“You just can’t help but take it for granted. And get a bit cocky.” David Gray in conversation
“I was just upstairs in the studio.”
“You’re working on some new stuff then?”
“I am. I’m in the thick of it. We’re well into making a new record, so that’s always exciting. And the flow of that has obviously been disrupted somewhat by the fact I’ve got “The Best Of” coming out and there’s quite a lot going on around that, so I’m trying to do the two things at the same time.”
Maybe not the best start to a chat with David Gray, feeling that you’re getting in the way of new music being produced, but hey, there’s an upside “I’m really excited about the gigs, which are looking really healthy. Most of them have sold out. Some sort of connection’s really happened on this particular set of dates, so I’m excited about that and that’s starting to become more of a reality now.” The ‘Babylon’ singer has a run of stripped back acoustic shows on the horizon that are focussing on his back catalogue before any new music rears its head. So despite wanting to “ to be left to my own devices really…” while in this process the 48 year old sheds any reticence when talking about the new dates.
The shows then, they’re a bit different to how you might have seen Gray before “Some different [venues], I mean, some are the same as the last time; so The Sage in Newcastle and Colston Hall in Bristol. Really good venues, both of those. But there are some slightly smaller, more intimate listening kind of places.” And that’s important as the Sale born singer is out on his own this time, totally on his own “It’s just me solo with a grand piano and a guitar and a few effects pedals. It has to be a room that I can command in a kind of intimate way. And I think if you start trying to play bigger venues, anyway it’s a mix of things I’ve done before, but Cadogan Hall, for example, in London is perfect for what I’m going to be doing. A really sort of great listening room. And that’s a little bit different.”
Now, if you need a refresh, let’s call it a potted history of David Gray, then it doesn’t, as you might expect, start in 2000 and with ‘Babylon’. It actually started in 1993 (“I can remember what the early shows were like and all the struggle of it.”) when Gray was a pure folk singer, understated and unknown. It was White Ladder that changed everything, although that needed two releases before having the impact it had, going under the radar on initial release in 1998 before hitting number 1 on the Official UK Album Charts in 2000. Even ‘Babylon’ had two goes at it before becoming the ubiquitous smash everyone knows and loves/hates today. Two further number ones albums followed and now a huge career spanning (“I tried to represent most of the albums, apart from the first three.”) Greatest Hits album is the reason for our discussion.
Gray decided on the tracklist using his head and his heart “It’s from playing live and just from looking at my PRS statement I can see what the most successful songs are.” he laughs “So it’s not rocket science but there are certain choices I made and we tried certain things on the record and in the end we kind of kept it simple. On the deluxe edition there’s an extra CD of songs that I still treasure that I’ve picked from right across the years; that I had a big hand in picking. We had to shuffle it around a bit to get it to run right. That’s the weird thing about compiling music that spans lots of different styles and production techniques and even the sound of my voice. It’s odd sitting things next to each other, even though it’s all you. So yeah, I had a big part to play in certainly ordering the tracks and choosing which ones were going to go on, but for the main part of the “Best Of” it was fairly obvious which ones they were going to be.”
But Gray questions the very thought of a Greatest Hits or Best Of as a concept “I mean how much longer are people going to be doing a “Best Of” anyway? I think we’re approaching the end of all that, aren’t we?” And he’s already taking steps to see how things can be done differently “[Spotify] is an attempt to involve people in listening to the music, to make them think about it. You know, because it’s hugely competitive. Everyone’s playlisting everything, all the time. I think it’s just an idea to see if we could capture people's imagination, that’s the name of the game. Streaming doesn’t renumerate in a sort of sustainable way. That’s what the music industry is desperately in need of…music to be made into a valuable commodity again, and some elegant way of doing that. Whoever did the job on mineral water forty years ago, we need them for music.”
And the biggest change in 25 years of being in the business “Obviously, the fact that people don’t buy things anymore, and the knock-on effects of that. You’ve basically got a sort of incredibly poppy mainstream, and then a very rich but unfathomably huge underground, because the means of production are everybody’s and you can make to a decent standard digitally on your computer a record and put it out, you know, and people do, left, right and centre. Then it’s trying to stay on top of all that is impossible. It’s a completely different landscape.”
£10 a month for streaming all the music you could want? “It’s nothing. An infinite record collection for nothing. It’s not a workable model, but people are using it and enjoying it and people are passionately participating in it. That’s the game now. They need listeners, so what else are we going to do? You’ve got to sort of embrace this situation. I don’t see what other alternatives there really are.” The side effect of streaming and the mass commoditisation of music is how artists make and release music. Some dabble in surprise releases or free releases, some continue with the huge marketing push approach, but Gray thinks there’s another way “I could see that it might be worth putting tracks out as the year goes on next year, building to the release of the whole album. But not singles per se. ‘Smoke Without Fire’ is the first new track to come out on Spotify however many weeks ago. And we’ve had more than two million plays of that, streamed. I don’t know what all these numbers mean these days, but I know that that’s quite a lot. For a track that hasn’t had any airplay or anything."
"So the idea that we could hand music over in a certain way earlier and involve people in what’s about to happen, I like that, because the built-up tension of putting a whole album out, and all that waiting, and priming the whole thing, you finish the record, you mix the record, then you wait for the record company to tell you when it’s going to come out. “Oh no, we want to get this publication and that publication. We’re not going to go for June anymore, we’re going to go for September. Oh we’re not going to go for September, it’s too congested, we’re going to go for the beginning of October…” etc. You’ve finished the record in January. You know, you’re still waiting to go out on the road by the end of September. So all that hanging around, and wasted time or whatever. I like the idea that that doesn’t have to be there.”
For a man that’s seen success on a level that not many people get to experience, Gray is very relaxed about the peaks and troughs “Numbers, success on a certain scale, is to do with suddenly everyone climbing on board. You can’t make that moment happen again. And I’ve seen it from all sides.The early shows, the struggle of it. And I’ve been at the very top and played to massive, massive amounts of people, I’ve played sold out tours. It seemed that everything was going to be sold out forever for a while, and then that moment ends and you don’t get the radio support in some countries and you turn up and there’s a few empty seats and then the next time you haven’t got radio support again, there’s a few more spaces, and you think, I’m playing for the people who are there. The fifteen hundred people who have paid, I’m playing for them.”
Since peak-Gray, the period between 2000 and 2006, the singer-songwriter has seen less chart success “After the massive drama of all the success, I’ve seen it go up and down in different places. I’ve seen it from most angles. And the early experiences I had certainly play a part in putting it in perspective. But I think success is weird because you just can’t help but start to take it for granted. You know, and get a bit cocky. And it’s not a good look. It passes. I’ve been through all the things of being sort of angsty and bitter and edgy about the whole thing, desperate to break through and have an audience and then rather taking the whole thing for granted. So I feel like I have more balance about the whole thing.”
The recurring theme in our discussion is the importance of fans, especially in being able to play in front of them. The highlight of Gray’s rollercoaster ride is one of his biggest shows, and the rush of adrenaline is palpable as he describes the experience “There have been some pretty mad moments. One thing comes to mind, that is just playing to tens and tens of thousands of people… it can become normal, you know, but the very first time that it happened to us, me, Clune, Tim and Robbie, as was the band in 2000, the record was going nuts, and had been going nuts in Ireland for over a year at that point. So it was ahead of the curve. And in the UK we’d ‘Babylon’ had suddenly gone in at number five, the record was climbing up the charts, it was number two, number two, number three, number two, staying in the top five, top ten. Everything was going well. Ireland was where everything just sprang from, and we went over to play the Witnness Festival in the summer of 2000 and everybody pretty much in my family and friends came over for the show.”
“When we came on - we couldn’t have been bigger than that record was at that moment in Ireland - the whole festival just emptied and came to watch. I don’t know how many people it was, it felt like thirty or forty thousand people out there. But I can remember just not being quite able to breathe, and I literally could not take it all in. It was like a scene from Lord of the Rings. They weren’t just holding their lighters in the air, they were sort of melting plastic bins, whatever came to hand! It was like the battle of Helm’s Deep. When every song finished I almost needed oxygen. I remember the guitar roadie Duncan handing me guitars and I just started going “Whoa, fucking hell! Whoa!” I couldn’t quite get my head around it.”
“It’s funny when you’ve lived through all that, you normalise it by sort of pretending it’s okay, but it was and remains a stupendous moment. I couldn’t process what was in front of me. And a lot of what came after that was along those lines. It involved so many people. When I think of all the people…So it’s the whole thing is what’s still stupendous to me, that I’m lucky enough to have done all these things and to still be doing them. It blows my mind, the power of it. And the sound of people chanting, you know. Tens of thousands of people as one, it just…it’s electrifying and just thinking about it now…you know. So that’s the really crazy thing. And then there’s wacky stuff you get up to, sure. But that’s the one.”
“It meant so much to us, you know. Because all of us involved we had our own stories, albums not doing anything, record deals going to shit, you know. We all had our own stories. We’d all had a long and winding road to get there. And to be standing there with the sort of wind in our sails, that was an incredible moment. That period when we played Glastonbury, we did Top of the Pops and we did that Witnness Festival, it was just mind-blowing, it was absolutely electric.”
For the new tour though it's very different, it's just Gray "This time round, it’s the opposite, it’s about stripping away and the quiet and letting the words ring out. And I guess I am totally in the spotlight one hundred per cent of the time. It’s not just going to be belting out the obvious songs, there’s going to be another side to it as well, sort of two halves. I’m giving it a lot of thought at the moment, and I’ve built in some rehearsal time so I can go through a massive repertoire of songs and try some different ideas out as well. I’ve got a little loop pedal, so that’ll be some of the old songs getting a re-working. There’s a creative element to it, a lot of stuff is going to be sort of created anew." And that's the really fascinating thing about David Gray; he's defined, for most people, by one song but there's so much more to him and his music, and these live shows are a chance for him to just be himself.
David’s Greatest Hits album is out now and available to stream or buy from everywhere. He’ll be touring the UK in December. And his new record might be out next year. In one form or another.