Skylar Grey: the Beatweek interview with the future of pop music
September 20, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
It’s a weeknight, fifty miles outside Los Angeles, in a club with no name on the front of the building. The performer and her backing band take the stage with their faces obscured by hoodies. She asks the audience what the town of Pomona is all about, and upon their silence, realizes that no one in the crowd is local. They’ve all driven out from LA just to get an early glimpse of her solo material. It’s an intentionally under-the-radar night for the artist who’s already known around the globe for singing the title phrase on Dr. Dre’s “I Need a Doctor” as the shadowy figure perched between Dre and Eminem during their Grammy performance, and for being the first voice you hear on Diddy’s “Coming Home.” Yet the material from her upcoming debut album touches on seemingly every genre but hip hop, crafting a new kind of pop music which lacks prior comparison. If you haven’t guessed by now, her name isn’t really Skylar Grey. And ‘Invinsible’ isn’t really her first album, although that is the correct spelling of the title. But we’ll get to all that.
“My body doesn’t know what time it is or where I am.” There’s a duality for the moment between Skylar Grey the burgeoning pop artist who’s been trudging across the country promoting her debut solo single to radio stations, and Skylar Grey the hip hop guest vocalist darling who was invited in the middle of that trek to stop and perform for the Dalai Lama and a crowd of thirty-five thousand people on the Capitol lawn. “I was not expecting that kind of attention from that group of people,” she says.
The attention Skylar Grey has begun to receive over the past year-plus stands in stark contrast to the first twenty-four years of her life. “I’ve gone through a lot of times in my life when I felt invisible and nobody was noticing me even though I was trying so hard,” she says, paraphrasing the chorus to her song Invisible. “It’s something I experienced when I was in middle school, something that I went through in high school when I was anorexic, and then something that I felt until a year ago when I had poured my heart into making music and nobody was noticing. I felt like my whole life was a waste. It’s autobiographical but it’s also, I think, a feeling that a lot of people can relate to. It’s pretty universal. That all changed, obviously, a year ago when I wrote Love The Way You Lie.”
She didn’t get to sing her own words on the studio version of that song, but it was a hit for Rihanna and Eminem, which ultimately landed her a record deal with Interscope along with a string of high profile collaborations. This all coincided with a gradual transformation in which she mostly locked herself away in a remote forest in Oregon in attempt to shed herself of a lifetime of baggage. “Me embracing my own insecurities,” she says of the period. “That was the thing I had to learn how to do. That’s why I went up into isolation in the woods and tried to figure out what made me happy. All of my flaws, I examined them and realized that they’re not flaws. Some people just don’t like them, and those people aren’t meant to be in my life then. I need to do what makes me happy, and then the right people will surround me. That’s exactly what’s happened. I started with a clean slate and I’ve got a lot of new people in my life now that were never there before. A lot of old people are gone. I’m being myself, finally,” she says with a laugh.
Skylar Grey’s past life, the one in which she hadn’t yet found herself, isn’t difficult to uncover. Holly Brook Hafermann cranked out an entire album of quiet piano driven melodies under her first and middle name, and built a minor following. But rather than attempting to keep her past identity a secret, she’s intent on trotting it out for all to see. The video for her song Dance Without You sees her former red headed self making an ill-fated appearance. “I want to get away from Holly Brook,” she says of the sentiment behind the song. “That’s my past. That’s the person who held me back. She was my worst enemy.”
“I was my own worst enemy when I was Holly Brook,” she adds, as if to make clear that she’s not denying her past. “I just had to get rid of that part of me, and it wasn’t easy because killing a part of yourself isn’t an easy thing to do. But it was necessary.” True to form, by the end of the video, a roughed-up Holly is lying dead on the floor as Skylar moves on.
And yet Holly Brook had her fans too, if not enough of them to float a career. So does Skylar regret that era or her Like Blood Like Honey album? “Absolutely not,” she insists. “No, I don’t regret it at all. That’s what made me who I am. That’s what led me to this place now. I don’t like it when people say ‘We want Holly Brook back.’ I get that occasionally, but you know, Holly Brook was not taken care of. Holly Brook was invisible and broke, and no matter how hard she tried, even if she had a few fans, it wasn’t adding up enough to keep me alive.”
As catchy as Dance Without You may be, her live set reveals that her album contains greater assets. A gentle song called Tower sees the small town Wisconsin native examining the lives of “people who never get out of small towns,” she explains. But a rocker called Weirdo might ultimately be the biggest hit of the bunch, if radio censors can work around the Proud to be a fucking weirdo chorus. “That one kind of speaks for itself in the title,” she jokes. So is she the weirdo in the title? “Yeah. But it’s a crowd participation song.”
But for now, the song Invisible is her focus. In one of her first big splashes as a solo artist, iTunes designated the song as the ‘single of the week’ and it saw half a million downloads as a result. It’s also the inspiration for the album title, which is one letter off. “I used to be invisible as Holly Brook, and now as Skylar Grey I feel invincible. Skylar Grey’s a superhero version of me. That was actually Marilyn Manson’s idea to call my album Invinsible.”
Manson is also the lone guest artist on the album. She explains the seeds for the collaboration. “I’ve always admired him and what he stands for in this world,” she says. “I never had a reason to reach out to him before, nor did I feel worthy (laughs). But then when I had some success under my belt I decided, okay, now I can reach out to him and he won’t just totally ignore me because I do have some things going for me now. Let’s see what happens. The first thing he did when I got to his house was he played me the most offensive movies I’ve ever seen. That was an icebreaker, playing offensive movies, I guess.”
Then there’s the matter of the name Skylar Grey, which she fabricated amid some thought regarding how it should be spelled. “I’ve always gone with grey with an e” as opposed to gray, she explains. “I like to do things the original way. I spell theatre with an re at the end. Nowadays people spell it with er. I just like old fashioned things. The other thing is I just like the letter E better than the letter A because I feel like it’s more masculine. I’m not a very feminine person,” she laughs. For someone whose music is so serious and whose past is so dark, she laughs a surprising number of times during the conversation.
If Skylar Grey has indeed left Holly Book behind overall, there are still remnants. Of the pain she explores on Love The Way You Lie, “It’s kind of an emo thing to say but I tend to bring it on myself. I ask for it. I get what I ask for, and I put myself in situations where I’m testing myself to see if I can survive different things. It’s almost like an adrenaline junkie, but it’s not for adrenaline. It’s for struggle in life, because I feel like when you go through difficult times you learn the most. I want to, at the end of my life, be able to say that I learned as much as I absolutely could, and have as many stories as I can possibly have, as many experiences as I can have in one lifetime. I want to experience and learn and feel. That’s what Love The Way You Lie, to me, was about. It was doing things that make me feel alive, even if it hurts.”