Skylar Grey finally gets her break

"I could have stayed with my childhood love, stayed in that same small town — that's weird a little bit."
David Roemer

Skylar Grey has done an impressive job of rebranding herself. Just a few years back, the native of tiny Mazomanie, Wisconsin, was just a self-described weirdo in her home town. Now, the svelte, tattooed figure who swaggers across the screen with Eminem in her video for the tongue-in-cheek "C'mon Let Me Ride" has become one of the most successful musicians to originate from her state.

"I kind of never felt like I was there a hundred percent," explains Grey during a phone interview with City Pages. "When I look back and I think that I could have had such a different life — I could have stayed with my childhood love, stayed in that same small town — that's weird a little bit."

The 27-year-old singer-songwriter, born Holly Brook Hafermann, packed her things and headed to L.A. at the tender age of 17 to make it in the music business. Three years ago, after plenty of false starts and near misses, Grey penned a little song called "Love the Way You Lie," which was recorded by hip-hop heavyweights Eminem and Rihanna. It went on to become Eminem's best-selling single ever and was nominated for a slew of Grammys. Grey has also racked up writing credits with Dr. Dre ("I Need a Doctor") and Lupe Fiasco ("Words I Never Said"). Not bad for a girl who, until that point, had all but given up on a career in the industry.

But writing songs for other people was never the goal for Grey. "Love the Way You Lie" was the first step in building the partnerships that would lead to Grey's debut, Don't Look Down (she had put out an album under the name Holly Brook back in 2006). Press lately is fond of calling her an "Eminem protégé," but she's plenty more than that. Executive produced by Em and Alex Da Kid, the 12-track collection of bombastic pop songs, featuring her leaning over an axe propped on a washer-dryer set on the cover, still connects to the Midwest.

"Lyrically, I tell a lot of stories on my album, and it goes back to growing up in Wisconsin," she says. "The song 'Wear Me Out' is inspired by sneaking out of the house and going camping with my friends — it's not about that, but it started there — and being rebellious. The song 'Tower' is about the childhood love I had, how I went to follow my dreams and he was left in this small town. I guess I use the small-town Wisconsin as imagery for a backdrop in my storytelling, because that's what I know."

Released earlier this month, the album is filled with Top 40-ready pop music, so it'll be intriguing to see how she melds the material to fit the intimate tone of Icehouse on Saturday. It's catchy, and a lot of it is clever, but Don't Look Down isn't without its violent subplots.

On the zombie-zinger opening track "Back From the Dead," Grey contemplates a confrontation with an ex-lover: "Should I throw my arms around you or kill you for real?" And on "Final Warning," she explores the psychology of an abusive relationship with the lyrics "I'm going to the kitchen, coming back with a knife/Cause I've had enough this time." The booming, jazzy "Wear Me Out" contains some cryptic references to "Daddy's gun."

The somber Don't Look Down closer "White Suburban" finds Grey peeling back the layers of production and letting her voice air out with just a piano. While lyrically exorcising some demons, Grey has pushed herself into the ranks of the pop-star contemporaries she was writing for just a few years ago.

"I guess the theme of the album is about growing up and becoming who you want to be," says Grey over the phone, her voice quiet and soft — scores away from the powerhouse vocals she showcases. "I guess I found that."

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