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No time for needlepoint or pies for Gray

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It's been almost four years since Macy Gray released her last album, but she has hardly been sitting around the house, baking pies and doing needlepoint.

The Canton, Ohio, native, aka Natalie McIntyre, has had acting roles in the recent feature films "Domino," "Shadowboxer" and the OutKast musical "Idlewild." Her performance in the HBO movie "Lackawanna Blues" earned her an NAACP Image Award nomination for best supporting actress.

In 2005, Gray launched her own music school for young people, the M. Gray Music Academy, in the NoHo arts district of Los Angeles. After Hurricane Katrina, she visited the Houston Astrodome, selected eight displaced families and paid their apartment rent for a year. And she is designing a line of clothing for curvy girls, called HUMPS.

But back to the music.

Gray's fourth studio album, "Big," recently arrived in stores and it is a winner. Working with producer from the Black Eyed Peas, Gray has delivered a fresh and contemporary feeling collection of songs, ranging from the joyous R&B of "Finally Made Me Happy" (with harmonies by Natalie Cole) to the guitar-driven funk-rock workout "Get Out" (with production and vocals by Justin Timberlake).

The rollicking "Treat Me Like Your Money" includes a rap cameo by and a sample of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)." Fergie lends vocal support on the warm retro-soul number "Glad You're Here."

Throughout, Gray's voice remains as unique and emotive as ever. In the extensive thank-yous that appear in the "Big" CD booklet, Gray writes, "Thank you God for being so good to me. You blessed me with big crazy dreams and with you they come true." And she concludes: "To all my fans - old and new - the world is yours so love it. Love God. Love Yourself. Support the troops. Pray for peace - demand peace. Elect Barack Obama in 2008."

Gray, 39, was preparing for appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" and "The View," and the album-launch concert when she phoned from Manhattan recently to chat and catch up.

Q: I've been listening to your new CD all weekend. It's great. I bet you're real happy with it.

A: Extremely.

Q: What was the game plan for this album?

A: I just wanted to make an album that I like. You record things, you see what's working and that's the direction you go in.

Q: Did you plan to work with so many different people?

A: No, not at all. The original plan was just me and Will were going to do it, but then he got real busy as a producer, and then he made "Elephunk," and he went tour crazy. So we kinda lost touch for a while, and I ended up working with other people.

Q: Have you known Natalie Cole for a long time?

A: The first time I met her was when she came to do the record. I called her up, and she came down to listen to it. I always really liked her old records and her voice and her harmonies. She seemed perfect for the record I wanted to do.

Q: Tell me about working with Justin Timberlake.

A: He's great. He's really passionate about making music. He's done all those 'N Sync records and Justin records, but he's really new at producing people, so he was really excited and wanted to do a good job. I'm glad I caught him when I did. He came in, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He had some really good ideas.

Q: Were you frustrated that your last album didn't sell better?

A: I didn't get frustrated with it until everybody else got frustrated. Every write-up talked about how the album was a flop.

Q: Four years is a long wait between albums.

A: It was mainly because I was on Sony, then I went to Interscope, and it took a while to make the transition. And it took two years to make this record, really.

Q: The record industry is supposed to be brutal. Have you had many bad experiences?

A: Ups and downs, you know? When I first started and sold 9 million records, everybody was treating me like the queen of the universe. But Sony kind of fell apart, and a lot of things changed. I wasn't signed for a while, and I finally got to Interscope. So there's been adjustments and transitions. I've seen all sides of it, but I think that's good.

Q: Do you think radio will get behind this record?

A: Urban radio is really embracing me for the first time. (The single "Shoo-BeDoo") is at No. 17, and it's only been out three weeks.
Q: I know they love you in England. What percent of your fan base is overseas?

A: Most of my fan base is in Europe. Or it was. I don't know anymore.

Q: It must be challenging for a single mom having to tour the world promoting a CD.

A: I get a lot of help. My mother (Laura McIntyre) is the greatest grandmother in the whole world, and (the kids) travel a lot with me. But motherhood is hard for everybody. Parenting is a huge challenge, no matter who you are.

Q: I bet you have fun with those kids. How old are they?

A: They're 12, 11 and 9. We have a ball.

Q: What music do they listen to?

A: They like Lil' Wayne, stuff like that. I've lost track.

Q: I'll bet they were impressed you were working with Justin Timberlake.

A: Oh yeah. They were down at the studio that day (Justin and I) were recording.

Q: So you're pretty close to your mother?

A: I am. I just saw my mom three days ago. When I'm out in L.A., she lives with me a lot.

Q: I've heard that you pop into Canton pretty often. What do you do when you visit?

A: I was just there. I spend most of my time with my grandmother. She lives at the McKinley Centre. And I hang out with my family, go see my cousins, stuff like that.

Q: You've done some acting work. Do you enjoy that?

A: Acting is cool. It's a whole different experience for me. I'm really lucky. The only reason I've gotten to do that is through my singing. I wouldn't call myself an actress. I have friends who are actresses, and they work out every day, they hang out with directors, they don't eat.

Q: A lot of people don't know that Macy Gray is not your real name. What do your friends call you?

A: It depends. People who have known me a long time and my family they call me Natalie. Some close friends call me Nat. Other close friends call me Macy. There's no real formula for it.

Q: I was wondering what it'd be like to have a stage name.

A: I think stage names are kind of fun. You kind of get to make up your own alter ego.
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