David Gray - Interview
Interview with David Gray May 2014
David Gray conquered the UK charts for the first time in 2001 with his 'White Ladder' album and has remained high up there ever since with several more albums of mature pop such as 2002's 'A New Day at Midnight' and 2005's 'Life in Slow Motion'. He kindly gave up some of his time to talk to us about his new album 'Mutineers', new relationships, how he finds the song writing process these days and the pros and cons of working independently.
Contactmusic: Hello David, your new album 'Mutineers' is coming out in June, what can you tell me about it?
David: It's a big record for me; I feel I've returned to the source in terms of my writing and my passion for music. I've rediscovered myself on this record so it has a power and it has something extra. I think there are record cycles, but then beyond that there are bigger cycles and if you see the first in my career as starting at the beginning and finishing with before 'White Ladder', then 'White Ladder' being the start of something else, then almost everything subsequently has been post-'White Ladder'. This now feels like the start of a new era and a very rich one creatively. Sometimes, you're staring up at the creative mountain and I was just bored of myself. I got off the road, I was physically and mentally exhausted, and I knew I wanted to do something different, I just didn't know what it was. I knew all the things I didn't want, but I didn't know what it was I was looking for, so I had to perform a sort of creative traverse, I couldn't just keep ascending, I had to go across and take the mountain from a different angle. I was trying so many different things that 'not knowing' became my process; I started writing in a backwards way.
CM: What was it that was 'backwards' about your songwriting?
David: Normally, I'd write melodies and chords first and then find the lyrics to go with it. I began to write from lyrics back into music, taking other people's words as well and using them as a starting point for songs; so, a poem was responsible for 'Gull' and then a short story was responsible for the track 'The Incredible'. It was like putting on those prism glasses and everything's upside down. It takes a little while to take a few steps forward and know that you're not going to fall over, I was just using my instincts to build the songs in this way. 'Birds Of The High Arctic' was another one, 'Snow In Vegas' came out of a lyric I'd had for a long time. Once I began to realise there was real strength and also a nuance to this new approach. I went with it and then when we got to the studio to records, I found that was a further layer of challenging my ideas about how it should sound, how it could be arranged, how I went about recording it. Creatively my producer Andy Barlow played a huge part in that.
CM: How did Andy Barlow affect the recording process?
David: His brief was to not let me make the same record I've made before and take me out of my comfort zone, and he did those two things in a superb way. It was a very tumultuous process but the results were sort of something fizzing with excitement and energy, because we captured the moment of discovery. The biggest fear is chasing a demo, if you've done some casual throwaway thing at home and you then labour on it for a further six months in the studio and it doesn't sound better than that. Working with Andy, we managed to work on new ideas in the studio so that, literally, there wasn't a demo; there was no template. 'Mutineer', the title track, and 'Beautiful Agony', all these things were sort of done there and just sprung to life in front of us, so there's a real freshness to them. That's how I'd sell my new record.
CM: That sounds fantastic. Going back a few years, it's taken a while for 'Mutineers' to come about, was there a reason for the break?
David: I didn't want to do the thing that I knew how to do, so it took me a while to find the approach and then the person to help me make the record. I had a few false starts; I tried to self-produce completely with the band and then I tried my old producer, that didn't work. But all these things were quite hefty recording sessions, so I realised I needed a producer in the true sense of the word; someone who 'had the keys to the city', the city of sound, someone who's going to take me somewhere I haven't been before. It took a while to find him, but Andy was that guy and, like all the best things in life, it wasn't something that was planned or carefully organised. I don't think either of us would have chosen each other automatically to work with, but we gave it a go and something good happened, so we gave it another go and something really good happened and I said, 'Right, that's it, you're in, let's go'. A long hard slog, but worth it.
CM: Time has proven you to be a prolific songwriter, but as time goes by, does song writing come as quickly or as naturally as it might've done in the past?
David: It doesn't become harder. The challenge is not to repeat yourself and that can become very profound. Sometimes it feels like everything is new and that the world of possibilities is in front of you, and that's how I feel at the moment. But I was in the reverse of that position a few years ago so, yes, that was hard and my answer is just to keep on writing; write the songs and worry about whether they're a step forward, sideways, backwards or step into the dustbin later. Get your creative momentum, get what an artist would call 'hand-eye co-ordination' when the looking and the pencil become one, that's what you want. I think writing songs remains a challenge. You have a natural impetus when you begin, but if you pursue something over a decade then you become a bit of a nutter, you become obsessive about it, it isn't normal. Also, you have to find new creative gearing. It's an obsession, it's a means to an end, it's something I crave, I need this bit of expression.
CM: Are you the kind of person who will write whilst on the road?
David: I make notes as I go, lyric ideas, ideas for a song. I wrote a couple down at 4 o'clock in the morning last night. That's sort of normal, and I'll make notes of tunes and little things that come to me during rehearsals, sound checks or when I'm in my hotel room or whatever. But I'll have to wait until I get back to service those things and really put them under the spotlight to see if there's something there. There's a sort of discipline about it. I've become very compartmentalised. When I first started, I wrote when I felt like writing music, but these days I find that I've got a family, I've got a big job, I've got a lot of responsibilities and there's a band. You've got to be disciplined about making use of the time you do have if you're really sincere about wanting to advance creatively. I mean, most people can have a bit of success and they're happy with it and I don't think that's a bad thing, but I'm just not one of those people. For me, there's a whole other world of sound, there's another world of possibilities. I think I'm getting closer and closer to the Holy Grail, but it's probably an illusion; I'm probably going around in a circle.
CM: Do you tend to listen to much music while you're writing?
David: I don't really have a rule about that. I don't listen to much music, period. This might sound like a strange thing to say, but I'll suddenly get incredibly thirsty for music and I'll have a have a real state of listening to stuff and buy a load of new and old records. Listening to music on the road is probably the best fun because everyone puts their favourite killer tracks on, and at the back of the bus there's no better place on Earth to listen to music. You absolutely crank it due to the fact you've done a gig, you're in a happy space, now let's listen to some great stuff be it John Coltrane, be it whatever. Someone lays the track down and someone goes, 'AW, listen to this!' I've got so many people with such ridiculously eclectic tastes, it's a wonderful thing. You'll hear things that you've never heard before that blow you away. That's how I find my listening goes in weird sort of pulses, erratic pulses but with great intensity, and the only thing I can compare it to is when they teach people to paint in the Buddhist tradition; the first three years is just looking at things and that's sort of how I feel about music. When I get into it, God, I take it all in in glorious Technicolor! But it's not an ever-present thing.
CM: 'Mutineers' could be interpreted as quite an assertive title, is there much meaning behind it?
David: There's a lot of meaning. I was the captain of the mutinous crew. I had to throw myself overboard to make this record. It chimes with the experience and that was the track with the most radical experience in its birth, so it's a massive track on the record and it just felt like the right thing and I like the punchiness of it. I had this epiphany of it. The title of the record changed several times, but we ended up on 'Mutineers'. I like the punch, I like the simplicity, I like the intrigue, and it's deeply meaningful in terms of the record, like I said before I was the captain, I was the crew and I threw myself overboard, that's the story of the record in a sentence.
CM: This is your first release with Kobalt, remaining on your own label. Does self-releasing give you more freedom as an artist?
David: Yeah it does, but you've got to choose your partner carefully. It's a changing world, the music business obviously. It's happening so fast, has been, it seems to be settling down a little bit. I think the most important thing is that you get key people on board who you connect with and understand that you're all on the same page. The problem with major labels [pauses] well basically in the past, the story of my own career, someone signs you and then they get sacked. The problem with a long term relationship is that these labels never stay the same for long, they amalgamate into something else and also it's just a load of young people who are doing all the work, who don't know fu**ing anything about you. The boss might be going 'yeah this is important' but they go 'David who? That fu**ing wobbly headed guy from a long time ago?' [referring to how Gray tends to wobble his head when performing to help him keep rhythm], that's probably the bottom line. So there's an advantage to self-releasing but its nerve wracking, we spent a fortune making this record and it took ages and we put everything into it and now it has to succeed. If you have the comfort of a five record deal, you're not going to starve, you're going to be able to pay your bills, whereas it's a bit more hap hazard being independent.
CM: You're going on tour soon. Where's your favourite country to play?
David: I have to give a nod to the Irish. I've had some of the most unbelievable gigs of my life over there.
CM: If you could learn one skill that you haven't already got, what would it be?
David: Playing the drums. I can't fu**ing do it to save my life! I've tried it a few times, my daughter can probably play the drums better than I can, I just haven't got it. I'd love to be able to because I think very rhythmically in terms of the music and that would obviously advance my ideas enormously.
CM: Thanks for your time David
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