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While Skylar Grey’s Don’t Look Down, released today, is her first album, there’s very little that’s typical of a debut.
For starters, Grey, born Holly Brook (she has performed under the name but very much views her new identity as a completely separate entity), has already been nominated for a Grammy, as one of the songwriters on the Eminem and Rihanna smash “Love the Way You Lie.” She’s also recorded with Em and Dr. Dre on the radio hit “I Need a Doctor,” as well as with Diddy (“Coming Home”) and Lupe Fiasco.
Don’t Look Down comes via producer Alex da Kid’s KIDinaKORNER imprint, housed under the Interscope Records banner, with Eminem serving as executive producer of the album and appearing on its first single, “C’Mon, Let Me Ride.” It’s a testament to the rapper-producer’s faith in the 27-year-old Wisconsin native whose first true solo effort is a confident, fully realized effort.
The Hollywood Reporter recently sat down with Grey at L.A. hotspot Sayers Club to discuss her songwriting, high-powered relationships, new album and what took so long.
The Hollywood Reporter: Anticipation for the record has been high, and attaching Eminem’s name to it adds even more excitement. It seems there’s still a mystique to him. Would you agree?
Skylar Grey: He does have a mystique. It’s an intense curiosity. It’s not just, “Oh, there’s this new artist.” It’s, “There’s this new artist that Eminem is working with and supporting, so that makes it even more interesting.” I definitely see that.
THR: Do you remember the first time you met Eminem?
Grey: Yeah, it was in his studio. I came in to work on a song. Dr. Dre was there and Em was there. He was sitting and I was really intimidated [laughs] … by Em. He looked at me, and I don’t remember exactly what he said, but his first line was like, “The shit that you do,” and then he said something like it’s fucking great or something like that. It was just weird to meet him and hear that come out of his mouth.
Grey: They do. I was really shy at first and they all noticed. I kept my mouth shut, kind of sat back, observed, and then, when I was needed, I presented them with the song “I Need a Doctor,” and they used it. But I don’t know if I really talked that much outside of that. Dre was actually super gracious, he took me aside to thank me for coming and had a private conversation with me just to say that he really appreciated me spending the time on his project. I was like, “You don’t need to say that, you’re fucking Dr. Dre.” But it was really sweet.
THR: Did you ever tell Eminem you were totally intimidated by him?
Grey: I did tell him eventually. Now I feel like I’ve gotten past that. Not that I’m not intimidated. I’m still totally intimidated by him and his talent, but I’m a little bit more fearless when it comes to just starting up a conversation. I started asking him questions and advice and stuff.
THR: What’s the best piece of advice he’s given you so far?
Grey: I was asking about interviews and how to approach them. I’m a shy person, so I get really nervous going into interviews. He said, “Just make everybody like you.” I think he could sense the fact that, because I’m really shy, it sometimes turns people off. Like they think I’m a bitch. And it’s not the case, but if I don’t open up and talk, people come up with their own stories about me, which is actually really common.
THR: Is hanging out with Diddy anything at all like his hilarious music exec character in Get Him to the Greek?
Grey: I laugh a lot. We were sound checking for a performance on WWE and, for some reason, the sound engineers thought that they needed to put a crazy amount of Diddy’s vocal in my monitor. And so I kept asking for less of him and he’s like, “What, you don’t like me?” It was, like, two in the morning in an empty stadium that seats 90,000 people — kind of surreal.
THR: How did your relationship with Alex Da Kid come about?
Grey: I lived in a cabin in the woods in Oregon, and I’d basically given up on the music industry for an indefinite amount of time. And while I was out there, I came up with a very specific vision of what I wanted my music to sound like. And the only person in the industry that I was still connected to was my publisher, Jennifer Blakeman. So I went to her and I said, “Here’s what I want to do. How do I make it happen?” And Universal had just signed Alex Da Kid and she said, “I think you should meet this producer.” So she played me “Airplanes.” I listened to the first verse and chorus and instantly knew that I wanted to work with him. It was the perfect combination of hip-hop with pop and an alternative vocal. It was big, and I just loved it. I went back to the woods and met him via e-mail — yes, I have e-mail in the woods — and he sent me some beats to try writing to. I sent him back the hook for “Love the Way You Lie” and that’s kind of what started the whole relationship. He even wrote me back, “I like it, not sure I love it, though.”
THR: Have you brought this up to him since then?
Grey: Yeah, and he’s like, “I don’t remember saying that.” But I have the e-mail to prove it. After we had a couple hit, a lot of people came to us asking for music, and it was really hard to give it up because I wanted to make my own album. Writing songs for other people was never the goal for me. So I started working on my own album, and it’s taken me a few years, but Alex has produced half of it.
THR: Do you think Alex’s success with Imagine Dragons will help you at radio?
Grey: Alex hasn’t produced much lately; he’s been more of an executive at KIDinaKORNER. And Imagine Dragons had been a band for a while before Alex found them. … But Alex does have diversity, not just in what he produces, but what he hears. He has this knack for finding talented people. The new guy that he’s working with, Jamie Commons, sounds amazing and is totally different from me and Imagine Dragons.
THR: The album’s release date has been pushed back several times. Can you talk about why?
Grey: One of my biggest problems is I get bored too easily, and I like to experiment too much, to the point where I confuse myself and I confuse my fans. So it just took me some time to figure out exactly what I wanted this album to sound like because I had worked with so many types of people and tried so many different things. I had to wait for the right batch of songs to come together and feel like a whole piece.
THR: And it feels that way to you now?
Grey: It does — finally.
THR: As a complete work, what does it represent to you?
Grey: Lyrically, I’m talking about my life, from being a kid to struggling financially and struggling in the music industry — not directly about that, but the emotions that I went through. So it’s all very real stuff that I’ve experienced. To me, the album is all about growing up, coming into your own and accepting the challenges that you face in life.
THR: Can you give an example using a song?
Grey: There’s a song called “Glow in the Dark” [about] when you’re facing all these different challenges and you don’t know where to go, [how] it can weaken you because you’re just uncertain. I write a lot about the past because I really see things clearly in hindsight — obviously everybody does, so there are morals in every song. Then, once I’ve learned all those things and gotten through the hard times, I come out feeling really powerful and “Glow in the Dark,” to me, is that powerful song on the album.
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