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David Gray

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David Gray

Words Paul Watson

David Gray is one of the most successful male solo artists to come out of the UK in the last two decades. After the release of his fourth album, White Ladder (1998), he hit superstar status, grabbing the UK number one album spot, and the attention of the masses. Twenty years on, with many hit albums and singles under his belt, along with multiple BRIT-Award nominations, Gray has just completed his 12th album - his first in four years – and it’s a belter.

Mutineers was made in collaboration with much-talked-about producer, Andy Barlow, and it’s undoubtedly Gray’s best work in years. The musicianship on the record is superb, as are the arrangements, and his vocal performances are right out of the top drawer. Headliner catches up with him in the midst of his US tour in Dallas, Texas...

How big a decision was it to launch your own label, IHT, from the get go?
Well, I’d had a few record deals, and they hadn’t gone so well, so I don’t know how many options were open to me when I’d completed [my debut album] White Ladder. I had a strong following in Ireland, and the logical thing to do seemed to be put it out ourselves. It was certainly the most fruitful option, demystifying the process of just getting on with it and putting a record out, and obviously the rest is history, as it went very, very well. It took a while, and was a spectacular success. That’s to do with the quality of the record, but also the passion of the people working on it; you break things down to a small scale, and things begin to succeed. You realise you don’t need that many people, just the passion and intensity, and the intelligence of each person involved, so it was a small scale operation, but a key learning point for me.

How difficult is that in today's game, would you say?
I think it’s difficult for artists in any situation, established or starting out. The key for me is, I have a following, so I can play live, and live tickets sub everything else at the moment. The record business has collapsed, and ownership has become a thing of the past, and obviously revenue is withering as well, so it’s very difficult to see how this is a sustainable model. I don’t know how on earth bands can get started; clearly it can’t go on like this, and things need to be shaken up on a legal level, and the streaming services - there needs to be better remuneration for people making music. It’s nonsensical at the moment, so God knows how you’re supposed to get started. It’s just fall away, fall away, fall away, and I think this thing with U2 giving their record away to everybody in the world has been a PR disaster, and it sounds the death bell for ownership if they’re willing to such a thing. And iTunes have sort of partnered with them on it; it’s an attention grabbing thing, and they’ve succeeded in that way, but they’ve got a lot of negative attention. I don’t know what the logic to it is.

Your new record, Mutineers, is for me, your best work in years. What was it like working with Andy Barlow at The Church [Studio, North London]?
Thank you, and yeah, I totally agree that it’s got something extra. Andy was very much at the helm on Mutineers. It’s really 'our' record, and the band also played a huge part: Robbie Malone, Keith Prior, and Caroline Dale on the cello as well. Those are all the main players on this one. We recorded a little bit of it at Andy’s place down in Peacehaven near Brighton, and a couple of bits from my home studio in London, but 90% of it was recorded at The Church. It cost me a lot to make it, and there were no stones left unturned in both the sound and the essence. There was not a glib moment on any song, and there are no fillers; every second was hard work, and it was a joyous thing when it all clicked. It wasn’t an easy record to make, and when it really began to happen, you could feel the intensity, the excitement, and that moment of discovery; and I think it’s tangible on the recording. There is a real freshness there, so it’s a big record for me... And talking about things not making sense, I spent about one-and-a-half years writing stuff, and then a good year in the studio, leaning on and making this record... Now how much time and money I’ve spent on it I couldn’t even tell you, and then you come out to the marketplace and there’s very little there! [laughs] It’s not going badly, it could be better, but it’s a battle at the moment. Everything is.

I love to listen to an album front to back, but in today's easy access world, people often just download one song. Does this mean they miss the message of the record?
Yes, because the world has changed, and music is consumed in a totally different way now. It’s instant, and the idea of sitting and listening to an album is utterly outmoded, but it’s the way I still think. I choose to present the songs in a sequence that I think unravels a bit like looking at different pictures in a gallery; you see one, then you turn a corner and you see another. The juxtaposition between the imagery of one and the look of another really makes you think. The songs have inter-relationships that tie together creatively and tell stories; there is a theme, and the songs echo into other songs. It’s still the way I consider music, and I listen to albums that way. When I watch my children and other young people, the way they deal with music is completely different now; it’s much faster. It’s a bit like drinking a can of Coke... Pssshhh! I open the thing and then drink it down before the fizz goes! That’s it. Sitting and listening for an hour is unlikely to take place in today’s generation, so that’s the way it’s gone; I don’t think that means it isn’t important, but personally, I need to complete the body of work.

How has your music progressed since the days of your earlier hits, Babylon, Please Forgive Me, and This Year's Love?
I think this album is the most uplifting poppy thing I have ever done in a way, and I think my voice and writing is getting better, too. White Ladder had a certain magic to it, and I love it dearly, so I can’t put things in descending order of performance, but each record, I try to make the record that’s in my heart, and I’ve succeeded in doing that most of the time, so you know, this is right up there with the best things I’ve ever done, and trying to get it across to the world and get it heard is a battle. There’s a stampede out there... It’s hard to recapture that White Ladder momentum in today’s market, but I am out here playing and getting it out there, and that’s an honest way to get it across. It still adds up to something, but it’s a battle.

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