Life’s about to get very foreign for Skylar Grey, whose album, , launched last week, landing at #2 on the iTunes Chart. Grey is a relative unknown, but you’ve heard her many times. She wrote the hook for Rihanna and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” co-wrote T.I. and Christina Aguilera’s “Castle Walls” and sings the spacey chorus for Lupe Fiasco’s “Words I Never Said.” Her album, produced by and Eminem and released in partnership with Steve Madden Music, is going national. It’s also gonna put Grey right where she’s least comfortable: In the middle of a crowd. A loud, colorful crowd.
Grey grew up in a Wisconsin town with no stoplights. She changed her name from Holly Brook (colorful, rambling!) to Skylar Grey (grey sky). She heads out into the wilderness every chance she gets. “I could have written Walden,” she jokes to a TV reporter ahead of me at her NYC launch party for Don’t Look Down. The expansive outdoors and endless American roads are where Grey feels home. You can see it in her videos: The silly, suggestive, “C’mon Let Me Ride,” has her treading the Michigan woods with just an RV, a tent and, of course, some bikes. In “White Suburban,” she opens up her memory, all grainy highways. Always on the run Grey sings on “Wear Me Out,” as the camera bounces between a campground and the inside of a tent.
Skylar Grey – “White Suburban”
The 27-year-old seems a more natural pair with, say, White Buffalo than raucous, limelight-gobbling rappers. Find her at a packed 1O AK Bankhead? Never. Ripping down Broadway in a convertible? Doubtful. She gets her kicks from quiet, from solitude. Even recording rooms, typically the crowd-crushed stars’ escape, aren’t tranquil enough. Even if they come with names like Prairie Sun, AIR, Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and Shangri-La. “I don’t know if I find peace in the studio to be quite honest,” Grey tells me. “When I’m by myself … maybe.” On tour, she escapes the endless rotation of bandmates, press and stagehands by climbing into her bunk, cranking up the headphones and disappearing. Being part of the noisy herd isn’t Grey; she prefers the low-key style her band Generations ran with in the 1990s. Two-woman group, she and her mom, touring the Wisconsin countryside in a van. Playing libraries on Mother’s Day, eating McDonalds. Folk songs, kids tunes. Simple.
Skylar Grey – “C’mon Let Me Ride”
Not that Grey’s wistful for those days. She went solo, axed high school and jetted to L.A. to start a career. Toured with Duncan Sheik, Jamie Cullum, K.D. Lang, Teddy Geiger. Signed with Linkin Park’s imprint, and then dropped the label. Ducking out meant that, like a college-athlete transfer, she had to sit on pine ’til her contract expired. Tour or no tour, Grey kept moving. This time, in her own car, again. Her favorite road trip is up through the redwoods to Klamath national park and then to the Oregon coast. “When I’m driving I find peace,” Grey says. A cabin punctuates her ride with a wood-burning stove. Surrounded by the dense Pacific forest, Grey chops her own wood for the night, picks huckleberries and chanterelle mushrooms.
On launch night in the Lower East Side, she’s wearing a maroon hat with a camouflage bill and a ten-point elk patch. Her nails are shiny and translucent, not the textbook dark paint of a woman trying to stand out. Her oversized, unbuttoned khaki shirt, a tint of exposed bra and loosely tied-back hair looks like she’s packing up camp in the morning. Instead, Grey, all Kerouac and Krakauer, no Kanye and Kardashian, is headed into the wild, packed, rambunctious city.