For Gray, success was a double-edged sword - on the one hand, it finally brought his music to the masses, but on the other, it swept him up into the mechanism of the music biz and threatened to undermine his muse. Not that Gray's a slacker; far from it in fact. His latest album, Draw the Line, lives up to its title by landing him on firmer terrain as the most incendiary effort of his career. It also marks the start of a new phase in his trajectory, courtesy of a set of circumstances that bodes well both for his fans and his own intents.
Crossfade recently caught up with Gray in the midst of his latest tour, one that brings him to the Fillmore tomorrow, Wednesday, April 14. He's thoughtful and articulate, his speech a reflection of the slow burning intensity he projects through his melodies. Gray generously shared his thoughts on his music, his fans, and the challenges that accompany the aquisition of fame and fortune. Read the full Q&A after the jump.
David Gray. With Phosphorescent. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 14. The Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $27.50 to $43. livenation.com
New Times: Hello David. How's the tour going so far?
David Gray: It's been great actually.
How long have you been out on the road?
I guess we passed the four week mark a day or two ago, so I think we have a week to go.
Not bad. Home stretch.
It's the way we look at it.
Are you playing a lot of songs from the new album?
Yeah, we generally play about six every night. We weave them in.
The new album seems to find you a bit more fiery and revved up as opposed to the mellower sounds you purveyed in the past.
Definitely. I think it's very outward, you know? Things come in big cycles and something happened when I changed my band around. Everything I did changed. There was a big change going on in me and I was hankering to write a different kind of song and I had different kinds of feelings about it. I think that sort of inward period of my life was perhaps over and I needed to change my camera angle somewhat.
It was a joyous thing once the new band really kicked in because it became a tougher sound without trying to sound tough. There was a muscular feel to the tunes which enabled me to write a different kind of song, which I think I'd been bursting to write for many years but I couldn't quite find the vehicle for it. Yet the lyrics just came tumbling out. And yeah, there is this fiery intense thing. I could finally say everything I wanted to say.
When you conceive a new album, do you deliberately plan to pursue a particular concept or a certain point of view?
I have the luxury of having my own means of production, so this album shaped itself as we worked. All I had as a preconceived idea was that I was going to get rid of the sonic thing. There were certain rules and parameters to the process, but I was going to go back to recording old school - live in the room, capturing the moment, hopefully with the vocal, but sometimes not.
So I wasn't going to layer the sound, I wasn't going for a produced sound, I was going to do it more stripped back. I sensed there were changes afoot. And once the band sort of crystallized, the songs were sort of written with everybody there... a lot of them anyway. I always wrote on my own but I didn't prepare songs and bring them into the studio. So once we got up and running, things would just happen there. We would write a song then and there, and then I would go off and write the lyrics for a few hours while the boys would work out their parts. I tried to capture things as fresh as possible.
As the months went by and there was a backlog of material built up, you could see the themes developing and you see certain songs sort of had a kinship with other songs, and they seemed to fit together perfectly. You're looking for other kinds of things or similar things to make the album feel complete. When we were getting beyond the halfway point of making the record, it seemed like a new era had dawned for me and I didn't want to stop. There was no recording contract, and so I carried on until I felt like I had everything covered.
In fact, you've had a pretty diverse trajectory. You started out making your own records and then landing with a major label, then went with an indie label. Then you were back on your own and now you're with a major label again.
My curve has incorporated a lot of changes. After three albums, I released a disastrous album with EMI America, which after that ceased to exist. Actually I think they ceased to exist while I was signed to them, but that's another matter. After that I was kind of in this awkward position where I was like soiled goods, because you've had a couple of go's and nothing's worked.
So we ended up putting out White Ladder ourselves, in Ireland, where there was this sort of pulse. And then it just grew from that. It got to the point where it was sort of self-defeating to actually sell our own records, because it was taking so much time and energy and we needed to concentrate on playing the music and writing things. So we handed it over to Dave Matthews' label (ATO), which then became the RCA/Sony/BMG thing.
So through the success of that record I ended up in relationships with major labels and then we kind of decided not to extend it. The music business was changing so fast, so to be shackled to that particular sort of beast didn't seem like the smartest thing. I'm not talking financially - financially I would have been made - but it seemed like the wrong dynamic. So we decided to hold off and to choose our path accordingly. It was sort of a real financial reality during the making of this record because I didn't know where we were going with it and what was going to happen to it. So every penny counted and every song counted.
I personally enjoy that kind of thing. I didn't like the kind of luxury years when you have more money than you know what to do with in a sense. It affects things, a malaise that people just naturally kind of fall into. So there was a good sober light shining on the making of this record. Not that htat there's any virtue in that, but I just like the fact that everything mattered. I don't mind being in a position where I have to take my own financial risks. It just makes you ask yourself more pertinent questions the whole time.
Being such a massive hit, did "Babylon" ever seem like it was becoming a burden of some sort? Because now that you had this massive hit, people were expecting certain things out of you, to repeat "Babylon" with every successive song and to keep making White Ladder album after album? Did the expectations ever rise to a level where you didn't even want to deal with it?
Everything that happens - good, bad or indifferent - has its knock-on effect. And giant success and mainstream success carried its own complexities with it, which took me awhile to negotiate. People start playing a silly numbers game. They say because you've been in the mainstream and been a success, then that's what you are. You're some sort of toothless fool. And likewise, anything you do that numerically fails to measure up to what you've done before means you're slowly slipping away into obscurity again, bye-bye. Neither thing is true and you have to have the strength of your convictions ultimately, and have faith in the work you're doing.
Yeah, it posed its own problems, but it's a wonderful thing to have the world kiss you in the way that it did. It wasn't a premeditated thing. It was a thing of splendor. I wasn't given a gift that you can dream of being given. It was on my own terms! It wasn't that I was ceded or blessed by the media or any particular tastemaker - "this is what's going to happen this year."
The record sort of uncoiled itself in a magical way and had a certain charm. It had soul! It touched people! And it started a whole ball rolling where the cart was dragging the horse along, or whatever. The sheer scale of it was overwhelming for a time. The hall of mirrors it created was this very self-conscious world of being famous and being successful, which was irksome to me. It took me a long time to adjust and just forget about it.
Did you find that people expected that every new song you'd do would be "Babylon, Part 2," Babylon, Part 3?"
Everything was always compared to that. But I really believed in my last record. And I believe in this record. And I think if you just keep them coming, slowly a different impression is created, and it's created by the shows that we do and the passion and intensity of the shows, and the substance of the music.
And I feel on this tour, if you ask me how this tour has gone, there's been a phenomenal reaction from the audience. Not just to the obvious songs - "Sail Away," "Babylon," Please Forgive Me" - they always get a big response - but "Fugitive," "Nemesis," "Jackdaw" from the new album. They get a fantastic reaction, so they've become a part of my canon that stands right next to the other stuff.
The ebb and flow of the show goes through obscure tracks and cover versions that I might throw in... there's a dynamic to it. But I feel like my audience is just going with me, they're giving me the benefit of the doubt all the time. And you can't ask for more than that. So that's the most gratifying thing about the position that I'm in right now.
Speaking of covers, you just put out an entire album of covers that's available on your website (A Thousand Miles Behind, featuring live recordings of Dylan, Springsteen, John Martyn, Tim Buckley and the Bee Gees covers, among others). Are you planning to issue that in wider release?
I don't know. I don't know where that stands. It was a sort of experiment. It was fashionable a few years ago to record all your shows, so on the "Life in Slow Motion" tour I recorded the whole thing and then I did an acoustic tour and recorded all those. So I realized that there was 15, 20 cover versions there and that with a little bit of mixing we had a record for the fans.
And then we decided to release it exclusively online and see what would happen with the power of the internet in its purest form. We did sell a few copies but there's wasn't any sort of tsunami of sales. It's a sweet little record but it was never intended as anything more than a fan's record. In the show, there's always unexpected cover versions. The really good ones go someone else beyond the originals.
In scanning the artists that you cover on that disc, would one get a good sense of your influences?
To some extent. I've got quite catholic tastes so there are a lot of artists and lots of music that are not represented there. I find it hard to do a cover version of a Specials song! (laughs) Likewise, Talk Talk... it's not easy to do one of theirs. (laughs again) I think its Dylan as much as anybody - he's represented a couple of times.
I grew up in the '80s, so I followed everything that was interesting in the '80s. From the crap to the Cocteau Twins, I was listening to everything avidly. And it just sort of stayed with me. When you're a teenager, nothing will ever affect you as profoundly as the music that you listen to at that time. So yeah, it gives a little map of me. I think that if I go and do some more acoustic shows, there might be a part two at some point.
With all the intensely personal and introspective songs you've recorded, do people sometimes think that you're going to be that way in person, this very quietly intense, emotional sort of person? Does your personality parallel the mood that you emanate on your records?
I'm feverishly intense in my own way. I'm very serious about what I do. Because I project a sort of mythological version of myself as I'd like to be perceived, then people paint nothing in its place. So you become this incredibly lifeless version of you. I think that they're surprised I've got a sense of humor, or a worldview.
I think people are often surprised I don't take myself incredibly seriously. I hate people that are too precious. It's the thing I like least about an artist. I'd rather they be cheap than precious. Art has to exist but I don't think we should bow down and tip toe around it. The splendor of music... fuck, any fool can do it, for God sake.
But having created this persona, it could be somewhat intimidating for someone that meets you who doesn't really know that very real human side of you.
Well, you don't really know what's in somebody else's mind and I guess that's true. If I met somebody I'd poured over passionately for decades I would probably have a few mental blocks that I would need to dissolve quickly in order to meet them. I can't really imagine meeting the heavyweights - Dylan and Van Morrison - I'd be too freaked I think. So I can understand if someone's passionate about your music, they've accumulated an impression. I guess they're going to get past that or whatever, but it's understandable. Yeah, sure.