Justin Gray talks co-writing “Almost Home” for Disney’s Oz, the Great and Powerful

Justin Gray has an amazing resume in writing songs for the biggest stars of the day and their TV and film projects.  How does someone get this kind of job? 

Former resident of Toronto’s Yonge and St. Clair area now a resident of Los Angeles, Gray has slaved over hot lyrics and harmonies for the best of the best including best John Legend, Joss Stone, Spice Girls, Emma Bunton, 98 Degrees and Amy Winehouse.  He’s written songs for the films Letters to Juliet and Bounce, TV’s Modern Family, Beverly Hills 90210, Hannah Montana and Degrassi: The Next Generation.

He’s done iconic songs for commercials for Mercedes Benz, LG and Budweiser. Gray’s currently recovering from the thrill of writing a song for Disney’s Oz, the Great and Powerful, sung by the woman he calls The Queen, Mariah Carey.  Here’s what Carey had to say about it – “‘Almost Home’ has a message that works beautifully with the film. 

It’s a feel-good record, evoking the feeling of reaching your home and being with people that you love.”  

We got the behind-the-scenes story from Gray.

Justin Gray

Justin Gray

M&C: Is creating a song to reflect a cinematic vision different from a regular song?

Gray: You have a box you have to fit in and in this particular case it was a bit more challenging.  Sam Raimi was deliberate that it be very reflective of the film but not so derivative that it couldn’t stand on its own as a song.

That was a huge part of it.  Originally when we wrote it we wanted to create a piece of music that echoed the tone of the film, a bit dark and a typical big ending.  When we originally wrote the song we knew we’d bring in an artist to bring it to life, and there was plenty of room of anticipation.  When we heard in October it would be Mariah Carey I kind of freaked out.  We were like “Really?” 

When you write for these songs you envision an artist singing that song and we never let it enter our minds to think so. Mariah Carey hovers above everything all the time.  But we thought it would never happen, let’s be realistic.  We got the call and it was okay, then it was up to the musical team to bring in the right artist. 

Everyone was approached to submit to submit their own song including Kelly Clarkson and Katie Perry.  We were nervous our song would be chopped but they were dedicated to it and we ended up above the bar.  Mariah took it to the next level, it was a dream.

M&C: Tell me how it went.

Gray: Because of everyone’s insane schedule and her incredibly small window of time, we had to do the collaboration between emails and managers and 100 MP3s between us and the others and my co-writers Lindsay Ray and Simone Porte. 

There was no choice.  It was the only way we could collaborate with the deadline approaching.  Once she said she would do it, we did everything possible to make it happen.  An artist like that with a film like this with its transcendent nature is magic.

M&C: Thank goodness for technology.

Gray: It’s true.  Ten years ago, people would have been paranoid sending MP3s so they’d be putting phones to speakers and that craziness, but in this case, we were able to do it.  She was on the east coast and she would work and by the time we opened our computers on the west coast, the work was updated.  And we were dealing with not just an artist cutting a song, but a $250M film and franchise and the last song for the Oz franchise was Somewhere Over the Rainbow. 

That really put things into perspective.  That’s; why we were so dedicated.  And then we had the brand managers and marketing people form Disney and there were a thousand moving parts.  

M&C: You mentioned security concerns.
Gray: Yes. Because we had to send MP3s cryptically labeled, “Becky’s whatever” so it seemed as though it had nothing to do with it.  No one could discern anything. We were worried about emails being jacked so we started using passwords and links we had to sign into so everyone knew who was doing what and downloading what. 

In this day and age things can leak very easily.  And this wasn’t just any situation.  It was the biggest artist in the world with the biggest movie company.  We held everything close to the chest.

M&C: How do you feel when you see the film now?

Gray: It is just so beautiful.  Sam Raimi really honored the Wizard of Oz franchise and Oz story and to be part of that is very hard to put into words.   My wife likes me a lot better now; she answers my phone calls now!   I’m very popular with the kids at my daughter’s school.  It validates years and years of making this happen. 

I liken it to a basketball game when a guy’s given the ball and will win $1M if he gets it in the basket.  They never do.   But I feel like we did.  Forever Mariah Carey’s name will be at the top of my resume.

M&C: You’re now in studio with John Legend and Latin stars Smokey Jones, Marley Munroe and Latin mega star Luis Fonzi.  Are you are at ease with most genres?

Gray: No, I’m very fortunate to have artists who have very strong concepts of what they want to do.  I don’t speak Spanish, but music is a global language.  To me, pop music transcends language.