Skylar Grey: Woodrat
When Skylar Grey sings “Coming Home,” she isn’t talking about a mansion in the suburbs or a luxury apartment in the city. The Woodrat is talking about a cabin in the country.
I’M COMING HOME/I’M COMING HOME/TELL THE WORLD I’M COMING HOME.
Skylar Grey has sung these words on American Idol, WrestleMania, and for a heart-wrenching Budweiser Super Bowl commercial called “A Hero’s Welcome.” Her orchestral voice is impressive, but she isn’t just a diaphragm; she is the soul behind those bars, as she co-wrote “Coming Home” for Diddy’s Dirty Money album (the track was a top 25 hit on the Billboard charts). Grey also wrote “Love the Way You Lie,” a track that detailed her abusive relationship with the music industry, for Eminem and Rihanna. Although she started recording under her given name, Holly Brook, she changed her name when she no longer recognized the girl she had become—the one who used to be a woodsy, artistic tomboy but had since bent to the whims of the business. With the name change to Skylar Grey, she took a breath, reassessed the situation, and came back to the studio as a woman in control of her own sound and image. After working with the boldface names above—in addition to David Guetta, Kid Cudi, Kaskade, Lupe Fiasco, Christina Aguilera, and T.I.—she is now, finally, making a new name for herself.
INKED: Do you have a favorite tattoo?
SKYLAR GREY: Currently I love the “Woodrat” tat on my chest, which was done by Mister Cartoon. It’s hard to miss.
What does woodrat mean?
It’s my gang name! [Laughs.] Actually, it is the theme of my life: I’m not a hood rat, I’m a wood rat because I work in the city and in hip-hop music, but I live in the woods and worship nature. It’s also the name of the clothing line I am starting that will be high-end, woods-inspired streetwear.
Is Cartoon your favorite tattoo artist?
I love him, but right now I’m really digging Tye Harris. He does amazing charcoal-looking realism. He did my wolf and my rose, and I plan on finishing my sleeve with him. I want a sleeve of wildlife! The jackalope is probably going to be first, then maybe a grizzly bear, a moose, and maybe a brook trout since my middle name is Brook and I was named after the fish.
Do you have any crazy fan tattoo stories?
A lot of people get my lyrics tattooed on them. But one person I know actually got my face tattooed on her side.
Was it weird to see yourself tattooed on someone else’s body?
Yeah—it actually makes me feel more pressure to keep making great music because if my face is going to be on her skin for life she better like everything I do!
Eminem has been so supportive of your career. Has he given you any advice that has stuck with you?
“Just be you.” Three simple words that, coming from Marshall, hit me so deep. I’ve lived my life since childhood just wanting to feel accepted, so I tried a lot of things that weren’t authentic to who I really was—from developing eating disorders, to the clothes I wore, to the style of music I made. Eventually I became exhausted from living my life for other people. As soon as I took his advice and started living and creating for myself, my life transformed. Suddenly I was enjoying my daily life and my creative process instead of worrying about how other people felt about my work. The ironic part is that ever since I started living this way, I’ve never felt so accepted or been so sought after in the industry. Accept yourself and the rest will follow.
How much thought process goes into you deciding your tattoo designs?
I think a lot about tattoos, but the truth is I never stick to the plan. When I got my owl by Josh Lord at East Side Ink in New York, I actually went in for something totally different. When I got there and saw his bird work, I changed my mind on the spot to an owl. I respect all artists because I am one myself, so I like to be collaborative with them and cater to their strengths.
You have a unique style. How would you describe it?
First off, I hate being uncomfortable. Tight jeans? No, thank you—damn things could cause a yeast infection! High heels: nope. Second, I grew up in the woods. My dad took me hunting, so flannels and camos have a dear place in my heart. Get it? Deer! Third, I love the art of fashion, and can really appreciate a sick silhouette. Fourth, I hate wasting time every day trying to put an outfit together or doing my makeup and hair. My time is better spent creating music or something. So my closet is full of stuff that all goes together so I can grab and go. Plus, there are a lot of hats to hide the mess. I take good care of my skin so makeup is generally unnecessary. The result is I end up looking super-tomboy, a woodrat.
What is your typical day like?
At home it’s chill. I wake up and can’t do anything until after my coffee or tea, then I go for a walk to soak in the scenery and get my brain going. Then I work on music ’til about 4 a.m. in my home studio.
What is your goal in music?
I kind of have two careers in music—one as a songwriter, the other as a solo artist. I think the goal is just to keep making enough money as a songwriter so that I have the freedom to make whatever kind of music I want to as a solo artist.
Since you have an artistic side, would you consider doing a tattoo on someone?
I’d be too scared they wouldn’t like it. I hate displeasing people in every area of life.
Do you regret any of your tattoos?
My Wisconsin tattoo on my inner bicep is bad. I don’t know what made me get it in bright blue. And it really blew out under my skin, so I’m going to have to get that covered or surrounded at some point.
What was your first tattoo?
Backstage at a Linkin Park concert, back when I was signed to their label. There was someone giving tats so I jumped in and got a peace symbol that my friend designed on the back of my neck.
What is the quote on your arm?
It is from Einstein and it says, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” It reminds me to be innovative.
Your birth name is Holly. Why did you choose Skylar Grey?
The music industry chewed me up and spit me out the first time around. I retreated to a cabin in the woods after that, and went through a major transformation as an artist and as a person. When the opportunity arose to reenter the music industry, I decided to go in with a new identity. I knew I wanted to use the word grey, because it is my favorite color. It represents the unknowns in life, which are scary, but I’ve learned to embrace them. I needed a first name, though, and Skylar is what my team and I landed on. I liked it because my favorite weather is thunderstorms and grey skies.
If music hadn’t worked out for you a second time around, what would you be doing?
Well, if I hadn’t chosen music as a career, I probably would have gone into some sort of job outdoors, like a forest ranger. Besides nature, I love watching a good, slow, dramatic movie.
What do the axes tattooed on your neck represent?
The crossed axes are my logo. I chose it because when I lived up in the woods alone I had to chop wood for the wood stove to stay warm, as it was my only source of heat. Axes also make a good weapon! The ax is a symbol of survival to me.
You have written some big songs for other artists. Is it hard to give away a song that you know is great?
Most of the time the biggest songs I write aren’t even my favorite songs. I prefer more complex and less radio-friendly stuff for myself. But sometimes I look back and go, “Shit, I fucked myself on that one!”
You’re currently working on a new album. Can you tell us about it?
Even though I’m in the early stages, I’m loving it. I have the freedom this time around to do whatever I want creatively, so I’m making an album I would actually buy as a listener. So far it is sounding kind of like if Radiohead had a chick singer and made a hip-hop album with very little rap.