Building on Song of the Year honors for penning "Love the Way You Lie" for Rihanna and appearances with Eminem and Dr. Dre at the Grammys, she is fast on the way to totally eclipsing her former identity. With an early career based on being, as she said, "... just the girl who sits at a piano and sings pretty songs," the artist formerly known as Holly Brook felt she could take both her music and career to a new level. "I felt like my own worst enemy," she said. "Like I always had great opportunities and then I didn't know how to handle them. Because I was really naïve. Things weren't working out for me and it was my own fault. When I went away to the woods, I figured out what I wanted to do and how to accomplish it and basically came out a different person. So I re-named myself Skylar Grey."
Moving on from her singer/songwriter beginning wasn't difficult. "I never really wanted that sound. I mean, I like singer/songwriters, but to me it's just like there are so many, and I wanted to set myself apart. I can do that all day long, but I wanted to push myself to do something that would take those elements and take them to a different level." At the same time, Skylar was looking for a collaborator with whom she could both feel comfortable and effectively communicate. "When you have a sound in your head and you're trying to explain it to a producer, if they don't hear the same thing that you're hearing in their head, then it's almost impossible to get there," she said. "That's why I teamed up with Alex da Kid, because I really felt like his production understood where I was coming from, but then took it to a more sonically interesting place-he understood what I was hearing in my head."
The partnership with Alex has also helped Skylar hone her own production and recording skills, a program she started when she withdrew to the woods of Oregon to reevaluate her career. "I was having a really difficult time in the music industry. It's a tough world, especially living in L.A. where it's really expensive. When you're a starving artist it's hard to make music, unless you do it all yourself. It's like you're relying on another person to produce your stuff, where you have to spend a lot of money to make the music you want to make. I wanted to not owe anybody and just have control over my own music and my own life. I felt like the only way I could do that and to figure out what I really wanted to do was to isolate myself."
With the help of some fans and friends, she established a base in the Oregon rainforest, with a small recording studio and the time and space needed to follow the trail of her music. "I was in the woods for about four months by myself," she said, "Just walking through the woods, walking on the beach, thinking a lot, writing a lot and working in my little studio. It was really stripped down. I just had a laptop, a Brent Averill mic pre, which I love-I literally use it on every single vocal I do. I had a Sputnik microphone, which I still use a lot. And then I had a little old Minimoog, an old Yamaha keyboard and I had a [Digidesign] 002. I didn't even have a compressor. That vocal chain is what I used on the song "Room for Happiness" on Kaskade's album. I recorded all my own vocals, sent him the stems and he put it in the song and mixed it. People seem to be really happy with the sound I get. Honestly, one of the most important things in my studio is my headphones-a pair of Beyerdynamic DT-770s. I just love them, and can't live without them. A lot of times, in other studios, they give me headphones that are so bright that it's like I'm not hearing reality. It throws me off, in a weird way, so it tricks me, making me think ‘Oh, I'm sounding great.' Then I listen out on the speakers and I'm like, ‘What?' So having headphones that aren't too bright is key for me when I'm singing."
Spending time in the studio served Skylar well in other ways, as well. "One thing that's really helped me to communicate with producers better is learning Pro Tools and Ableton Live, plus a little bit of Logic while I was in the woods. It was a great experience for me to produce a bunch of records on my own because then I really knew the language to speak. I could also say, ‘Hey, scoot over. Let me do it because this is what I'm talking about.' So when I'm in the studio, I can tap on the engineer's shoulder and say, ‘Move over. I'm going to do this,' whereas before I didn't know what I was talking about. I knew what I was hearing, but didn't know how to articulate it and how to execute it myself. Learning all of that stuff has made it so much easier for me to collaborate."
Though she readily admits she's not a virtuoso instrumentalist, she said, "I'm good enough where, for a certain song or a certain performance, I can make anything work if it's at my fingertips. I'm one of those people that likes to just figure it out and make it work."
A key to finding her new voice has been moving out of Los Angeles-a move that has enabled her to develop a new creative process. "I live on a mountain, not in L.A., and I know how to run my own system, record my own vocals, send stems and all that stuff. So I get to be in a creative environment, not in L.A., and get a lot of work done at the same time."
As to how her process has changed, she said, "I grew up writing songs on the piano and singing to that. Then when I met Alex I started writing more to tracks, which was weird at first. I just had to try to work with it. I got used to it, though, and really liked it. What I do is just use my iPhone at first. I'll play the beat on the car stereo, push record on my iPhone and sing the melody over the beat playing in the background. A lot of times the lyrics come at the same time. Usually, when they do and they're good, that's a good song. If it takes too long to figure out what the song's about or write the lyrics or anything like that, I just scrap it. I'm not very precious about my songs. When I want to send a really rough demo of it to somebody, I open up GarageBand and import the beat and I just sing up to the built-in computer microphone and put a few effects on it and send it over. Then, when I get the approval, like, ‘Yes, we love it. Let's record it for real,' I turn on my Pro Tools, go into my system and make it all sound pretty. I also like to use the Apogee Duet 2. I recently tried using that in my studio and it's nice to bring on the road, because I travel a lot. I'll just bring that and my mic to make better quality demos. In the studio I've been using it more, too, because it sounds a little bit better than my old Pro Tools rig. Now it's all compact and easy and sounds great."
Focus, commitment, the desire to learn and an unwillingness to accept less than the best she can do-all seem to be at the base of Skylar's increasing success. While most artists can't wait to get a first record on the shelves, she took a slightly different approach. "The album changed a lot (in) two years. It was supposed to come out a year ago and then I took a little extra time with it, so I wrote a lot of new songs. I'm really, really proud of this set of songs now." Judging by the reception of the first single, "C'mon, Let Me Ride," we're expecting to hear a lot more from her in the future.
Written by George Van Wagner / Photography by Ryan Hunter and Briand Guzman