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INTERVIEW – David Gray, February 2015

| 11 March 2015 | Reply

INTERVIEW – David Gray, February 2015
By Shane Pinnegar

Shane Pinnegar caught up with British singer David Gray ahead of his appearance at the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival in Fremantle Park on Sunday, 29 March, and found a highly driven artist determined to deliver a unique experience for his fans.

David Gray 01

Gray broke through with the multi-million selling White Ladder in 2000, which he initially self-released two years previously. The singer says it may have looked like it wasn’t moving from overseas, but it took those two years of hard work to build it up before it went global.

“You’re just seeing it from your country’s point of view,” he answers tersely. “We were very busy getting bigger and bigger. The first year and a half were spent on our own label, releasing it in Ireland, and then in England and then in America and slowly building it up, then in 2000 it was taken on by Warners around the world and BMG in America. That’s when it got the big exposure, and on the bedrock of word of mouth that it already had, it then took off globally. So we were flat out the whole time, we weren’t sitting there thinking ‘god, what’s happened?’ It was slow to begin with – at the beginning of 1999 none of us really knew what was going to happen next, but we had an incredible year in Ireland with sort of catapulted us onwards, so that was a whole adventure that is quite a long time ago now.”

White Ladder sold a gazillion copies, which is pretty amazing considering it was recorded mostly in Gray’s living room. He says he wasn’t a big fan of the fame and recognition the album brought him, but it has settled down since.

“Well I think that I… everybody deals with it in their own way,” he explains, “and I’ve dealt with it in mine. It wasn’t for me, the whole fame thing, I wasn’t really interested in that – that was a sort of by product of the music success that, once I had it, I found that part of it overwhelming, the self-conciousness of being recognised walking down the street or being in the supermarket or wherever, and a bit of papparazzi action at the time… but luckily you can become unfamous just as fast as you can become famous [laughing] so luckily its not a problem that rears its head these days. It’s back to a nice manageable level.”

Gray has gone on to make a couple of more stripped back albums before last year’s Mutineers saw him returning to the layered soundscapes of yore.

“I don’t think we’ve gone backwards, only forwards,” Gray insists when comparing the two records, “but I think there are certain parallels that could be drawn. I think there’s a few electronic elements to it. It’s like a hybrid of an acoustic, piano-based record with a sound that is very much now. So that’s where the parallel is – I don’t think it sounds like White Ladder, really, I think it’s a different thing entirely. But it involves a similar level of collaboration, it was a joint effort in both those records – it wasn’t just my vision, it was sacrificing some of my ideas to let other people’s stuff in, and that’s what strengthened this record.”

David Gray 02

Relinquishing control, it seems, is something Gray finds difficult to do, but he realises it’s a necessary part of his creative process.

“It’s never easy to relinquish control. Never. It’s a constant challenge in every aspect. That was a huge challenge in making this record: there were times when we were knocking things down but we didn’t have anything else to replace them with. But it was all a part of the violent beginnings of the lovely thing that then happened: we had to clear some space, and that was a little alarming. So it doesn’t get any easier – it’s like the ‘old dog new tricks’ thing, I don’t think after making ten albums that it gets any easier to just turn everything on its head – I think you get kind of set in your ways, and that was one of the problems I had, so I stuck with it, and it was worthwhile.

“I think reflecting on the whole process,” he continues expansively, “there were so many positives that I’m proud of what came out of it, and I think it’s that much stronger because of the way that it was made, and the testing and examination that the music and the ideas went through in order to be born, so I think the element of risk is vital. So, going forward from this I’m just looking at ways to branch out further, and seeing doors opening left, right and centre – almost too many. I need to decide which one I want to go through. It’s not like when I sat down to make Mutineers, I was looking for the next thing and I didn’t quite know how to get there. I kicked a few doors open, and now there’s more opening in front of me again… so I’m at the beginning of a birth of creative work, I think, that Mutineers was a founding stone of.”

Making the album with producer Andy Barlow from Lamb, was obviously a productive arrangement, but it wasn’t always a particularly happy working relationship.

“It’s difficult because of the things we’re detailing now, and also because of different working methods,” Gray states. “I’m very, very hardcore in the way I go about things: I don’t mess about, I sort of work ‘til I fall over – so it’s obviously not always healthy to do so, and Andy found he couldn’t work my way, it was overwhelming.

“So we had to work his way, which meant taking breaks, taking time off, less days of the week if he was a bit ‘burned out’ in inverted commas – and I found all that stuff, the chopping and changing of time and the lack of momentum, the slowness, I found very hard to take – because I’m a real pusher-onner, I would just get it done, and when I can’t walk or talk or speak to my family, THEN take me home and put me to bed!” he laughs, “because that’ll be the end of my creative input.

“So Andy would be like, ‘I’m feeling burned out’ after a few really intense days, and I found all that stuff really hard to deal with. Normally I call all the shots and everyone [has] to start running. But this didn’t work out that way. So it was on a practical level – but on a creative level the thing that consoled me when I was getting completely stressed out was that the work we were doing was increasingly heading in a new direction, and I could hear that, and the wide open spaces that were being created were exhilarating – and that’s what I was working with someone else for, so I had to take the rough with the smooth.”

David Gray 03

It sounds very cathartic and very, very intense…

“Yeah – like everything I do, I think,” he says with a wry sigh. “That element of catharsis, that’s what I’m looking for, and a high level of connection. It’s an intense process when you set out to make a record. I think making a record is like making a loaf of bread – it involves heart and soul and ripping your guts out, or you haven’t really done it properly.”

This intense and cathartic experience has similarly changed the way Gray will be delivering his live set.

“Yeah, well we try to do as much justice to the soundscapes – and the vocal parts, the vocal parts are just such a huge part of the record. We try to do justice to that as best we could by having a choir essentially with me – so there’s seven people playing and singing with me – and then the drummer.

“His job is just to drum,” Gray laughs, “it’s best that way! Yeah so it’s very much shaped my approach to the live music is very much shaped by what we’ve done in the studio, and wanted to try and do it justice. We all felt very buoyant, so we rather ambitiously created this rather huge group of people, which financially and logistically is obviously a nightmare and makes no sense at all, but in order for us to celebrate the music in a way that it deserves to be celebrated, so that’s what we’re bring to Australia: the full thing, the eight-piece band.

“It’s quite a thing, and not only for the new music, but also the old songs as well: when they’re passed through this celebrational filter they take on a new life, really… [but] after this huge band thing, I need to find a satisfactory live incarnation that doesn’t have so many hotel rooms!”

David Gray 04

Gray is also acutely aware of the differences between playing his own headline show and playing an afternoon festival slot.

“Completely. Being outside, there’s lots of people, noise, candy floss – whatever. It’s a completely different thing – and also the audience isn’t your hardcore fans, they’re people with some knowledge of you, so it’s slightly more dilute. It’s a completely different science to play a set to them – you can’t be too hardcore about playing the new album from back to front, you’ve got to mix it up a bit, I think, and hit the big numbers to bring everybody in.

“So that’s how I feel about it – everybody treats it differently, but you have to play it by ear, really. Outside is completely different from inside, daytime is completely different to nighttime. So [compared to] the controlled experiment that is the indoor theatre, in the dark, where you’ve got your production and your fans, it’s a completely different, more random event which can go any which way – you’ve got the weather and all sorts of stuff. So outdoors you’ve gotta be fleet of foot and ready to change your plans as well.”

An edited version of this interview was originally published in X-Press Magazine’s 4 March, 2015 issue

Category: Interviews

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