It’s sort of weird to give the “meet your new favorite singer-songwriter” treatment to someone as established as Skylar Grey. But the 31-year-old five-time Grammy nominee (and the ethereal voice behind the “Stand By Me” cover in that tear-jerking Budweiser 2018 Super Bowl commercial) has been on “ones to watch” lists for years. It’s only now, she says—after a bout of depression, a “long-time-coming” divorce, and a rebranding, which isn’t so much a rebranding as it is a return to form—that we’re actually meeting the real Skylar Grey.
“This is my third album by Interscope with that name, but I feel like it’s almost like my first in a way,” she says. “When I first came out, I had black hair and was, like, a little bit goth. I was going down this dark road, but it’s really not who I was or who I am. This time around, I am just totally embracing what comes naturally to me.”
It may sound like a platitude, but it wasn’t easy for the woman who famously wrote the lyrics, “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn / But that’s alright, because I like the way it hurts” (for Eminem’s 2010 hit “Love the Way You Lie”) to get here. Born Holly Brook Hafermann in rural Wisconsin, Grey (a name she adopted the same year she wrote “Love the Way You Lie”) was raised performing in a folk duo with her mom and listening to Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac. At 13, she was first introduced to hip hop by way of “Stan,” the Eminem track with a haunting chorus by English performer Dido. “‘Stan’ was the first song that really pulled me in, because I could relate to the vocals and the songwriting,” she says. “From that point forward, I had this dream of working with [Eminem]. I guess I am just living proof that you can do or be whatever you want to. I was, just a few months ago, performing ‘Stan’ with him on SNL.” She shakes her head. “Crazy, how the world works.”
Grey does this a lot—shakes her head. She also laughs nervously or crosses her heavily-tattooed arms across her heavily-tattooed chest. When I ask about the black ink that covers her back, right arm, and chest, she does a combination of all three. “I feel like I let my people push me around a lot. I think that was a huge influence to my getting all of the tattoos: I just wanted to be intimidating,” she says. “Part of me wishes I never got them, because I know I got them for the wrong reasons. I realize now that I can speak up for myself, and that I don’t have to have tattoos to do it, but it took me a long time to realize it.”
That emotional chrysalis has a lot to do with her personal life. In December, she was reported to have taken out a restraining order against her ex-husband Todd Mandel. She also sought therapy for depression, a personal excavation that fueled “Walk on Water.” The lyrics, “I’m only human / just like you/ Making my mistakes/ Oh, if you only knew” were later recorded by Beyoncé and featured on Eminem’s Revival.
Ultimately the song is a testament to the fact that who we are doesn’t always reconcile with who the world expects us to be. For Grey, that means letting go of the idea that she needs look, sound, or even feel a certain way forever. “I worked on myself a lot in the past three years. I recently got a divorce, which was a long time coming. I also fell deeply in love [with Napa Valley-based entrepreneur Elliott Taylor],” she says. “So, right now, between being super in love and coming into this place where I am so much more comfortable in my skin, I am just a happier individual. The songs that I am writing now are so happy. Like, pretty much every song is a love song.”