Skylar Grey is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who is responsible for co-writing some of the most memorable songs of the past year. With hits such as Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie” (which earned Grey two GRAMMY Award nominations, including Song and Record of the Year), Dr. Dre’s “I Need A Doctor” (which Grey performed alongside Dre and Eminem at this year’s GRAMMY ceremony), Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home” (which she performed with the Sean Combs-fronted group on American Idol this season), Lupe Fiasco’s “Words I Never Said,” and T.I.’s “Castle Walls,” her work lit up the Billboard Hot 100 and iTunes sales charts.
The fact that “Love The Way You Lie” — for which Grey penned the Rihanna-sung chorus — has sold nearly 10 million downloads globally and spent seven weeks atop the U.S. pop chart is a clear message to the 25-year-old Grey: “It shows me that the world is hungry for emotionally driven music,” she says. “I want to start a revolution and open doors for myself and for other like-minded artists to bring passion and vulnerability back to pop radio, because I think it’s an element that’s been missing in recent years.”
Grey will get her chance this fall with the release of INVINSIBLE, the upcoming album she’s recorded with British songwriter and producer Alex Da Kid (Nicki Minaj, B.o.B, U2). Da Kid signed Grey to a production deal with his company KIDinaKORNER and is responsible for her connections to Eminem, Rihanna, Dr. Dre, Sean Combs, Lupe Fiasco, and T.I. The music the two have cooked up for INVINSIBLE is cinematic, hip-hop-influenced alternative-pop that showcases Grey’s dusky, ethereal voice and gift for haunting melodies, which Da Kid has set to inventive, percussive beats.
Lyrically, the album’s songs, such as “Invisible,” “Weirdo,” “Building A Monster,” and “Dance Without You,” chronicle the transformation Grey has made over the past few years as she’s struggled to find her place in the world. “Before I started writing this album, I felt like I had lost control of my life and didn’t know who I was anymore,” she explains. “I needed to ground myself so I decided to spend some time in solitude, and in the process discovered my inner super hero. The album tells that story starting with ‘Invisible,’ which is how I used to feel. ‘Building A Monster’ describes the whole process of going from being invisible to invincible. That is why I’m calling the album INVINSIBLE; a combined spelling of the two words.”
Indeed, Grey’s journey to this point has been studded with highs and lows. She was born Holly Brook Hafermann in the village of Mazomanie, Wisconsin, a town so tiny it does not have a stoplight. “You have to drive 45 minutes to Madison to buy groceries,” she says. Grey began performing professionally at age six with her mother as a folk duo, and by the age of 14 had released three independent albums. “I got teased by the other kids because the music wasn’t ‘cool’ and everyone was into pop radio,” she says. “When I was in seventh grade I kind of lost it because I couldn’t handle my peers making fun of me, so I told my mom I didn’t want to do it anymore. That’s when I started writing my own music, which is what got me through.” Grey quit high school during her junior year to move to Los Angeles and devote herself to becoming a serious artist.
In 2004, when Grey was 17, she signed a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group and a recording contract with Linkin Park’s Warner Bros. Records’ imprint Machine Shop Recordings. As Holly Brook, she appeared on Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go,” and released her debut album Like Blood Like Honey. The album sank due to a lack of promotion and Grey asked to be let out of her deal — a process that took a year and a half, during which time she was legally prevented from releasing any new music. The only way she could express herself musically and artistically was through other people, so Grey hit the road with Duncan Sheik, playing keyboards in his band to earn a living. “I was in a holding pattern and it sent me into a depression,” she says. “For the first time in my life I was questioning whether or not I’d made the right decision doing music. So suddenly I was just a 23-year-old girl who didn’t have her s**t together. It made me feel bad about myself, because I felt like I had been ahead of the game knowing what I wanted to do my whole life.”
Grey decided to figure out her future by traveling north up the coast, stopping for a spell in Ventura, CA, and winding up in a small coastal town in Southern Oregon. Between Ventura and Oregon, she slept on a yoga mat (she didn’t own a bed) and took part-time jobs. “I worked at Barnes & Noble, I taught gymnastics, I even edited porn,” she says. “There were times when I was so broke that I couldn’t even fill my car up with gas, so I was stuck at home.” Grey resorted to wandering around near her apartment to find food, living off the oranges and grapefruits she picked from nearby trees. “I was afraid to ask my parents for money, because they’d done so much for me, and they had believed in my music career,” she says. “I felt like I had failed them.”
Grey eventually made her way to Oregon, and was accepted for residency at an artist’s retreat where she traded odd jobs for room and board. “I lived in a shack in the woods in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “I had to go outside to use the bathroom, but it enabled me to feel truly independent and know that I could survive on just the basics.” In a fortuitous turn of events, a wealthy fan contacted her through MySpace asking her to perform at a private party in Los Angeles, and after hearing her story, gave her a sizable check to fund the creation of her own recording studio, which she built at her home in the woods. “I started creating every day and began to feel so much stronger,” she says. The songs began pouring out and, heartened by the progress, Grey flew out to New York to play them for her publisher, Jennifer Blakeman, who liked what she heard and thought UMPG’s new signee, Alex Da Kid, would be a perfect musical match. “Jennifer played me B.o.B’s “Airplanes” before it came out, which Alex produced, and I said, ‘Yes, that’s the guy,’” Grey recalls. “It was totally commercial but it had this alternative element that didn’t sound like anything else on pop radio. I thought he’d understand where I was coming from as an artist. I sent him an email insisting that we work together. He sent me a beat, and I sent him back the hook that became ‘Love The Way You Lie.’” A few weeks later, Grey found out that Eminem was going to record verses for it, with featured vocals from Rihanna, and include it on his album Recovery.
Following the success of “Love the Way You Lie,” Eminem invited Grey and Da Kid to work on Detox, Dr. Dre’s long-awaited album. The result of that collaboration is the hit “I Need A Doctor.” “The first time I heard Marshall spit his verses, I started crying,” Grey says.”And Marshall was actually the one who fought to keep my vocals on the song instead of getting a pop star to sing on it. Coming from such a low place in my life and ending up with that…wow.”
These days, with credits on several major hits, the forthcoming release of her first single, “Invisible,” followed by INVINSIBLE, Grey is glad she made the decision to stick with music. “I had no other choice,” she says. “This is what I do. And any time I see someone in the audience cry or get emotional from hearing my music, even if it’s just one person, I know I’m on the right path. It makes all the hard times well worth it.”