David Gray,
The Best of the 2014
TVD Interviews

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.

You’ve released many albums over the years, experimenting with sound yet keeping things essentially very simple. Why does this continue to be important to you now with Mutineers?

Simplicity is so important. In fact, in the making of this record, one of the real keys to making the record was stripping out all the unnecessary stuff; so, stripping things back to the bare essentials to create space—just to have some delicious space in the music, so the words of the song can carry the space. Lots of them had more complicated piano parts and guitar parts… the producer was like, “No, I don’t think it needs the guitar, and I think you should keep the piano parts real simple.”

If you listen to something like “Back in the World,” the opening track, it was originally a very fluid piano part—a bit like it is in the chorus, in the “only way to be” section, there was a slowing part in the verses. In the end, it just became two chords. We stripped everything down to create space, so that when we messed with the sound, there was some room for the sound to really make an impression, rather than being cluttered with other things vying for your attention.

You really want to achieve the simplest themes possible a lot of the time, yet some songs end up very complex. I couldn’t say that “Birds of the High Arctic” is simple; it’s a complicated piece of music. But even within that framework, taken section by section, we tried to just use what was needed. So, I guess that’s part of the formula for success.

It sounds like the process of recording Mutineers was fraught with some angst, although it also seems like the process you went through was what you wanted. Are you happy with the outcome?

I don’t like the word “angst” because it’s with me most of the time. [Laughs] I’d like to be free of it a little more, to be honest! [Laughs]

I’m so proud of  the way it’s worked out, and the songs that came out of it all, but it was a difficult process. Making the next record will not be as… problematic… because I found someone to work with. And even though I’m sure it isn’t going to be easy working with Andy [Barlow] again, because we sort of bump into each other a lot, in a way, while we’re working… we are very different people with very different styles, but the creative part really works. We trust each other. We’ve established a language of sound as well, which we can [now] take further.

This record was difficult to make. It was a giant leap of faith! To let him come in and tear the music up—to smash it up and change it profoundly—to allow someone the right to do that, it can put you in a very vulnerable, exposed place. But I think that vulnerability has led to something important happening in the music. There’s a real purity and strength to it because of the level of exposure, the level of risk. When I did find something and I really needed it, we found it together in the studio most of the time.

So, it was a very intense record to make—unusually so. It’s always very intense, making a record. It sounds kind of easy, talking about it now it seems like you go into the studio with a bunch of instruments and make some noise, write a few songs—how hard could it be? But I think… it depends what you’re looking for. I’m not looking to just pass the time or create some more “product.” It has to hold real meaning for me. It is an embodiment of where I’m trying to be at a certain time. I mean, I really believe in this stuff, so it’s very loaded. Working with me is very intense, and I’m sure Andy can tell you stories, too, about how beat up he felt by the process.

Do you fear repeating yourself? Was that on your mind as you were going through this difficult creative process?

Yeah, that was in the forefront of my mind. I didn’t want to make the same kind of record I’d made before. That’s the trap that’s so easy to fall into. I wanted to do something different, give form to some new feeling. I wanted some uplift; I wanted to say “hallelujah” really, in a way. I didn’t want to just vaguely complain about my life… I was looking for something else. Something more vital than just going through the creative motions. In the end, I needed the record. There’s no complacency in it.

You’ve been touring and writing music for over twenty years, and have experienced astounding success. What is it like to be back to an independent artist again? In what ways is it different for you from the first time around?

Well, clearly I know a lot more about what I’m doing now. I know too much. [Laughs] I know too much about how it works, and when I started I didn’t have a clue. It isn’t that great, apart from that, I’m forearmed with knowledge of what is working, what isn’t working, and why. I still want my music to connect, and that’s the basic thing. You put it out with a record company and you choose your partner carefully… all you can do is take the best option that’s in front of you at the time. Sometimes it works well—they do exactly what they said they would do, and they seem to know what they’re doing. Songs click on the radio… bingo, the audience comes. Other times, it doesn’t work so well. People drop the ball, more complex political factors come in, or the radio just don’t go for the song or whatever, and you’re left in a more exposed, less successful place. You haven’t connected the way you really wanted to with the music, to a wide audience.

Beyond making the record and turning up and singing it as joyfully and purely as you can, there’s not really much you can do. In that way, nothing really changes each time, whether you’re Bruce Springsteen or some kid releasing his first record. It’s pretty much the same game, that’s the bottom line. Of course, once you get to “superstar” status, there is a certain amount of momentum you already have. You get the media exposure that’s so hard to get…

Anyways, it’s in the lap of the gods, really. The record you make and all the other things… it’s often just chance and luck and strange things that come into it that define the success of the record. And that doesn’t really change.

That was actually going to be my follow-up to that question—how have you changed your approach to music since White Ladder, which was released at the tail end of the album age?  

It’s a little different each time. I’ve been with big record companies and small… there are benefits both ways, depending on how you get your break. It’s all about key people. There are a couple of key people who, when they get the record, if things start to go well they’ll spend a bit of money to make things go better. That’s basically it.

Did you have any part in the decision to release Mutineers on vinyl?

Yeah, if it’s ever possible, I’ll have [my albums] released on vinyl. I’m still of that generation. I think it looks better and it sounds great. It sounds so different… it’s bizarre, when I was listening to the vinyl pressing, it was like it had been re-mastered! It sounded completely different to the MP3 files I’d been listening to. It just has a presence; it’s an object. It’s something that belongs to you. I think that’s one of the problems with “invisible” music that floats on your computer—it doesn’t ever feel the same way to me. So, yeah, I’d have all my records released on vinyl if I could, but it’s not quite as straightforward as that. The rights belong to various companies at this point, and it’s hard to get everyone to coordinate in that way.

But yes, I’m still a huge fan of vinyl, and I occasionally still listen to it at home, although the truth is that when you have children, you don’t really get to do anything anymore.

Did you have a preconception of how you might write music at this point in your life?

No, I’ve never fretted too much about my age. There’s a certain point you cross when you have to say… that was your life. It’s not like you’re looking at it in the future. You have what remains. That’s why everyone has these tee shirts that say, “Life begins at 40” or “Life begins at 50” or “Life begins at 90,” et cetera, et cetera.

It’s hard to come to terms with that. I feel like I’m at the beginning. I feel like I’m entering a rich period of making music, as fresh as any I’ve ever made. That’s the feeling I have. The ground I’m standing on now created me, and I think it’s hard-won. It doesn’t always feel like that. Sometimes I feel like I did a few years ago, where I didn’t know what I wanted or where I was going and everything felt like a “winter” period. Now I feel like it’s spring.

So, there’s nothing more you can ask for at any point in your life, whether you’re sixty-five or twenty-one. You just want to be living in the moment, not fretting about the past or thinking you can imagine your future. Living in the moment is all that matters. That’s what I’ve managed to do with this record, and that’s how I feel when I’m singing it on stage. I mean, what more could I ask for?

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