I first heard the music of David Gray while living in Ireland in 1999 and became an instant fan. I went on to see him perform live many times over the years in ever-larger venues to growing audiences. His career has always taken an interesting path – after recording three albums, he took a more DIY approach with White Ladder, an album he described as having been “recorded in a small house in London with the windows open and the traffic going by.” The album, which is more loop heavy than his previous guitar-centric work, brought him notoriety in the UK and Ireland with the singles “Babylon” and “Please Forgive Me.” White Ladder was re-released in the US in 2000, helping his notoriety spread beyond his initial success back home. 2014 saw the release of Gray’s 10th studio album Mutineers, produced by Lamb’s Andy Barlow. Gray kicks off his US Summer 2015 tour on June 13 at the Maine State Pier with Rachael Yamagata opening. I spoke to Gray last week about his career, creative process, and balancing life and fame.
Can you talk about how the music business has changed since your first album, A Century Ends, was released in 1993?
Well it’s unrecognizable since then, because the digital downloading revolution has swept all before it. In terms of the nuts and bolts of how it operates it’s unrecognizable. It all seems rather quaint reflecting on it, like looking at an old steam engine or something, you know. So it’s a different place, the world that we live in and the way that people listen to music, and possess music, it’s a different equation now. Obviously the way that music affects people remains the same, but all the ways that it’s enjoyed are changing, reflecting the way that we’re changing as a race due to our sort of obsession with technology.
I was living in Ireland at the time White Ladder was gaining in popularity, and back in the US for the re-release. What was it like to be in the eye of that hurricane?
Oh, that was amazing. I mean, God bless the Irish, the most wonderful crowds in the world. It was amazing, the upsweep, the arc, that I traveled on from my relative obscurity over there – it was just a few passionate, loyal fans to spur me on – to the thing that happened when it just took off. It was the most wonderful, natural, sort of organic process; it wasn’t labored by some awful record company breathing down everyone’s neck. No one did a job on the record or on me to try to make me the next whatever, it just happened. The music had heart and soul and it connected. And the groundwork we did, it was for real, you know, we went out and played everywhere, we didn’t just pop into Dublin. So it was absolutely phenomenal. And the confidence, the weight it took off my shoulders, it was like someone turned the lights on, suddenly it was all OK. You know, I’d been living in a sort of self-tortured universe of miserable failure, and suddenly it was like people loved it, and it was such a wonderful thing to be a part of, and it gave us confidence that it was going to work anywhere we went. We had a chance to do our thing so we went out there and we played everywhere.
Your music has covered Folk Rock, tinges of Electronic, and more recently, piano-based ballads. Has there been a catalyst for exploring different genres and instruments beyond your own changing tastes?
Yeah, I mean I started that with the sort of humble origins of one man and a guitar, but I’m always restless for new sonic horizons, I’m not satisfied to remain. Music still seems to me something that needs to be broken open, there’s new edge lands to be discovered, there are new sort of vistas of sound and conjunctions of ideas. The song is losing its appeal; it’s the magnetism of words and sounds that seem to be working more over me. Less is more. To have a whole narrative of a song it seems almost overblown to me now after some of the work I’ve done on this last record. I’m moving towards something else I think. It opened a lot of doors. I was in a sort of cul de sac after Draw The Line and Foundling, feeling like I’d exhausted a particular kind of sound and idea and way of making and way of writing, and this record was a striving to break out of that straitjacket and it worked. It was hard work, and the ground is hard won, but now I’m standing somewhere completely else, and everything’s flipped over and all I see are possibilities everywhere. Without wanting to sound too pretentious and getting too carried away with myself, yes, I’m seeing the dismantling of music and the song structure of the music itself to be more like journeying through rather than having to arrive at a chorus or this or that. Something’s changed in me, and the records that will come over the next years will reflect that.
Maybe related to that, can you talk about your normal process? Do you typically work on melody first, lyrics, or a combination or does it just sort of happen as it happens?
Well, always traditionally it’s been a melody first – so, chords, the melody, and then the innate rhythms in that chord sequence leading me towards a melodic line for the voice, and then trying to fit words to the phrasing. So that’s always how I’ve worked with some exceptions. There have been a few songs that I’ve written with a lyric idea first, but on this record (Mutineers), because I was striving to do things differently I really pressed on with working back from words into music, and I did it on numerous occasions and it disarmed my sense of taste. I didn’t know if what I was making in terms of the melody held any water at all. I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad, I was just forming it using my musical instincts, so I was working blind and it was only much later when I played the songs to other people and they went “Oh, I loved that” that I realized that it worked. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it gave me a lot of confidence with the early successes. “Gulls” and “Birds of the High Arctic” are examples, incredible, it was just a line in a short story that I read that turned into a sort of melody really – the wording had a music about it. So now I’m hearing this innate music in everything. Perhaps all I have to do is sort of get a bit more zen about it, I have to sort of tune into the music that’s just there. Rather than thinking you’ve got to make it up in your head like some kind of weird math, it’s just listening to what’s passing through you all the time. From a conversation on the bus to a line in the newspaper there are melodies waiting everywhere, and ideas, so this is all part of what’s changing. I’m starting to, because of the success of some of the songs on this record, I’m starting to really think about, well, if I give you a good example of the way that I’m thinking now, I’ve been taking short films of different things. I like to go out walking. When I’m out walking I take short films of things, and I’m thinking now I could cut them together and actually use that as a starting point for the music. Some of them I think look really good and there seems to be something going on in the pictures that I want to respond to. So I think I wonder what that would be like. Clearly my musical instincts are very well established, so once I start to work it’s still going to sound like what I do, but it will have started from a different place, and that’s important because it means that it doesn’t have to get to the usual destination. So I think the lack of signs on the road, or the plentiful supply of them, has a huge effect on what you’re trying to do, and I’m interested in what I don’t know. It was scary making this record, sort of working in the void sometimes, and not knowing whether anything good was going to happen and tearing my hair out at times, but now I realize it was a vital component, so sometimes you just have to do that. I’m more interested in what happens when you don’t know what you’re doing. And obviously I had a lot of help from my producer (Lamb’s Andy Barlow), who also had a huge effect on what I did. So it’s a different way of thinking that I’m cultivating. Cultivating isn’t the right word, it’s something that’s happening to me and I’m just trying to listen to the way that my musical reflexes are telling me to – I’m paying attention in a different way, that’s all that’s changing.
I did have a question about how your process differs when you’re working on a collaboration with Andy Barlow, or if you’re doing something with Orbital….
It’s, you know, I got sent a piece of music for a TV score, and they’ve done these orchestrations, and they asked if I could write a song over the top, so all I could do was play the music and then respond and that’s all I can do is just respond with my melodic impulse to, and rhythmic impulse to whatever’s put in front of me. Whether it’s something that I’m playing, or it’s something that the drummer’s doing, or something that Orbital sends me, it’s the same thing each time. It’s just when you work with other people and strip out a lot of the standard ways that you would bolt a song together, it enables something else to happen in the empty spaces left, and collaboration can lead to something that’s much more than the sum of its parts. That’s what I experienced working with Andy on a lot of songs on this record. It’s got me kind of keen to repeat that, whether with him or with others.
So keeping on the process theme, you’ve covered songs by people like the Everly Brothers, Randy Newman, Soft Cell, Springsteen, Dylan…some have been pretty straightforward, but others have been completely new arrangements. Is there something that sort of drives you to maybe change a song? Your cover of Soft Cell’s “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” is a good example of one that feels completely different from the original….
Yeah, there are others that haven’t seen the light of day as well. It’s just responding to a melody, and thinking I could make it my own. So the Dylan song, “One Too Many Mornings,” I was singing it and then one day I wanted to sing it differently. I wanted it to go somewhere and not just have a harmonica break, so I just wrote another couple lines, and that’s the nature of folk tradition and song tradition is it let me reinterpret it and re-write it. So I’ve just been singing a song, I’m often singing a song to myself and I don’t know the words, and I don’t really know the arrangement, and so I just start making my own thing up and then that becomes my version, and then when I actually hear the song I’m like “oh, that’s an A minor, I’ve been playing a D” you know, I can get it all wrong. But then I end up with something that’s mine. So the spirit of the song remains, and a lot of the lyrics and a lot of the chords and feeling, but I hopefully bring something else to it. Some songs are just quite straightforward – you just want to sing them, they’re beautiful things, and there’s not much change involved. In other songs they can be reinterpreted quite radically, like “Say Hello or Wave Goodbye.”
I mentioned some of the artists that you’ve covered – are there maybe some other artists you can talk about that you feel have influenced you as a performer?
God yeah, I mean, well loads of people. Van Morrison, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan obviously. There’s three for starters. I saw bands like The Waterboys in 1985 on the This Is The Sea tour – I was blown away by that, so loads of people have had a massive effect.
One thing that’s always struck me is how grounded you seem compared to many other artists. How do you balance fame and family life and touring?
With difficulty, is the simple answer to that. With great difficulty. I think balance is this notion…I’m reasonably balanced today, but anything could knock me off. I’m not a one for the striking of the artistic pose. That I just find rather tedious, the whole cliché of it. But I can understand how you can be, well, I know lots of other artists, and they’re just a pain in the ass and downright impossible a lot of the time. It’s to do with their own insecurities and their own self-centered egotism. And other people would love all that shit, they interpret it as some kind of tortured, utterly vexed soul – this is why all the beautiful music comes out so beautiful, because they’re in such torture all the time. We feel their pain and they just go with it all the way and almost encourage that kind of thing. People want it to be true, they want Van Gogh to be cutting his ear off all the time. But that’s not for me – I think it’s all bullshit. I think writing songs and making music, there’s a mystical aspect to it, and there’s something mystical about music and mystical about art, and it encourages some kind of…religious reflex where people like to see some kind of spirit moving through people and they think there must be ramifications. People have got to be half deranged, and a lot of artists are, so you need a very thin skin, you need a very thin skin to be an artist – you have to be so sensitive that it hurts and you have to deal with the world by making something out of it. And then a lot of people don’t have a thick enough skin, on the other hand, to deal with the consequences of what that means: other people looking at their work, criticizing it, people seeing them on the street recognizing them. So a lot of behavioral tics are born out of the sheer discomfort and mortal agony that being alive can entail. When people are in on what you do and not giving you any privacy and staring at you. So there are all kinds of reasons why people strike a pose, but yeah, that kind of thing isn’t for me. But that’s not to say that I’m in balance, I think that would be a downright lie.
Learn more at davidgray.com
Additionally, Stephen has exhibited his photography in Portland, Maine, Boston, and California. He lives just outside of Portland with his wife and two children.