There’s No Limit to the Creativity of Skylar Grey

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

If it seems mildly difficult to figure out, let alone explain, the artistic core of Skylar Grey, that’s because it is – even for her.

“I don’t feel like I’ve ever really figured it out,” Grey admits. “Like, (with) finding a groove of my own, I feel like I’m constantly exploring and evolving, to be honest.”

Vacillation with regard to her own self-identity as an artist is one thing but it’s understandable for onlookers and fans in the public to have trouble finding a sufficiently encompassing way to describe Skylar Grey. After all, the Mazomanie, Wisconsin native’s musical career is practically made up of nothing but change, evolution, and reinvention. Look back far enough and this approach to her artistry makes sense, given the diverse breadth of creative energy Grey grew up around and was nurtured within.

“I grew up in a very eclectic, musical family and I did a lot of musical theater,” says Grey. “I took dance classes. My mom and my stepdad owned an art gallery up in Oregon and are both visual artists as well; my stepdad is a wood sculptor. My mom, amongst being a musician, was also a visual artist. She did these crazy weavings. She was like, a textural designer. And so I grew up in just like, this really creative environment.”

A vibrant, creative soul who grew up around the folk music and craft work of her mother, visual art of her stepfather, and who herself dabbled in dance as a child, Grey is nothing if not a deep well of open-mindedness when it comes to participating in and conceiving of art – whether it be music or really, anything else.

“There’s no limit on where I can be creative or where I want to be creative,” she continues.

“It’s not just music; I’ve always said that. Like, you know, I don’t really get bored because I create my own excitement, no matter where I am. I will find something fun to do. And it’s usually involving just being creative. And that could be like, you put me in front of a sewing machine, and I’ll do something with it.”

While the world has yet to see a version of Grey as “Skylar the Seamstress,” (though she does hold an enthusiastic interest in various fashions,) it’s more probable she gets inspiration that’s derived from her individual past and lets projects flourish from there. “Usually my first thought is my best thought or, at least that’s what I believe. That’s what I go with,” she says.

And as it turns out, with Grey’s latest release endeavor, the Virtual Worldwide Tour – a batch of songs released weekly over the course of this past month – she found herself abruptly struck with just such an impromptu desire, deciding to incorporate some elegant ballet choreography into the music video that accompanied the month’s first single, “F–cking Crazy.”

“’F–cking Crazy,’ that’s got like these ballet dance moves in it. I don’t even know where that idea came from; I just went with it,” Grey says. “It floated into my brain and I was like, ‘Let’s do that!’ So (for me,) it’s really just about like, fun, free, expression, you know?”

IN CASE OF CREATIVITY…BREAK GLASS (CEILING)

The idea that someone as accomplished and artistically diversified as Grey wasn’t always as seen in the mainstream eye might seem initially hard to believe. This rings particularly understandable when noting her applaudable body of credits, which include a wide assortment, like collaborations with P. Diddy, Eminem, writing for 2018’s Aquaman, and even penning “Falling in Love Again” for Celine Dion’s 2019 album, Courage. However, perspective is quick to rush back when remembering that the music industry, which is already a somewhat rigid landscape of conformity for anyone, still has miles to go in the pursuit of equal respect for women artists and other music professionals. Still, Grey doesn’t let the facet of gender become such a singular focus that she can’t see the forest of for the trees when it comes to everyone working hard to hopefully succeed with their goals.

“I believe anybody can do anything they want in this world; I believe anything’s possible,” she says. “And you just have to really believe in yourself, even when people around you don’t believe in you. And that I feel likes

it’s true for male or female, like, no matter what it is.”

Of course, even with a gracious amount of empathy for artists of any gender, Grey still has her own individual memories and experiences. Hindsight amid her eventual rise to the achievements she’s accumulated is comforting from a distance but, she doesn’t pretend judgement and unsolicited opinion from early years was easily ignored or played no role.

“I feel like being female, sometimes, maybe, I subconsciously learned that I just, you know, growing up that I wasn’t as, you know, I don’t know, wasn’t as able, or something, as a man (is),” Grey says.

“And so I believed that and I internalized that a little bit,” she continues. “And it gave me like, a lack of confidence. So like, when I first entered the (music) industry, you know, listening to all the men around me that thought, this is what I should do, and this is the sound I should have, and these are the people that I need to work with, that kind of thing…Like, I definitely let people kind of steer me around, initially.”

Having others of supposedly more knowledge or confidence in their knowledge impress their ideas at such a fast pace and in such an all-encompassing manner is one way to derail natural growth of someone’s creativity. “If I had just been able to have the confidence to just really stick up for my own vision, then like, early on, I feel like I would maybe be in a different place now,” Grey admits.  

These reflections aside, in light of how Grey is currently an independent musician and under no one’s thumb – creatively or logistically speaking – the idea of “better late than never” comes to mind, immediately followed by “all’s well that ends well.” In that regard, she is able to focus mostly on the positives of her trajectory than the stumbling blocks that lined her road along the way.

“At the same time, I also am the type of person that has no regrets. And I feel like everything I’ve been through in my life has been a huge lesson that I’m know benefiting from. And so I wouldn’t change anything,” she says.

While cultivating self-confidence isn’t as straightforward as say, following a recipe or taking a driving route, the key moment for the development of Grey’s identity sans third party judgement came after a literal break from both people of influence and the business dynamic that overtook her everyday thoughts. “When I was 23, I took a hiatus and I moved to a cabin in the woods in Oregon,” Grey explains.

If anything, the realization and embrace of her own needs might have been the emergency measure that saved not just Grey’s public career but her drive for art altogether. Prior to stepping back, music as a passion was getting farther and farther away from Grey, never mind being steered in the wrong direction.

“I isolated myself from people because I was just too influenced by everybody and it was starting to like, corrupt me and make me lose my entire romance with music. I didn’t even love making music anymore. And it was the only thing I loved to do since I was a kid,” Grey says.

The pressure and stress were so great that the doubt festering under the surface wasn’t just affecting Grey’s musical decisions. In truth, the diminishment of joy from music cut deep enough to make Grey question her very self as a person and it was this realization that served as a the push to get away for a while, if only to tend to her underlying mental health. “I was (asking myself), ‘What’s wrong with me?’ so I just kind of went back to nature – back to isolation. I grew up in the woods. So just like being in the woods has always felt like, my safe place in a way,” she says.

It was following this fundamental recuperation that Grey’s appreciation for and discernment of art was able to reemerge.

“I went to the woods and I spent a lot of time with myself. And up there, like, there was nobody around me to give me any opinions,” Grey explains. “I was able to start formulating my own opinions again: about myself, and about what I wanted to do and what type of music I liked. And so then I came out of that experience feeling like really confident, and feeling like I could do anything I really set my mind to. Just because I challenged myself so, so much during that time, I mean, being alone out in the woods. It’s kind of like…it’s a trippy experience.”

If anyone is wondering where along Grey’s winding professional timeline this foray in the woods happens to fall, easier than doing the math would be to find out if any notable projects arose from this extended break. And as fate would have it, falling squarely between an opportunity hard-earned by learning a new skill and fortunately found by resonating with the right artists, a single project did come to fruition – one that Grey sees as the “turning point in her entire career.”

“It was like so empowering to just say like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ And then also during that time (in Oregon), I really dove into learning how to use Pro Tools and using my own vocals and stuff. And that also gave me this crazy confidence. So, coming out of that (boost) was when I wrote “Love the Way You Lie.” It was like, the end of my Oregon stay,” says Grey.

THE DEVIL DIDN’T MAKE HER DO IT

After a personal recalibration of such deep proportions and a subsequent ‘second wind’ of sorts through the explosive popularity of “Love the Way You Lie,” Grey’s refreshed and newly solidified sense of self definitely saw more visibility through the commercial side of her work. But what might surprise some given Grey’s extensive body of commercially successful songwriting credits, is that the aim for Grey had actually always been on making music she could champion herself.

“When I got (“Love the Way You Lie) cut…um, of course, I wanted to keep my voice on it,” Grey continues. “I’ve never like, wanted to just hand off songs to other singers. But then it being Rihanna (who was going to sing on the song), I was like, ‘This is f–cking cool. I love Rihanna.’ And it was a huge opportunity, you know, for me. So that kind of like opened the door into this whole world of writing songs for other people.”

While that single helped propel Grey’s reputation as a powerful songwriter further into the spotlight, the 2009 song was actually born from a creatively unconventional idea that Grey fancied but didn’t necessarily see coming together with longtime friend and musical peer, Eminem.

“So, when I started writing songs for other people, it was totally by accident,” Grey explains. “I wrote the hook for “Love the Way You Lie” because, you know, at that time, I actually had this vision, right before I wrote that song, of doing something (specific). I called it Gothic hip-hop. And I never thought that, that would lead to doing something like that with Eminem. But I had this like, creative vision. I had wanted to do dark choruses, collaborating with rappers.”

In a way, though that collaboration took a strong turn toward mainstream appeal and monetary success thanks to Rihanna’s involvement, knowing the song’s memorable hook was born from an idea authentic to Grey’s creativity, shows just how far she had come, and continues to go, in embracing her own artistic motivations. This being a better outcome than working in an attempt to prove oneself or pay a certain amount of industry dues.

“Until this year, pretty much, I was always just kind of like taking sessions and, and writing songs for people because it was like an opportunity. And sometimes I really loved it. But I have to say I did a lot of stuff that I really didn’t love, too. And it was just because it was like a business opportunity,” Grey says.

“Earlier this year, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ because I felt so unfulfilled after a while,” she explains. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, I’m making good money.’ But my heart was really unfulfilled for some reason. And I realized this because I’ve always just wanted to be an artist. I stopped putting 100% of my belief in myself into my artistry; I stopped doing that. And so this year, I decided to completely change that. And I’ve actually turned down almost every session I’ve been offered this year, just to be able to, to make art that I want to make for myself.”

Despite big changes and long term commitments often earning an accompanying sentiment of ‘easier said than done,’ Grey has allowed this self-driven mindset to thoroughly flourish as of late. And no where is that clearer than in the ambitious multimedia undertakings of her October releases. Past the songs themselves being intended solely for herself, each song was released with a unique photo shoot and music video – all of which took direction from Grey’s creativity and design vision. It’s through these projects that the public can get its first confirmation of just how self-accepting and self-embracing Grey currently is as an artist and moreover, as a person.

“Right now I’m in this place––I feel like I’m in this place of kind of, like, just letting it all hang out. Showing people all my sides and not being too like…what’s the word? You know how people, especially on social media, they show you what they want to see. It’s very––curated. That’s the word, yeah,” Grey says. “And I feel like, there’s a combination of that, like, artistically (with these October releases). I want to like, for each song drop for example, I want to keep the stuff that I’m dropping about the song very curated and cohesive but, then in between, I’m just being myself.”

Having already gone in varying sonic and conceptual directions over her career, the thought of Grey somehow becoming even more creatively free might sound exaggerated. But along with liberating her inner ideas, splitting from Interscope Records for independent status did more than just unlock the creative floodgates. “I’ve noticed over my career, I have this Dropbox folder that’s just full of songs that are unreleased. Because I move on to these new vibes so fast and, especially in the industry (sectors) like labels and stuff, they want to have a lot of prep time to be able to drop an album,” she says.

“But last year, after I left Interscope (Records) and I’m now a free, independent artist,” Grey continues, “I’ve been able to just create and put out songs whenever I kind of want to, and it’s helped me really stay really excited about the work that I’m doing.”

F–CKING CRAZY COGNIZANT

So in short: Skylar Grey is held to no one’s idea of creativity but her own. The five time Grammy-nominee knows she’s got skill, she fears no medium if it speaks to her artistically, and others in and around the music business thoroughly appreciate her talent. While the recent bolstering of these freedoms is easy to notice via things like her departure from Interscope, there’s plenty more Grey has learned through this new creative chapter, that goes well beyond simply believing in her art – including a bit of retrospective empathy. “This (singles project) been very extreme learning curve this month. First of all, I’ve learned that putting out a song a week is really aggressive – especially when I’m trying to do single cover photoshoots and music videos for every song. And then also, I’ve been handling my own marketing campaigns and all of that stuff. So it’s just been a lot of work,” Grey says.

“It’s great though, because I’m learning so much now,” she says. “That, it was like a crash course in basically how to be my own label. And now I know why, you know, sometimes you need a little bit more lead time. And I appreciate it now.”

The absolute whirlwind Grey subjected herself to with these consecutive releases sounds like a maddening endeavor. But beyond the exhaustion of building from the ground up on a blank slate of trials, errors, and logistical experimentations, Grey knows without a doubt that she can take heart in those around her.

“My fans are so f–cking cool. They just love everything I put out. And they’re so supportive,” Grey says. “Like, I don’t know, they’re just on this journey with me; it feels like, like we’re in it together.”

All the same, don’t mistake such an enthusiastic appreciation of fan admiration for needed validation. To the contrary, any appreciation Grey shows is derived from an understanding of healthy relationships in general – something Grey attained far earlier.

“A long time ago, I had that kind of realization that like, I was trying to be something I wasn’t or be somebody I wasn’t and I was surrounded by people, then that I didn’t really like,” she says.

“The moment I allowed myself to really just be authentically myself at all times (including) in like, personal situations, yeah–some of the people that I used to hang out with stopped kind of hanging out with me. But then, I gained this whole other group of friends and acquaintances that I was so grateful for because I felt like they really understood the real me. And I feel like the same goes for like your fan base, you know? It’s like, if you are really authentically yourself, you’re gonna attract exactly the right fans that you want.”

Ultimately, who Skylar Grey is, remains entirely recognizable and at the same time, wholly unpredictable. Grey might not have all the answers with regard to her entire artistic identity but ever content to keep searching and reflecting, the world knows to expect change, while never knowing exactly what that will look or sound like at the end of the day. Right now, Grey is taking mere first steps into uncharted waters with her emotionally diverse assortment of weekly songs, visually avant-garde videos, and untethered ambition so, what’s to come in the long run remains to be seen. However if nothing else, this new chapter in Skylar Grey’s story reveals a strong resolve and in conjunction with an embrace of change, there’s no better way to move toward the unknown.

“You know, it’s a huge risk to just (decide) I’m going to just believe in myself as an artist and stop doing things I don’t want to do. It’s just, you know, we’re still in the beginning phases of this decision. I’m still scared of the choice that I made, but I’m still sticking to it (and) I hope it pays off.”

Photo credit: Elliot Taylor

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