ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
2011 has been a bad year for many in the U.S., with the down economy and with many natural disasters. But this week, we're going to highlight some industries, ideas and people who've done well in a series called A Good Year. And this has been an amazing year for Skylar Grey. If you listen to top 40 music, you've heard her voice all over the place, perhaps this song from February.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORDS I NEVER SAID")
LUPE FIASCO: (Rapping) Yeah.
SKYLAR GREY: (Singing) It's so loud inside my head.
SIEGEL: Or this top 10 hit with Diddy from April.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING HOME")
DIDDY: (Rapping) Pick up your phone. Come on.
GREY: (Singing) I'm coming home. I'm coming home. Tell the world I'm coming home.
SIEGEL: Or this one from November.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOM FOR HAPPINESS")
GREY: (Singing) Don't be fooled by your emptiness.
SIEGEL: NPR's Neda Ulaby reports the 25-year-old musician is heading into next year with a new solo album this spring.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Skylar Grey's great year started last year because of one monster hit she co-wrote for Rihanna.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE THE WAY YOU LIE")
RIHANNA: (Singing) Just going to stand there and watch me burn. Well, that's all right because I like the way it hurts.
ULABY: "Love the Way You Lie" spent seven months on the pop charts.
GREY: So after "Love the Way You Lie" was a big hit, Eminem invited us to go work on "Detox," and we gave him "I Need a Doctor."
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
ULABY: That song slid Skylar Grey closer to her real goal: stardom. She performed it at the Grammys in February with Dr. Dre and Eminem.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED A DOCTOR")
GREY: (Singing) I need a doctor, call me a doctor. I need a doctor, doctor to bring me back to life.
EMINEM: (Rapping) I told the world...
ULABY: Skylar Gray is a new name and new persona for a young, bruised music industry veteran. Until recently, Skylar Grey was someone else. Her name was Holly Brook. She started recording children's music professionally with her mother in Wisconsin when she was only 6 years old.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREY: (Singing) Generations like a rock beneath the waters. Generations...
I learned a lot singing with my mom. It gave me an advantage, I think, as an artist to have that under my belt, you know, three albums by the time I was 15.
ULABY: Holly Brook got signed to a major label when she was still a teenager. A strong-willed teenager who got dumped by Warner Brothers by the time her solo album came out. She supported herself singing backup for musicians like Duncan Sheik. He's the guy who composed the musical "Spring Awakening," and he cast her in a few other musicals he's been working on, including one called "Whisper House."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AND NOW WE SING")
GREY: (Singing) And now, we'll sing of drowning things.
DUNCAN SHEIK SINGER: She doesn't have, like, this big voice. It's just kind of this actually quite small and quiet, but it's very perfect and beautiful, and her pitch is immaculate.
ULABY: Holly Brook decided she needed to leave the business in order to re-invent herself. She moved to a remote cabin in Oregon. She says she lived there for a year without heat, chopping wood, foraging.
GREY: I was fearless. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt like myself finally, you know, like nobody else could control me.
ULABY: That's when she chose the name Skylar Grey.
GREY: Because Holly Brook, to me, was a - like somebody who is controlled by everything around her instead of in control of her own life.
ULABY: Right now, Skylar Grey is hanging out in a sunlit Hollywood recording studio. She's wearing a scrunched down wool hat and combat boots that look both battered and expensive. She's talking to her producer, Alex Da Kid, about a song that's her kiss-off to Holly Brook.
GREY: That's one of my most favorite production of yours, by the way...
GREY: ...or one of.
ALEX DA KID: Yeah, why?
GREY: Because I really like the sounds. That thing that sounds like a crazy-sounding guitar is actually him singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREY: And he, like, puts it through all these effects. And then the beat boxing, it's...
(SOUNDBITE OF BEAT BOXING)
KID: You know, she just wrote that, and it was - I don't know. How quickly did you write that?
GREY: Very quickly. It just fell out of my mouth, like "Love the Way You Lie."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE WITHOUT YOU")
GREY: (Singing) I want to dance without you.
ULABY: That hook, she wrote in 15 minutes. Another song they play in the studio took much longer to write: two whole hours.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINAL WARNING")
GREY: (Singing) This is your final warning. There's a dark cloud overhead. This is your final warning. Just remember what I said. Someone's going to get hurt.
ULABY: Skylar Grey does not like to talk about the veins of violence that run through her lyrics, but she says it might have a small something to do with her industry and how it treats young women.
GREY: I'm trying to make a statement as an artist because I feel like, right now, where pop culture and pop music has gone is so visual. It's all about, like, the sex appeal, and the music can speak for itself. You don't have to cover it with bling and dumb stuff that doesn't even have anything to do with the music.
ULABY: She understands that what propels the music industry is exactly what's messed up about it. And the person Skylar Grey invented has set very clear limits of how willing she is to play along. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.