Skylar Grey talks new project and how living alone in the woods helped bring it to fruition (Exclusive)
Skylar Grey knows that you probably don’t know who she is — in fact, she meant for it to be this way.
But if you’ve caught yourself singing along to any of those hauntingly catchy hooks in mainstream hip-hop tracks over the past decade or so (think Eminem and Rihanna’s "Love the Way You Lie" or Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go”), chances are you know Grey’s music.
But whether or not you're familiar with her brooding lyrics and dark metaphors or the delicate, blonde-haired face behind them, Grey has decided it’s time for another reintroduction — or rather, a return to her original roots.
Born Holly Hafermann, the singer-songwriter began her career as early age six thanks to a profoundly musical upbringing.
She's since performed alongside and written songs for everyone from Eminem to Jay Z, wrote and performed the theme song for new Hulu show "4 Weddings And a Funeral” and was recently nominated for a 2019 VMA for in the Video for Good category for her collaboration with Jamie N Commons and Gallant on "Runaway Train."
AOL Entertainment met up with Hafermann to chat about her latest project, "Angel With Tattoos," why now is the right time for a musical pivot and how she’s used her alias identity to her advantage.
Your mother was a musician and she was the first person to bring you onto the scene. Tell us about your early years in the industry.
I grew up in a very musical family. My mom put me on stage professionally at my first gig when I was six — it was at a library for a Mother’s Day show and I played a 45-minute set, which is pretty legit for a six-year-old! And I just loved it. I loved singing on stage and having everybody smile at me in the audience and wanting to talk to me afterwards — I got really addicted to that feeling.
My mom was a folk musician mostly … she plays banjo, guitar, harp, dulcimer. My dad was in a barbershop quartet. I was in a lot of musical theatre so I had a very diverse musical upbringing. My mom also played Celtic harp, so there was also a lot of Irish music [around me].
As I started growing up, it became sort of not so cool to sing with my mom. You know, in middle school, that’s the worst time ever. And I started feeling like I needed to start making "cooler" music, so that’s when I started getting into what was on the radio. At that time, it was like Fiona Apple and Nirvana and '90s grunge [on the radio]. I also discovered Eminem at that time and heard the song "Stan" and I was like, "I have to do something like that one day" ... that's kind of where the idea was seeded that I would someday work with Eminem. I was like 13.
Did you continue on with music as you went into your teenage years?
I dropped out of high school at 17 … I moved to L.A., and got my first record deal and just went down this singer-songwriter path and then I did my first hip-hop song under the name Holly Brook with Fort Minor called "Where’d You Go." That was my first step into the hip-hop world. A few years later the Eminem thing happened which was my big break as a songwriter in the industry. I kind of got swept into the whole hip-hop world for a while after that. But I had to kind of abandon the roots of what I grew up doing.
When you say "that Eminem thing" you mean co-writing "Love the Way You Lie" featuring Rhianna and watching it hit number one on the charts. What did that feel like for you? How did that collaboration come to be?
I already had a career in the music industry as Holly Brook, and it kind of failed. So when I was living in this cabin in the woods in Oregon, kind of on this vision quest for myself, I [at that point] had lost my inspiration and love of music because I had been so through the ringer. Being out in the woods by myself, I really started to listen to my own voice and I remembered why I loved music in the first place. So I decided that I needed to figure out a way to get back into the music industry and do it for the right reasons and not lose my love and myself this time, do it all — not get sucked into the bullsh-t side of the industry. When I made that decision, I reached out to my publisher and she’s the one who hooked me up with [producer] Alex da Kid and that snowballed into writing the song for Eminem. The song blew up and I was living literally in a cabin in the woods in Oregon when the song hit number one!
None of us had ever met. I had never met Alex [da Kid] in person, it was just over email — he sent me a beat and I sent him back a hook. That went to Eminem in Detroit, he did his part and then that was sent to Rihanna and she recorded her part in Dublin.
Is that usually how the songwriting process goes for you?
Sometimes the artist is in the room and I’m collaborating with them and sometimes I get asked to pitch a song — so I write a song at home and send it in. They’ll give me some verbiage that’s like a direction, because whether I’m writing a song for another artist or for a movie there are always a few words that they’re looking for. Sometimes there will be a song reference but it’s weird because even with all that direction, sometimes the song ends up going to somebody else. It’s not necessarily what they want, but it’s a song and it’s good and it can live somewhere else. So I never feel like writing a song is a waste of time … and when I’m writing for somebody else it's important to put myself emotionally in their shoes. So I can write it from a very personal place even if it’s for somebody else.
When I write something that isn’t personal, to some degree, you can see through that .. it just sounds like I tried to do something that doesn’t feel authentic. So definitely working my own emotion into it and finding a way to relate to whatever the story is. Everybody’s got a different story, but a lot of our emotions are the same. And being able to relate emotionally to what’s going on in someone else life, I think it just makes for a better song.
Definitely, and your first single "Shame on You" off your newest project "Angel With Tattoos" is a manifestation of all the positive emotion that you’ve been experiencing. Tell us a little bit about how it all came to be.
I spent a year doing sessions with different writers and producers trying to figure out what my next move was as an artist, sonically. During that time period, I was dating Elliot Taylor, the love of my life, and so I was very in love and very inspired to write love songs. And then I met [songwriter and producer] Dave Bassett, and it was honestly just one of those sessions where [I expected it to be] another session with another stranger and didn’t have high expectations for it. And then we went in there and sort of effortlessly just started writing music and we found this sound that was kind of throwback to my childhood because I grew up listening to Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac. And so we stumbled upon this sound that just felt very natural and took me back to my roots. And so I did a lot more sessions with Dave [Bassett] and put together this project. And "Shame On You" is the first song on the project called "Angel With Tattoos" which is something [my boyfriend] Elliot calls me.
This is also your first project as an independent artist. Why was now the right time to make that switch?
I brought these songs and this project to Interscope, my record company, and they weren’t really on board with the vision I had. We weren’t really seeing eye-to-eye creatively and I felt so strongly about this music that I wanted to make that we decided to part ways. I got to take the music with me, so that was a great, amicable split. But you know, that kind of delayed things as far as putting music out … these songs were actually written quite a while ago.
I just kind of flow with the energy of the universe. and this just felt right — I was making music and in love and happy. A lot of things I’ve put out in the past before have been very dark and somber and I was depressed so that makes sense — now I’m happy and in love and I’m writing this really feel-good stuff.
Do you think you’ll stay in the folk-rock scene from here on out? Are hip-hop hooks a thing of your past?
I have a lot of fun doing hip-hop stuff and I’ll never stop doing it — I’ll never stop making rap hooks, I think it’s so much fun. But because I grew up with such a diverse musical background, I get bored if I’m in one genre for too long. And so it’s important for my soul to keep expanding and evolving … working in all the different genres that I have, I’ve learned so much as a songwriter. I really think I’ve grown. And now being able to apply what I’ve learned from those things to the sound that is my roots, I feel like it’s creating better work. Going out there and learning what I can and bringing it back.
We have to know — where does the name Skylar Grey come from?
People knew me as Holly Brook — they knew my story, they knew my story within the industry and I didn’t want to be judged on that. So I created a new name and I kept myself very mysterious for a while. I remember people had no idea what I looked like because I kept my face and my image a secret, I just had the name Skylar Grey and people were like, "Who is this Skylar Grey girl?" and finally they found out I was [the same girl as] Holly Brook. But for a while it was a total secret.
Grey was my favorite color at the time … I was living in Oregon in the woods and the sky was always grey. It was rainy and stormy and I loved that — thats just so energizing to me. It’s like being out in the woods and it storms can really make you feel insignificant in the world, which makes me recognize that nothing I’m doing really is that important — it’s such a huge universe. I also feel like grey represented the unknowns — that was a time in my life where I didn’t really know what was going to happen — I lost my record deal, I had a bad breakup, my management left me, my lawyer left me — I was like, "I have no idea what the hell is going to happen!" I just dove into the unknown and embraced it instead of being afraid of it and I was just in this cabin in the woods like, "I’m just going to embrace this moment," and it led me to the greatest moment.