use their softer voices to make great music. And I thought, well, it’s possible.”
Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and Brad Delson signed her to their label, Machine Shop Recordings, and after, she sang on Shinoda’s side-project Fort Minor’s hit “Where’d You Go,” released Like Blood Like Honey. She then teamed up with Duncan Sheik and was the featured female vocalist on his 2009 Whisper House album. She starred as a female ghost in the Whisper House musical, which premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe a year ago, and Sheik helped produce her O’Dark Thirty EP. Originally, Holly Brook wanted to change her stage name to just Grey. It’s her favorite color, but there are deeper reasons. Spiritually, it represents the unknowns in life, she says. “People seem to be afraid of the unknowns, but I’m the complete opposite. I dive into the unknown because I feel like that’s where all your possibilities come from.”
Also, she was going through a hard time two or three years ago emotionally, unsure of where she was headed with her life, and feeling like she needed to simplify it a bit. “One of the things that I thought might help, is if I went into my closet and threw out everything with color in it. So, I did that. I went in and I threw out everything that had any bit of color in it, even brown. I just threw it away. I was left with gray, black, and white,” she says. “And it really simplified my life. I didn’t have to think about what I had to wear everyday because everything matched.” Her home base is now in Oregon, where she can lay down vocals right in her home after nature and mood-setting movie scores (one of her favorites is Memoirs of a Geisha) inspire her to write. “Oregon is a rainy climate, and that’s kind of my thing. I’m not a big fan of the sun. It’s cool, but I can only handle it for so long. I love gray skies,” she says. That’s why when her manager threw out the first name Skylar, she liked it. “Rainy sky, gray sky, it worked,” she says. At least that’s one mystery solved.