Ariana Grande is pop's newest big-voiced diva, but on her third album, Dangerous Woman, one guest vocalist nearly upstages her: Macy Gray. The raspy-throated R&B singer – who broke through in 1999 with her single "I Try" – brings old-school Nina Simone-level grit to throwback ballad "Leave Me Lonely," one of the standout tracks from the new LP.
"It's a pretty boring story," Gray tells Rolling Stone of how she joined Future, Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne as one of Grande's Dangerous collaborators. Gray was meeting with Republic about other topics when the label surprised her with the offer. "They were just in the middle of the Ariana record and had 'Leave Me Lonely.' They were looking for someone to sing that part."
Gray had never met Grande before, though she cites "Love Me Harder" as one of her favorite songs. For "Leave Me Lonely," it was the lyrics that got her hooked and ready to sign on. "The song is just so well-written," she says. "I didn't know it would come out like that. It came out pretty extraordinary. When I was doing it, it was right up my alley."
Her collaboration with Grande is one of her first pop tracks in a while, having stepped away from major labels following 2007's Big. In 2012, she released a pair of underrated cover albums on the smaller label 429, which included the Stevie Wonder tribute LP Talking Book. Gray's most recent release is 2014's The Way, though she has two more releases in the works, including a live jazz album.
"We [recorded] it at a church in Brooklyn," she says of the as-yet-untitled jazz LP, which will feature mostly older deep cuts from her catalog, a cover and a few new songs. "It's just one mic, me, a stand-up bass, a guitar player and a drummer. We did the whole album in two days."
On the opposite end, she's teaming up with producer Tommy Brown, one of Grande's most frequent collaborators, who co-wrote "Leave Me Lonely" and produced most of Dangerous Woman. "It's this whole new sound," Gray promises. Her and Brown have even been in the studio this week, tinkering away at the new music. "I'm really big on doing things that are fresh, and it's been a kind of a curse for me. We started to come up with something that is totally tangible for what's current today and still loyal to what I do. I'm terrible at describing music, but it's kind of dark but the beats are totally danceable."
While the live jazz album is due this fall, her work with Brown will come much later. She'll be touring various City Winery venues across North America this summer, playing with college students in each city and forming a new band every night. "I'm kind of nervous because I've never played with them," she confesses.
"I'm a huge Drake fan, like everybody else. He's like this generation's Marvin Gaye."
As for other pop-oriented opportunities that may come her way as a result of her Grande assist, she's keeping an open ear. "I'm hoping to do more collaborations coming up," she says. "Now that I've done that one, I'm open to more." Her listening habits are as diverse as her music, counting herself a huge fan of the Alabama Shakes, Chris Stapleton and Rihanna's Anti, though she has one particular favorite above all at the moment.
"I'm a huge Drake fan, like everybody else," she admits. "He's like this generation's Marvin Gaye. He's so prolific. I love him."
Still, Gray's positive experience crafting "Leave Me Lonely" leaves her welcoming all the endless possibilities the current landscape of music and streaming culture have created. "It's a new day in music," she says optimistically. "I'm looking forward to the next gamechanger, somebody that's done something nobody's done before. I'm thinkin' it's gonna be me, but there's a lot of music and it's wide open to do whatever you want."From Britney Spears to Celine Dion, watch Ariana Grande's greatest musical impressions.