Nobody expected White Ladder to be as big as it was. Its most iconic track, “Babylon,” became bigger even than David Gray himself. Overcoming that kind of success is nearly impossible, but Gray hasn’t relented. It’s been four years since his last album, Foundling, and nearly fifteen years since White Ladder spent over two years on the UK charts (and a year on the US charts), sold over seven million copies, and took the English singer-songwriter from obscurity to staggering fame. His tenth studio album, Mutineers, looks to bridge the gap for Gray between his popular successes and that which compelled him to write songs in the first place.
Mutineers contains Gray’s strongest songwriting of recent years, taken to another level by producer Andy Barlow (most recently of indie group Lamb), who wrenched Gray out of his comfort zone. At Gray’s explicit direction, Barlow deconstructed his songs, dismantling anything that sounded overwrought, and condensed Gray’s thoughts into powerful, driving, and spacious tracks. The result is that Mutineers is fresh-sounding, fascinating in its scope, and big in its sound. If you’ve been pining for substance in popular music, Mutineers is exactly that.
We spoke with David on the eve of his North American tour, hours before he appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman debuting the aptly titled, “Back in the World.” He was candid and eloquent in our interview, talking about the process of making the new record and what it’s like to be an independent artist again. “I feel like I’m entering a rich period of making music,” he said, “as fresh as any I’ve ever made.”
The title track really leapt out at me. There’s something very powerful about your chorus, and it made me think of it as a sort of “grown-up” adventure song. What is the significance of the lyrics in “Mutineers?”
I have no idea if that’s what it means. [Laughs] It was born in a strange way. My producer tore up an existing song I had called “Sugar Rush.” What I was left with was a small chord sequence, which is what you hear now. He looped that—he said, “Stick with this, Dave,” and I was looking rather vexed. There was no verse, no chords no melody—all I was left with were these fucking lyrics and a small chord sequence. [Laughs] I thought, “there’s something good about it… let’s see what we can do.”
So, what I did is I found the chorus/melody first. [Sings] “Babe… sure feels good…” That bit. And once I realized that, I thought… this really works! I found the guitar part that goes with it—that really high guitar part; that brought that to life. And that’s a very heartfelt little bit of singing there.
But then, the verses are more ambiguous. It’s enigmatic; the meaning of the song is unclear. The tendency to explain there—there’s no narrative structure because it has an irresistible energy. It’s sort of mantric with its constant repetition. It has a sort of… inevitability and an unstoppable feeling. I love that track, and playing it live… it’s obviously infectious, because the whole band get really into it and the audience [does], too. I don’t know if I’d describe it as an “adventure” song, but I’m glad you found it to be an adventure. I do get what you’re saying, but I’m sorry I can’t explain the song on those terms. It’s a mystery to me. I respond to its energy and I respond to its imagery. As far as a definitive explanation of it… I’m so sorry I can’t help explain it better.