Interview: Skylar Grey Talks ‘Angel With Tattoos’ & New Beginnings
Sklyar Grey’s discography is unusually diverse. From hip-hop to EDM and piano-pop, the singer/songwriter has done it all. With one exception. Until now, the 33-year-old has never fully leaned into the folk music she grew up listening to. Skylar remedies that situation on Angel With Tattoos — an independently released EP (out today) that will grow into an album as new songs are added. While the sound is stripped-back and earthy, the hooks and emotional insight that made her one of the game’s go-to hitmakers are very much apparent.
I recently caught up with Skylar to discuss her new project, which came about after an illuminating session with producer Dave Bassett. She also opened up about the subject of the exceedingly gooey love songs — her fiancé and now-collaborator, Elliott Taylor. Other topics of conversation include writing a song for Céline Dion’s new album, an upcoming collaboration with pop/rock veterans Train and her memories of featuring on Fort Minor’s 2006 hit “Where’d You Go.” Catch up with Skylar in our Q&A below.
When did you decide to write stripped-back, folk songs? It’s so different to your recent material.
It happened organically. I had been doing sessions with a lot of writers and producers, not for myself but for other people. Actually, at that point, I had made a decision to just go down the road of being a songwriter and not really focus on my artist career. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Interscope saying they wanted to make a new album. I was surprised because my last two albums didn’t do so well. So I continued doing sessions, but started trying to figure out what I wanted to create.
Those sessions can be a little bit exhausting because you’re meeting somebody new every time. It’s like you walk in, you talk for maybe 15 minutes to break the ice and then you start getting emotional and writing a song. It can be really awkward and a little bit exhausting. I had come to a point where I was just over it. Then I had this session set up with a guy named Dave Bassett, who I didn’t really know much about. I was burnt out from songwriting sessions and wasn’t really stoked to go.
Then I get there and we started writing a song. Totally, out of nowhere, we stumbled upon the sound. He started playing the guitar. I started singing. It immediately brought me back to this feeling of my childhood, listening to Carole King and Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac. I was so happy that I had gone through with the session and discovered the sound. I knew I wanted to make a whole project with this sound. I played it for my A&R person and he loved it. So I did more sessions with Dave. We just continued building this project.
Anyway, I took the batch of these songs to Interscope and said, “I’m ready, here’s my album.” They were like, “We’re not really feeling it.” So I was just like, “I’m so into this sound right now that I’m not going to shift my course. What are we going to do here?” We decided to part ways. It was very amicable. They let me take my songs with me. Those are the songs I’m now releasing.
I read that you felt like you were returning to you roots. Were you referring to the Like Blood Like Honey album or Generations?
Not really Generations. That was the duo my mom and I had. We would sing a lot of kids’ songs actually, like family songs. We did incorporate some folk songs as well. We did some Bob Dylan and we did a lot of Joni Mitchell. I was just referring to what I listened to as a kid, what my mom would play on vinyl. Those folk artists really inspired me as a kid. I never really dove down that path musically until now. I feel like if I had tried to do it back then, I wouldn’t have had the songwriting experience to bring much to the lyrics.
I really think that by me going out and venturing into hip hop and working in all these different genres, I’ve learned so much about songwriting that I’m now applying to this folky style. Not that you’ll hear it necessarily, but “Angel With Tattoos” for example. It’s such a storytelling song. I get a lot of that. The way I create songs and write lyrics now is definitely influenced by everything I’ve done with hip hop and other genres.
Talking about the lyrics, “Shame On You” is the happiest you have ever sounded.
That is so true, yes.
Where did that come from?
It comes down to love, man. I met this guy [pointing at fiancé Elliott Taylor, who is sitting next to us] and fell in love with him. Then, I didn’t want to write a song unless it was a love song about him. Every time I went into a session, I told the songwriters, “Here’s what I’m feeling today. I’m in love. We’re writing a love song.” Every time. I’ve never been in love like this before. I’ve never wanted to write songs about somebody. I still only write songs about him. I just love him so much. I proposed to him. I got down on one knee and gave him a diamond.
The song “Angel With Tattoos” is so vulnerable. Do you get scared sharing so much of yourself?
Yes, I do. I get nervous about that, but I feel like a lot of the best work from songwriters and artists is when it comes from a real, emotional place. I don’t want to keep my best work or what I feel is my best work locked up in a box or in a hard drive. I’m just letting it out there.
Do you see yourself as an angel with tattoos?
Elliott is actually the one who came up with the phrase “Angel With Tattoos”, he calls me that. I was like, “I want to turn that into a song. It’s so cool.” Now it’s the title of the whole project. I feel like that though. I feel like I maybe come across as a little bit hard because I have all my tattoos and I’m not necessarily… in the past I’ve haven’t been the most bubbly person. Sometimes people think I’m being mean or rude, when I’m just really quiet and I’m not like super smiley.
But when it comes to him, I’m the softest thing. I care about him, love him so much. I would do anything for him. I would lay down in traffic for him. I would literally do anything for him. In that way, I feel like I am an angel because I feel like I’m his guardian angel in a sense because I would do anything for him.
In one of your older interviews, you said there might be a solo version of “Walk On Water” on the album. Is that still a possibility?
I did record it. I just have to figure out the release of that. It’ll probably come out on this project eventually. This is an open-ended album. I’m putting out these five songs first because they’re the most complete. I don’t want to wait any longer. I don’t want to wait for five more songs to get done, to be able to release these songs. I’m just putting them out. As I write more songs in this style, I will keep adding to the project. In the meantime, I’m always working on different styles of music. That’s why I call this a concept album.
Did “Walk On Water” originally have verses or did you just write the hook?
It originally had one verse and a chorus. Actually Pink wanted it, but I had sent it to [Eminem] first. I decided to let him have it for his album. He got Beyoncé to sing the hook. We’ll release my version at some point too.
When Don’t Look Down came out, could you imagine that you would be able to make an album like this on your own terms?
I was scared to not be on a label anymore because I thought that was just the way you have to do it. The music industry has evolved so much, especially with the ability to release music whenever you want to with the Internet and all the different platforms. I’m excited now to not have to answer to a whole committee of people to say, “Hey, can I put this music out?” If I write a song today, I can literally put it out tomorrow. It’s that easy now. It’s really exciting to have that freedom. Back then, I never would have imagined I could be in this position.
Was the predominant emotion fear or excitement when you decided to go indie?
It was a combination of fear and excitement. They go hand in hand, don’t they? One of the things that definitely softens my fears is that I have a great management team now, Crush, and they have a huge team of people that basically can do anything a label can do. Having them backing me is a huge relief.
I know Angel With Tattoos is your current focus, but are you still writing songs for other artists?
Yes. A couple things I want to mention here. Number one is that Elliott and I wrote a song for Céline Dion. It’s called “Falling In Love Again” and it’s on her new album. He was looking at Huffington Post and saw this article about her holding hands with a guy. He was like, “Is Céline Dion in love?” Because she’s been through so much. Then we sat in the car after dinner one night. We didn’t even go in the house. We just had this hour, two-hour-long conversation trying to put ourselves emotionally in her shoes.
If I had to find the courage to move on in life and try new love, what that would be like? We discussed that for a long time. It was a heavy conversation. Then we marinated on the concept for a few months. We wrote a couple songs for her and we were like, “No, it’s not good enough.” Then one night, it came to me in bed. The lyric and the melody of the chorus, it just floated into my brain when I was half asleep. I was like, “Babe, babe, I got it.” I got up and started playing it on a keyboard and singing it.
How do you get a song to Céline?
Because I have this amazing management team, I send it to them. Then I also have my publishing team at UMPG. I said, “Guys, let’s tag team this, get it to Céline Dion, hit her from a couple angles.” Then I got a phone call not too long after saying that she wanted the song. I burst into tears. I’m so excited. I haven’t even heard it. I do know that she kept my piano and my background vocals on it though. I mean, that was as big a dream, to work with her, as it was to work with Eminem. That also shows you how diverse my musical tastes are.
Another thing that we did recently was for Train. Elliot was sitting in the living room playing guitar. He just started jamming away and saying this line. “I’ll be sipping Mai Tais.” He started singing. He was like, “That’s stupid.” I was like, “No, babe, that’s so dope. We got to turn that into a song.” That song now has become a collaboration between me and Train. It’s coming out in November. We went to Hawaii last week to film an episode of Magnum P.I. to premiere the song. I’m not acting in it. I’m just singing in it.
I have to ask you about “Where’d You Go.” What are you memories of that release?
That song I didn’t write. I was signed to Linkin Park’s label at the time. Mike Shinoda was making a solo project. He asked me to come down to the studio and lay a vocal down for the hook. He thought it would be cool for me to sing on. I didn’t really think much of it. Then, a few months later, it was a hit. I wasn’t ready for a hit. I thought I was. I was super excited about it, but I didn’t know how to follow it up. I didn’t have my songs together. I liked what I was doing but I didn’t have The Song.
What was it like to be so young and have a huge hit?
It was really, really cool. First of all, I had always been a fan of Eminem and the song “Stan.” Working on a hip hop song with a female vocal was something I’d always wanted to do. Just that alone was really fun. Then having a song on the top of the charts was… it gave me a taste of the drug. Everything fell apart after that, everything in my life took a tumble. I had to regroup. I had to do some soul searching after that point and figure out what I wanted to do. Then I came back into the game with “Love The Way You Lie” for Eminem.
Which just happens to be one of the biggest songs of all times. I actually like the whole Holly Brook album too.
Thank you. I did too. I’m a better songwriter now than back then. Just because of all the experience I’ve had at this point. Stylistically, I really liked where I was going on that. I’m probably going to start leaning more into piano vocal driven stuff again in general, because that’s just at the core of all the genres that I work in, I do just sit at the piano and play. That is at the core of everything I do.
Congratulations on Angel With Tattoos. Good luck with it.