EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Skylar Grey talks her underground hip-hop origins, connecting with Eminem and Dr. Dre, and escaping to a cabin in the woods.
Ever since she helped bring Eminem's "Love The Way You Lie" into existence, singer-songwriter Skylar Grey has become one of his most trusted collaborators. Since first linking up in 2010, Grey has contributed vocals, and most recently production, on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Recovery, and Music To Be Murdered By. And while many of Eminem's fans have come to appreciate Grey's melodic presence, her history in the music industry actually stretches far beyond her partnership with Slim Shady.
From coming up alongside underground rappers like Apathy and Styles Of Beyond, to retreating to a remote cabin in the woods in a search for clarity, to presenting the Grammy-nominated skeleton of "I Need A Doctor" to Dr. Dre in a Detroit studio, Skylar Grey has lived through a dynamic and unpredictable career. Now, with her sights set on her fiancee Elliott Taylor's artistic development, Skylar is gearing up to embark on the next stage.
A few weeks removed from the release of Eminem's Music To Be Murdered By, on which she contributed heavily to the powerful "Leaving Heaven," I had the chance to speak with Skylar on the phone.
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HNHH: Hey Skylar, how are you doing?
Skylar Grey: Hey Mitch, I’m great. How are you?
Doing pretty well!
Are you on the East Coast?
I’m in Canada, actually.
Oh shit, dope!
It’s a bit snowy. It’s transitioning from winter to spring right now, so to be honest...it’s not that pleasant. Where are you?
I live in Napa, California. It’s beautiful here, but we have not gotten enough rain this winter. We’ll see how the grapes do. [Laughs]
So, I’ve seen you described as a multi-instrumentalist. I was wondering, what instruments do you play?
I play piano, I play guitar, and I play something called the Lap Dulcimer. It’s one of the only American instruments aside from the harmonica. Those are my three main instruments. I consider the computer an instrument nowadays, cause everything is made in a box in current music. I do that too -- for the past couple of years I’ve really been developing my producing skills.
Did you always play music since you were a kid?
I grew up performing with my mom. I started performing when I was six, fell in love with the stage. Music was always a huge passion of mine since I was two years old. I was singing harmony on ‘Happy Birthday’ and stuff -- people were like what is going on? I was that kid who was super musical from day one. I went solo from my mom when I was thirteen, fourteen. Started doing my own thing.
When did you pick up the guitar?
Piano was first at six. Dulcimer was second -- my mom was a folk musician and she was a very eccentric, eclectic artist as well. She was a celtic harpist. I learned the Dulcimer from her, then I picked up the guitar at eleven or twelve.
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I played a lot of guitar myself -- it’s always nice to chat with another guitarist.
Yeah. Here’s the thing though. People describe me as a multi-instrumentalist but I don’t think I’m a virtuoso at any instrument. My forte is songwriting. I use instruments as a tool. It’s not like I’m going to go show off my skills. I’m not going to go shred on the guitar.
That’s totally fair. I mean, there’s a lot that goes into the songwriting process. The imagery, the storytelling. You can be a virtuoso at that -- your repertoire of songs speaks for itself at this point. I was going through your credits, and some people might not have a clue how deep your catalog runs.
I think a lot of people reading this will have come to know your music through Eminem. I know you just worked with him on his new album -- what can you tell me about making “Leaving Heaven?”
We didn’t work in the same room on it. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. It was actually my fiancee’s idea -- Elliott Taylor, who I’m developing as an artist now too -- it was his concept. Elliott was in California, I was in New York on a writing trip. We were having a phone conversation, and he was like 'I came up with this concept I think is really dope called “Leaving Heaven.”'
His concept for the title was really different, but the way I took it was that I’m leaving heaven and I’m going to go fuck shit up. Get revenge or something. I was excited about the idea, flew home, and we started working on it. Developed this track and hook, and I sent it to Marshall because I felt it would fit his vibe and he might dig it. And he did. He did his thing to it and put it on his album.
So many artists have mentioned not knowing whether they’ll actually be on the album till it comes out. Was it like that with you? Did you even know the album was on the way?
I didn’t know one hundred percent when the album was coming out. I did know he really liked the song and he was holding it. I had a feeling. When I got the paperwork -- you gotta do a deal when you put a song on an album -- that’s when I knew it was actually real and coming out. I had no idea when.
We try to keep a close eye on things, working on the site. But it really surprised me. He really changed the formula. I’ve been an Eminem fan for a while now, since I was a kid basically. He used to never do surprise albums.
It’s cool, I like it.
How did you guys spark such a creative partnership and artistic trust?
We started out with “Love The Way You Lie.” I wasn’t even in the music game. I was taking some time off and I was living in a cabin in the woods in Oregon. Doing some soul searching. Then I realized I needed to give music another go and I reached out to my publisher who helped connect me to a producer named Alex Da Kid. Alex and I met over email. I was still in the cabin in the woods and he was in New York, but he sent me a track and I wrote the hook to “Love The Way You Lie.”
I sent it back, and pretty instantly Eminem cut it. Rihanna got on it, and a month later it was a number one song. I was like well shit! Maybe I should try music again. [Laughs] So I got back into the game, and I credit a lot of my success to Marshall. Cause that was my biggest break to date. It’s the biggest song I’ve ever been a part of. I’m so grateful for that opportunity that came into my life at a moment in time I was very unsure about my career path. I’ve always been very grateful for it.
When I finally met him and started working with him in person it felt very natural. There was good musical chemistry there, so we continued to work together. Since that song came out, it’s been like, ten years now?
Shit, I guess so. Recovery is ten years old?
I know, I can’t believe it. I’ve been working with him ever since.
Were you familiar with his music before?
I’ve always been an Eminem fan. I discovered him when I was thirteen. “Stan” was my favorite song for a while. It was on repeat. I loved the soft female vocals with the hip-hop. That combo was so cool to me. That became a goal of mine, something I wanted to do in my life. I guess I manifested it.
Look, I gotta ask. This cabin -- what drew you to an actual cabin in the woods?
It was out there. My mom had a friend who had this huge property. And she let me live there for free, cause I was broke, in exchange for working at her art gallery in town at her little gallery. I’d go home to this cabin on her property, and it was very remote. You had to walk about a quarter-mile. It was on a sand dune in the woods. I know that sounds weird, but trees do grow on sand dunes.
You couldn’t drive up the sand, so you had to park at the base of the dune and hike up the dune through the woods. It was scary sometimes, coming home at night. Being out in the middle of nowhere, by myself with a flashlight, walking through the woods. And the bathroom was also outside -- there was a bathroom but it was a freestanding unit, so if I had to go pee in the middle of the night it was always terrifying.
It must have been a creative haven though.
It was. It took me about two weeks to get over my fears. The first two weeks I was watching my backs. Then I became one with my environment and it wasn’t scary anymore.
It’s like that artist in solitude archetype. I remember hearing that Bon Iver wrote a whole album in a cabin. Went off the grid.
Ever since that experience, it’s very important for me not to live in a big city. I get too mentally jostled in a city. Different opinions pulling me in so many different directions. Being in a more remote location has always been important for my creativity. That’s why after I got back into the music game I moved back to L.A. temporarily, but it started getting to me again. I moved to Utah, and now I live in Napa Valley. We’re out in the boonies. I love it, it’s really helpful. And I have a studio in my house.
With that feeling of being pulled in so many directions at once -- I used to buy CDs, and I would look through the liner notes at all the credits. Now I’ve really come to see how many songwriters are contributing to a modern-day hit. Do you feel there’s a lack of intimacy that comes in the songwriting process?
I understand why there’s a ton of writers on a song. It’s not my favorite way to work. But it has happened before where I’ve done something and you know, it was passed off to another group of people and they finished it. It’s just because they want to get the best song for whatever the project is. This person might have said one word that changed the whole thing, and this person might have changed a chord, and it’s like oh my god.
I get why it happens, but at my core, I’m an artist. I’m not a songwriter for other people, even though that’s what I’ve become most successful doing. I’m an artist, and I want to create stuff that I feel. It’s really hard for me to work in an environment with all these different people and opinions and everything mixing in with it. It’s another reason I don’t like to be in LA and do sessions there all the time. That’s not the type of business I want to do. I want to make art that comes out of me, you know?
If you’re working on a demo, do you ever find it hard to part ways with it? Especially if an artist is like I really want this song…
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I became very comfortable with giving people my songs. It became my comfort zone to know that if somebody puts this song out I’m going to make money. I took my emotions out of it at a certain point. Like, this big artist wants to do a song. Fuck yeah, let’s gets a paycheque, you know?
But I’m taking a big picture look at my career, and I never set out to be a songwriter for other people. It kind of happened and I got comfortable with it. It became my safe place to know I could make a living. It’s not really what I ever aimed to do, so now I’m really pulling back on all of that. I’m not doing sessions for other people or pitching songs. I’m really focusing now on myself, my own music, and my fiancee. Developing my own projects.
That’s really the only thing I’m passionate about at the moment. There are a couple things -- we wrote a song for this upcoming Johnny Depp movie called Minamata-- and it’s going to be the end title song. I’m not singing it, we just wrote the song for the movie. There are a couple of things, but for the most part I’m just focusing on our projects and creating the art. I want to get out of my comfort zone and be like, I’m going to bet on myself now. Myself and my fiancee, and we’re going to do what we really want to do, which is to be artists. Not just give all my songs away because it’s where I make a living. I have to take more risks than that if I want to get what I want out of life.
For sure. Totally understandable. It’s still cool to see where it takes you. Like, for me, Dr. Dre is one of my favorite musicians ever. You played a pretty big role in “I Need A Doctor.” I’m curious about that song -- how did you get on it in the first place?
That was another one I did with Alex Da Kid right after “Love The Way You Lie.” Marshall had asked Alex and I to come to Detroit to work with Dre. Alex and I prepared and brought that hook -- we got together a week before and put the hook together. Then we got to Detroit and presented it, and it became what it became.
You presented it to Dre?
Dre and Marshall, yeah.
Were you aware of the whole Detox album? That’s like a hip-hop urban legend at this point.
At the time, we thought that was going to be something. [Laughs] But things change, I get it.
For sure. That must have been a nerve-wracking experience.
It was, because going to Detroit for that trip was also the first time I met Marshall. This was after “Love The Way You Lie” came out and was a big hit, but we hadn’t met yet. I was going to Detroit to be in a room with Marshall and Dre, and it was very intimidating. But they were both really nice, and Dre was super thankful and grateful we were there. He was such a sweetheart. It went very smoothly, obviously, but walking in I was terrified.
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Understandable. I think something people don’t credit Em and Dre enough for is their mixing -- they’re nice with the mixing. Top tier. I know you mentioned you were doing a lot of producing yourself, do you enjoy the engineering side?
Yeah. I’m in it deep, all levels. I have produced other songs for other people in the past, but it was always pretty stripped back stuff. It’s only been the past couple of years I started doing my own drum programming. I always tracked and put together my own vocals. Recently the drums have been my new obsession. It’s why it’s been so exciting for me to practice my production skills working on myself, and with my fiance Elliott Taylor. We just released the first song off his project, and it’s called “Held Up.”
Are there challenges in working on music with your fiance?
Not really. You would think there would be but we just have such great chemistry on all levels, it’s just fun. Such a fun adventure. He has really great ideas, really fresh, because he hasn’t been in the game that long. He hasn’t been songwriting for other people that long. We started out, I had some opportunities writing for Aquaman and Celine Dion, we wrote these songs together. Our cuts as songwriters together have been [those two,] Eminem, Train, and this Minimata movie. Pretty good for a first year for him as a songwriter. It’s been so fun developing him as an artist -- I’ve never done that before. I’ve written songs for other people, but never sat down and spent a ton of time focusing on what sound I was creating. Artist development. We’re going to shoot a music video soon, I’m excited about that.
Very cool, I’m looking forward to see how that turns out. I wanted to mention how things kinda came full circle in a way. Some people might not know this, but you were connected with some underground hip-hop back when you first started out. Songs with Fort Minor, Apathy--
Yeah! Yeah! Styles Of Beyond!
People who might be familiar with your work with Em might not be aware that you were rolling with some underground artists back in the day.
My first experience working in hip-hop was working on the song “Where’d You Go” with Fort Minor and that was kind of accomplishing what we talked about before. Manifesting that “Stan” vibe, where it’s a soft vocal with hip-hop. I was super excited about that opportunity. It was a really big song, and I got introduced to all these hip-hop cats. It felt like it was where I belong, and it developed into working with Em, years later. Apathy was great, and I did the stuff with Slaughterhouse -- that was through Marshall.
Were you in the studio with Slaughterhouse at any point?
I met them in the studio, but I think most of the stuff was sent. Honestly, I live out in the boonies so all of my songwriting cuts happened by sending an email. [Laughs]
Fair. It makes sense -- it’s so easy to load up a computer and spend eight hours working on a song. I get it.
Yeah, and sometimes when I’m in the room with other people I feel more pressure and I don’t feel like I can be myself. It’s nice to have my own space to fully flow. I can get it to a place where I’m happy and just send it off. To me it’s a more comfortable way to work because I’m not a super outgoing person.
For sure. Plus shit always sounds really good when it’s blasting from your home studio monitors. That always helps. Before we go I had to mention this -- when I was reading about some of your influences I saw you mention Radiohead. Then I saw a clip of you doing a nice cover of “Idioteque.”
Dope! I love Radiohead. I love all different types of music. I think that’s one of those other things that drew me to songwriting for different people. Being able to work in different genres. But Radiohead is right up in the top three favorite artists of all time.
Thom Yorke and Dr. Dre are up there for me -- two geniuses.
I feel you.
Thank you for your time, and best of luck with the artist development!