David Gray found global fame in the late Nineties, but had a hard time dealing with it. Sixteen years on, with his 10th album just out, he tells Andy Welch why he finally feels human again while the LEP’s Karl Holbrook was at the Lowry to see if his voice can still move emotions.
When David Gray released White Ladder in 1998, it became something of a slow-burning success.
A slow-burning success that sold almost eight million copies, spawned the giant single Babylon and breathed new life into the solo male singer-songwriter genre, admittedly, but slow-burning nonetheless.
It was the Sale-born musician’s fourth album; sales for his first three had been almost non-existent.
The newly-released Mutineers, his 10th album, is a direct relation of White Ladder, not just in that the shuffley beats that underpin many of the songs call to mind a sort of after-club mood, but because it finally sees Gray breaking free of the shackles of association with his breakout hit.
“There’s a lot of baggage that comes with success,” he begins. “Of course, I’m not complaining, but I made that album in my bedroom and didn’t think anyone would be listening. Then, all of a sudden, it sold seven or eight million copies. What are you supposed to do after that?”
Add in the fact that Gray’s father died not long after the album’s release, and Ivy, his first child with wife Olivia, was born, and the picture becomes more chaotic.
“It was a moment of huge dislocation,” he explains. “Everything was different, and I think anyone in that situation needs time to work out how to survive it. Everything took so much working out.”
The album that followed, A New Day At Midnight, was Gray trying to suss out the rest of his life, but it was widely criticised and didn’t sell as well as hoped. It’s little wonder he took a few years off afterwards, but the three albums that followed - Life In Slow Motion, Draw The Line and Foundling - saw him drifting, both further away from the music he wanted to make and from the fans who’d once bought his records in droves.
“The world seems to be loaded against you, and I didn’t feel like I was getting my due,” he says. “I went from being a page, to a paragraph to a sentence, and I wasn’t happy with my portrayal in the media. Fame and success is a hall of mirrors and brings you into a very self-conscious world. I’ve been trying to let go of that for some time. With this new album, I’ve found sheer liberation where none of that is important anymore.”
It’s interesting, perhaps ironic, that the album on which Gray stops worrying about his former position as a bestselling artist could be the one that returns him there.
For Mutineers, he teamed up with Andy Barlow, one half of electronic duo Lamb, who helped put new wind in Gray’s sails. There’s no huge change in direction or cliched return to form. In truth, Gray’s recent albums have all been good enough, just a little hard-going for the more casual fans who bought White Ladder.
The main difference between Mutineers and its recent predecessors is that it sounds like Gray is having fun. By his own admission, he’s a very intense character and speaking to him, he is very articulate, precise and clear in his message. He’s pleasant company, but his focus doesn’t shift from his music for a second.
“I remember starting the album and slapping this big [stack] of songs down for Andy to go through and he said, ‘Dave, you’re too intense, you make recording an album sound like some sort of prison sentence’, and reminded me making an album should be some creative flight of fancy to be seen as a treat. I’d forgotten that, and all I thought about was the responsibility. I was like some creative beast of burden.”
He says the new approach has seen him come on leaps and bounds, and his seriousness was perhaps a result of “dehumanising” himself in order to cope with everything going on around him, namely balancing being a dedicated dad and husband with being committed to his work.
While recording Mutineers, he could feel the “blood returning to his extremities” for the first time in years, and it was painful, bringing up emotions he’d been suppressing. But now he’s experienced those potent feelings once again, he’s extremely reluctant to go back to thinking and working any other way.
“It feels like a new world of possibility is opening up in front of me, and it’s Andy that did that,” he says. Much of the album’s energy, he notes, is down to the fact that he, Barlow and the band didn’t make demos of the songs before they recorded it. A lot of the time, when you hear Gray singing a line, it’ll be only the first or second time he ever sang it. With that, he says, comes a “zing” or an “inexhaustibility” that’s impossible when recording and re-recording the same line over and over.
“A lot of the time, you’re just chasing the demo anyway, just trying to record a posher-sounding version of what was perfect in the first place,” he says. “These wonderful moments of initial capture are so important, because you’re just making, you not weighed down by anything.”
The first song on Mutineers is called Back In The World, and that’s quite clearly how Gray feels.
“It’s a very literal song. In making this album I’ve stepped free of the shadows of the past. It feels harmonious to me. I feel free,” he says, convincingly.
Mutineers and the bounty for David Gray
David Gray insists on his latest single that he’s ‘back in the world’, and after a phenomenal homecoming at the Lowry theatre last Thursday, I’m glad to report he certainly is.
When Gray wheeled out his ‘Greatest Hits’ tour at Preston’s Guild Hall in 2008, after parting company with his label and long term collaborator Clune, there was a sense of going through the motions; of an artist still recuperating from a decade of being defined by his global hit White Ladder and for being blamed for unleashing on the world a host of electro-infused folk-pop singers a la Newton Faulkner, Jack Johnson, James Blunt, et al.
But six years on, with a great new album, his 10th, in tow, the singer-songwriter looks back to his wobbly-headed best.
So confident he is, it seems, in his new album Mutineers, which has seen him experiment with more electro-trickery with Andy Barlow from 90s trip hop outfit Lamb, that the first five songs come from the new album - despite it only being released days earlier.
To kick things off, Gray led his seven-piece band through a rousing Birds of the High Arctic, which grew from a piano ballad to a stirring, looping sing-along ending with Gray jumping up from behind his piano to dance around the stage like a possessed Al Jolsen speaking in tongues at some wild evangelical church sermon.
Next he unleashed his catchy new single, Back in the World, followed by three more new songs, including the beautifully tender Last Summer, punctuated with a gorgeous extended chello outro.
It wasn’t until the sixth song Alibi, from 2005’s Life In Slow Motion, that he deviated from the new album and not until Please Forgive Me, nine songs in, that the place was given a full-on singalong.
A few more songs from the new album followed before delving into the back catalogue for the inevitable Babylon, which must feel like both an albatross and a golden goose for the singer by now, before closing the set with a thunderous, electric One I Love. A three-song encore ending with a joyous Sail Away sing song.
But as good as it was to hear the old songs, it was the new ones that really soared.
Maybe Gray has finally been able to reconcile the highs and lows of his earlier successes, the preconceptions and the expectations.
Either way, it’s good to have you back.