June 2011

Hooked

With a new producer, an upcoming solo album and a hot Lollapalooza appearance, Skylar Grey moves from backup melodies to pop headliner
by GERRICK D. KENNEDY / photographs by MARK SEGAL / styling by TONY IRVINE / produced by KIM POLLOCK

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Her name doesn’t ring a bell when mentioned, though you certainly know the voice. There was Skylar Grey, front and center amid the smoke and shadows at February’s 53rd annual Grammy Awards, singing the hooks she wrote for Eminem, Dr. Dre and Rihanna during a haunting performance of “Love the Way You Lie” and “I Need a Doctor.”

Now the 25-year-old is making her move on the spotlight. Previously known as the girl who pens the lyrics or adds the inimitable vocal track (think Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home,” Lupe Fiasco’s “Words I Never Said” and T.I.’s “Castle Walls” featuring Christina Aguilera), she wants to be more than hip-hop’s go-to girl.

At first glance, Grey looks nothing like a pop starlet, an impression she doesn’t try to duck. Nestled at a corner table at Urth Caffé in West Hollywood, she sports a green military jacket, black combat boots and baggy jeans, streaks of chocolate and ashy brown peeking out from underneath a beanie and shades shielding her smoky eyes. She’s not begging for attention and offers little more than a demure smile to anyone who shoots her a look.

“We’ve kept a mysterious launch to my whole career,” Grey says between sips of carrot juice. “Even with the way the Grammys were lit and not being in the ‘Coming Home’ video. I want to ease into the view of the world and let my music do the talking.” And the string of other people’s hits are surely helping in the transition.

Born Holly Brook Hafermann in Wisconsin, she abandoned high school to chase a music career in Los Angeles. In 2004, she signed with Zomba through Linkin Park’s Machine Shop imprint and got her first taste of being the hook girl with 2005’s “Where’d You Go?” from Fort Minor, the hip-hop side project of band member Mike Shinoda. A Holly Brook debut album, Like Blood Like Honey, followed.

And then it all crumbled. She still “can’t even put a finger on what went wrong” with the deal. “Suddenly, I was chewed up and spit back out by the industry,” she recalls.

Frustrated with the business, Grey took off up the coast and found solace on the southern coast of Oregon, where she lived “alone and broke and depressed” and did whatever she could to nurture her muses. It’s there her current moniker was born: a nod to the murky skies that surrounded her and an embrace of the color gray when she just “needed something to believe in.”

She was introduced to producer Alex da Kid—now well known for crafting a string of hits with Nicki Minaj, B.o.B., Rihanna, Dre, Eminem and T.I.—through her publisher, who played her a track of Alex’s. That track? B.o.B.’s soon-to-be chart-topping “Airplanes.”

Of “Love the Way You Lie,” Grey says, “I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship, but there are elements of abuse in any relationship, whether it’s with your boyfriend or your career.” That love-hate for the entertainment business fueled her lyrical approach to the song. “The music industry is my abusive relationship. I love it so much, and I give it all that I have, yet it beats me down. That’s where the inspiration came from initially.”

Of “Love the Way You Lie,” Grey says, “There are elements of abuse in any relationship, whether it’s with your boyfriend or your career.” That love-hate for the entertainment business fueled her approach to the song.

The single, as we all know by now, was massive. Fueled by Rihanna’s very public domestic-violence incident with singer Chris Brown, the song went number one in 25 countries and racked up a bounty of accolades, including five Grammy nods. But she remained a faceless contributor...until her demo of the track leaked. (That version appears on Rihanna’s album as a sequel to the original.)

Grey’s partnership with Alex da Kid—who has since produced every song on which she is featured—led to him signing her to his newly minted Wonderland Music imprint through Interscope Records.

“She’s different in a time where most of the Top 40 is similar in a lot of ways,” he says of his sole signee. “She has a true vision for who she wants to be. Every so often you get an artist that comes from left field and does something completely different.”

The two are confident that the music they’re crafting is game changing for pop radio. “We were able to create a sound that is very commercial, but there are also elements of avant-garde,” Grey says. “I don’t think anybody’s doing what we did on this album.”

Grey’s music has the same cinematic beats and atmospheric hooks that made her a must-have on rap, hip-hop and R&B tracks. One song, “Dance Without You,” is an empowering anthem about independence, while another, “Final Warning,” is a rock-tinged ballad brimming with loneliness.

Fans won’t get a proper introduction to Skylar Grey the solo artist until August, when she is slated to take the stage at Lollapalooza in Chicago. It’s rare for an upstart to elicit this much interest before a single, which begs the question, “Who loves this girl?”

Besides the attention-getting Grammy spot, she recently took to the piano and shined alongside Diddy-Dirty Money in an American Idol performance of “Coming Home.”

Though Grey stunningly channels her inner pop diva on the cover of this magazine, she has always been more tomboy than Barbie girl. She admits via email that she was a bit taken for a loop when our stylist first presented the brightly colored silk tops and dresses that were needed for the photo shoot. “I like to be comfortable and confident, so high heels are a rarity, and tight pants that hug my ass make me feel insecure. And I only wear shades of gray—from black to white—because of what the color symbolizes for me spiritually.”

In the end, she took her nervousness, “shifted her body language” and was “pleasantly surprised” by the result. “I have no problem with being dolled up. I love visuals. I just feel there is too much of the sex thing. Comfort influences my style,” she says. “One of the things I’ve always hated is when I go to a concert and see a girl perform in high heels and being so nervous that they’re gonna fall. It makes me uncomfortable watching the show. I’d rather see someone giving their heart and soul to a song and not thinking about their feet.”

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Video: A Sampling of Skylar Grey

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HAIR: MARANDA WIDLUND / MAKEUP: DARLENE JACOBS / MANICURE: ASHLIE JOHNSON