After his parents split up and he lost his record contract, David Gray's career looked like it was at a standstill. But now he can finally see the success at the other end of the tunnel, writes Joe Jackson
DAVID GRAY: Picture this. David Gray sits near the sun-drenched backdoor of his terraced home in a suburb of London and starts to sing. Better still. He slides inside the soul of that song as intrinsically as if performing on stage. Aching guitar chords, eyes clenched tight, a face contorted by emotion and a voice that slices, like a speeding freight train, right out through that open doorway then collides with the sound of a siren and a singing blackbird. Surreal? You bet. Yet Gray doesn't notice. Anything. Apart from his own song. He is, as he said earlier of Van Morrison's self-immersion while recording Astral Weeks, "totally in the moment" - an aesthetic tendency that probably accounts for the transformative power pulsing through David Gray's purest performances. On record, on stage and here today.
This particular moment also highlights Gray's blood-ties to his musical roots. That time "around 1980" when he sat in a similar room, aged 12 and was "transfixed" by the sound of Dylan's "acoustic recordings, in particular" rippling from his daddy's record player. Yet today there's one major difference. David Gray has just come through one of the most depressing periods of his life. A half decade or so during which his parents parted and his career, basically, dwindled to a devastating halt.
But not quite. Because White Ladder, his last album, which was released in 1998, has gone "eight times platinum" in Ireland, selling at least 110,000 copies. At last count. And it's still selling. Here and abroad, where it has only recently, finally, entered the British charts and is currently at number 23. Indeed, Gray is understandably "delighted" that this country not only " embraced" his music "before anyone else" but that we did so "because the record is what it is. It's not a con, some bullshit pop project pumped full of hype, it's real".
Roughly translated, this means that White Ladder was recorded in, or near, Gray's own home, at his own expense, after he was dropped by his record company and he was forced to do "almost everything" from forming his own record label to composing, or co-composing the songs, plus packaging and promotion.
But, no, he "never imagined" the album would be such a success in Ireland. Though David has suggested this may stem, in part, from the fact that Irish music fans "have a history of" listening to narrative songs.
"I can only guess why Ireland led the world in this way," he says. "But I definitely have a bond with the place, and the way people took my music there, and loved it, was such a relief. Because it's a weight on your shoulders when you have this creativity and no one seems to want it. It turns to poison unless someone else turns it into joy. So what happened when Ireland embraced my music was that it allowed me to lighten my load, look further and develop, while, in the rest of the world, I was coming up against a brick wall. That's why, when I play a gig in Ireland I give absolutely everything, because audiences really are so into my music. It fills, fires me up, to tell you the truth. And that form of acceptance helped me to become what I am now. Gave me the confidence to almost start again, take on the rest of the world."
So what other potentially lucrative territories, apart from Britain, have followed Ireland?
"White Ladder has just come out in America and we've already sold twice as many as we ever sold of any album over there - 1,500 sales in a month," he says - "really brilliant" for a little Indie label.
"Yet the point is that we - myself, Clune, my co-writer and Robb Holden, my manager - have spent virtually everything from those sales in Ireland, getting the record out everywhere else. We've taken on staff, got a team of people we pay all the time. So we've invested our profits. I haven't received a penny from White Ladder. But the growing crowds at concerts, and so on, does generate money so I know this whole thing isn't going to evaporate overnight. I can relax because we've achieved something financially."
So, is David saying he doesn't need Irish fans to make a person-to-person "cap" collection at his appearance at the Witnness festival on August 5th?
"Yes I am!" he says, laughing. "I'm fine. Though, as I say, I have yet to feel the financial benefits from White Ladder. But that is on the horizon! I can feel it coming! Though I was up-against-it, financially, at one point."
But let's get back to the emotional benefits, for David, of the success of White Lad- der in this country. His latest album - which will only be released in Ireland and "is a sort of present to my Irish fans" - is titled Lost Songs '95-'98 and was, originally, so "downbeat, with real wrist-slitting songs" that his wife, Olivia, used to say "turn it off, it's depressing me!"
Gray re-sequenced the tracks "balancing acoustic recordings against, say, instrumentals that have flecks of sunlight to lift the listener!" Either way, the overall mood of the album is true to what I earlier said was a "depressing" period in Gray's life.
"That comes out in the music and the songs, things like my mom and dad splitting up," he reflects. "As my career nose-dived, my family life dipped as well. Not in terms of my wife but the Grays. I was on-the-road a lot, nothing was working out and I was becoming less sure of the things I thought I'd been 100 per cent sure about. My own heart. The world I was living in. What I was doing. My family. How everything fitted together. The fact that my original family was falling apart certainly made me ask questions about what was real about the relationship my parents had. And what wasn't. During my childhood, did I buy into a sweetened version of family life? I always thought it was great but maybe I missed something vital in their relationship."
Such questions seep through If Your Love Is Real which is "about someone falling for somebody and some mad, passionate thing that is fantastic, in-and-out of bed, then they're off somewhere else and you're wondering whether it was just a good time for them or if they really feel as deeply as you do." This he considered in terms of his own mother.
"My mom and dad had been split up for a couple of years and my mom was about to start seeing another bloke and I remember thinking she seemed really vulnerable and what a big deal this was," he says, quietly. "All she'd been through and then to stake it all on someone else again. The courage you need to do that. Those thoughts also occurred while I was writing the song that opens this album, Flame Turns Blue."
AND, yes, this was one of the songs Gray sang to end the recording of my RTÉ radio show, Under The Influence and kick-start this interview. Other songs on the new album include the "relatively simple" Twilight, Falling Down The Mountainside and many tracks he accurately identifies as "maybe slightly down but still lit with the kind of excitement and wonder I find as I breathe in the world I move through".
In fact, even though Gray has resolutely refused to discuss where his songs "come from" or his "ultimate goals" as a performer, today, when pushed, he will.
"Most of my songs are lit by the wonder of being alive. Even if that means feeling blue," he says. "And though, no, I don't usually, talk or even think about my songs at this level, ultimately you do, as a singer, want to transport people. In a song, when the world is revealed in all its magic, people believe that. That's what sucks them in. You've made that connection. They say `I remember the smell of fresh-cut grass or diesel fuel' or whatever. A memory-rush will come back. And I hope that's what people feel after they hear my recordings. Or see me in concert. It's like that track on the new album, Clean Pair of Blue Eyes. I wrote that at a time when I was down, in New York, with Clune and wondering if I'd ever get a recording deal. Then we went to the Metropolitan Art Museum and it was the kind of day where you feel you're seeing the world for the first time. It was super-real. Then I saw a painting by Vermeer. He was painting with light. It was the most iridescent form of perfection. I couldn't believe it! And that night I started writing Clean Pair of Blue Eyes which I finished in Ireland. That sense of transformation really is what I hope to fire with my music."
Back to the Archives
home | news | life | music | faq | guitar
lyrics | gallery | live | archives | speak | links