Back when she lived in Los Angeles, Skylar Grey used to clear her head by taking long drives up the coast and through the redwoods, all the way up to Oregon. “I’d go by myself and listen to music the whole way, and just think about everything going on in my life,” says the five-time Grammy Award-nominated singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, who now lives in Utah. “Those drives were kind of my happy place back then.” So when it came time to start working on her upcoming album, Grey focused on writing songs that matched that introspective mood. “When I listen to the new songs, I imagine I’m driving through the woods alone again, on some kind of journey,” she says. “I wanted to make an album that could fit right into those kinds of moments.”
The follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed Don’t Look Down, Grey’s new album mines her folk roots and poetic sensibilities to create her most emotionally charged collection of songs yet. As the co-writer behind some of the most memorable chart-climbing songs in recent years—including tracks by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, totaling more than 25 million singles sold globally—Grey also uses her refined grasp of songcraft to build a sound that’s gracefully melodic and intricately composed. In making the album, Grey partnered with her longtime producer Alex Da Kid (Imagine Dragons, X Ambassadors), as well as with Mike Elizondo and Mark Batson (a duo whose collaboration with Grey marks their only time working together outside of producing for Dr. Dre and Eminem). And on “Come Up for Air,” Grey again teamed up with repeat collaborator Eminem, who co-executive-produced Don’t Look Down along with Alex Da Kid.
For lead single “Cannonball” (a track that shot to #3 on the iTunes Alternative chart), Grey joined forces with labelmates X Ambassadors to deliver a high-energy anthem about “the power of will and how it can be an underdog’s greatest advantage.” With its dusky guitar melodies and lilting strings, “Moving Mountains” shifts into a gentler direction, presenting a quietly powerful meditation on the cost of ambition. “For a long time I was very career-oriented, to the point where I missed a lot of birthdays and weddings and just wasn’t a very good friend,” says Grey. “But then I started to realize that the joy you feel from achievement is so fleeting—it lasts a moment and then it’s gone. So this song’s about changing perspective and enjoying every moment, letting your happiness lie with the small things and with the people you love.”
On “Closer,” Grey takes on a whispery minimalism, her ethereal piano work and spectral vocals exploring the notion of love that endures beyond death (“It’s about losing somebody you love and wondering where that person is now,” explains Grey, “and then the deceased person telling you, ‘I’m closer than you know’”). And on “We Used to Be Bad”—with its dreamlike storytelling and sprawling arrangement of gauzy vocals, sparse guitar lines, and shadowy effects—Grey offers a look back at the fragile beauty of childhood. “It’s about thinking back to when you were a rebellious kid getting into all kinds of trouble, and realizing those were some of the best days of your life,” she says.
Grey’s own childhood was spent in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, a tiny town with “no grocery stores, no stoplights—I basically grew up in the woods.” A Celtic harpist, Grey’s mother played in a number of folk groups, while her father sang in a barbershop quartet. Raised on singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, Grey composed her first piano recital at age seven, and wrote her first song when she was 14. “That’s when I started getting obsessed with songwriting,” she says, noting that the Fiona Apple CDs she used to steal from her older sister were central among her original influences.
Landing a publishing deal while still in her teens, Grey had her first massive hit with “Love the Way You Lie” (a 2010 track by Eminem feat. Rihanna). Along with selling 6.5 million singles to date, the song earned five Grammy Award nominations, including Record of the Year. Grey soon went on to co-write and feature on songs from the likes of Dr. Dre, will.i.am, Zedd, Kid Cudi, Diddy, Moby, David Guetta, Kaskade, Cee Lo, and T.I., in addition to releasing Don’t Look Down in July 2013. With that album debuting at #8 on the Billboard Top 200, Grey recently reached #1 on the iTunes Top Songs chart with “I Know You” (a song featured on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, its video fast approaching 30 million Vevo views).
“I’ve definitely gone on a lot of musical adventures over the past few years, working with people in hip-hop and with DJs and experimenting in all these different genres,” Grey says. “And it’s good to keep going on adventures, because you never know what you’re capable of. But this new album is very much me coming home, and doing something that’s most authentic to who I am at the core.” To that end, Grey made much of the album in her home studio in Park City and produced two of the tracks on her own (“Closer” and “American”). “Being in Utah, where there’s peace and quiet and room to think, it really helped me to focus and create what felt right to me,” she points out.
That enhanced focus also helped Grey to hone in on one of her most singular gifts as a songwriter: a rare ability to capture the most nuanced of feelings, then channel them into songs with a subtle cathartic power. And in that way, Grey perceives songwriting as something of a welcome responsibility. “Sometimes people will tell me, ‘It feels like you wrote that song just for me,’ which means a lot, because hopefully it’s helping them somehow,” she says. “And if I’m able to express something that maybe other people have a hard time articulating on their own, then I absolutely want to try to do that for them.”