Cover Story: The Graying of America

The Welsh singer/songwriter finds that the fourth time's the charm

Apr 12, 2001 at 2:06 pm
"There's no better opinion than from 2,000 screaming mainacs"

David Gray's story boils down to a tale of two laughs. His laugh last year was weary with the cynicism of someone who's been subjected to the worst vagaries of the business end of artistic endeavor. It was a hollow and resigned cough that emanated from the hole where a small chunk of Gray's soul had once existed before being extracted with the music industry's dull gardening tools.

This year is a different story entirely. Gray sports the joyfully giddy laugh of someone who's triumphed over the buffoons who would inadvertently derail his career. This is a heartfelt and restorative laugh that proves just how successful Gray has been in reclaiming the portion of his psyche that the business had mutilated and removed.

After eight long and often desultory years in the industry, David Gray's infectious laugh has the potential for being the last one with the towering success of his fourth album, White Ladder.

"The day we played the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival was the day that the single ('Babylon') went in at No. 5 on the British charts," says Gray from his London apartment on the eve of yet another massive American tour, which is slated for a sold-out stop at the Taft Theatre Tuesday. "We also met David Bowie, and were having a chat with him. Plus all our family and friends were there.

That was amazing. It took about a week to calm down, if in fact I did."

For the past year, Gray's astonishing success with White Ladder has been so consistently overwhelming as to be completely unfamiliar territory for him to navigate. His previous failures gave him little hope that this one would be much different.

"It just kept confounding my expectations," says Gray on the album's success. "I thought, 'Great, hopefully we'll sell a few.' The next thing, it's No. 2 on the British charts and it's sold 70,000 in a week. Christ, that's more than I've sold in my entire career. It stayed in the Top 10 for about six months over here, then it started to do well in the States.

"I had to throw all my ideas out the window and just surrender to what's happened. It took a sort of miraculous arrogance to imagine that I was going to sell millions of copies of something I'd made in my bedroom, when I'd previously sold about 15 copies of the previous three."

Career crossroads
Less than a year ago, Gray had resigned himself to a life and career as a cult artist. With a less than sterling résumé peppered with three albums, three record labels and three terminated contracts, it was difficult for Gray to get too excited about his fourth album, as satisfied as he was with the results.

The self-released White Ladder did well in Ireland at first, but his other three releases had moved impressive numbers there while stiffening in the rest of the world, so it was a Pyrrhic victory at best for Gray.

Listening to the brilliant and rhythmic ebb and flow of White Ladder, one could scarcely imagine that the Welsh Folk/Pop singer/songwriter was seriously contemplating the end of his musical career. Although Gray finds the humor in it when he tells the story now, it's obvious the album might have been one bad break away from never getting recorded.

"I came to a crossroads when I had released three albums to no great effect, really, and everything had gone disastrously wrong with all three companies," Gray says in retrospect. "You have to entertain not doing it at a certain point to find out how much you want to do it. It wasn't like I seriously thought about hanging up my guitar, but I did start to think that maybe I'm a bit slow to catch on, and I should be doing something else for work. As soon as I really got down to it and thought about it, I realized, no, I had to just get on with the music. I had to give more to what I was doing, to come back to it again, but this time give it absolutely everything.

"When you're in a record contract, you start thinking in terms of record sales and album commitments, and you start using the lingo. And it's bullshit. It's music. I just had to bring it down to the bare essentials and do what I do."

What Gray does infinitely well is write songs, play them and make albums. Born in Manchester and raised in Wales, Gray shouted it out with a few Punk bands as a teen-ager, but ultimately found his angry Folk songwriting voice during his college stint at the University of Liverpool.

In 1993, he released his debut album, the critically acclaimed A Century Ends, and embarked on a career marked by great notices and unimpressive unit sales. Flesh in 1994 and Sell Sell Sell in 1996 followed suit, earning slots on critics' annual Top 10 lists, but ultimately failing at retail. For the third time in three tries, Gray found himself without a label deal.

With no official backing and working with donations from sympathetic industry insiders, Gray recorded the material for the sonically divergent White Ladder at home in his London apartment with his gifted multi-instrumental collaborator Clune. ("He is Clune and Clune only," Gray says. "Like Cher or Madonna. He has a very similar temperament, actually, but I think he has worse body odor than they do.")

The album was then self-released in Ireland, where Gray has traditionally done well, in early 1999. The initial buzz was good, but the going was slow simply because there were no corporate types shilling it at every opportunity.

"There were no contracts around," says Gray. "No one wanted to touch it with a barge pole. When you've had three major record deals and nothing's happened, you're hard-pushed to get a fourth. We didn't know what we were going to do with it; we just knew we had to do it. And we got some music in a film, This Year's Love, which was quite successful in England. So the money from that went into making the record.

"We scrounged around different fans in the industry and they gave us little handouts. We made it for next to nothing. You can do it for next to nothing these days, I think."

There's no denying that Gray's intense period of soul-searching and stock-taking helped to energize everyone that touched the project, especially Gray himself.

"Yeah, I was definitely reborn, I think," he says with candor. "Also because we turned the corner as far as the sound went. I was using Clune to collaborate with, so things had a different feel. I wasn't sitting alone in a dark room with my guitar, weaving tales of misery. I was having a bit of a laugh, really — heaven forbid — with Clune, and we were using samples and drum machines and it was really exciting, yet it was working."

With Gray and Clune concocting new songs within a totally different framework than the one that had characterized Gray's first three releases, the realization began to sink in that the pair were closing in on the intangible thing they'd been seeking when the concept of doing the album on their own had presented itself.

Without the inevitable label interference dictating how Gray should sound, Gray finally began shaping a real sonic presence. His distinct sonic presence.

"With Clune experimenting, over quite a long period of time, with a new sort of sound, and working at home with Clune in a different way, and suddenly realizing that it was working," says Gray of the genesis of White Ladder's sonic possibilities. "We didn't have much equipment, but we just thought the sound we were making sounded like us. It didn't sound like another band in a studio, so we decided to stick with it. When Lestyn, who was the programmer and sort of engineer, got involved, he was the vital third component. He knew how to use the sampler properly. We didn't have a clue.

"We realized we had the makings of a record. A homemade one, but it had its own sound, which I thought was a good thing. That and wanting to put my newfound enthusiasm into songs, those were sort of the beginnings of it really."

'Ladder' to success
Momentum began to build in Ireland, and soon White Ladder was in the Top 20, eventually racking up enough unit sales to earn Gray quintuple-platinum honors. For Gray, it was at least a small measure of vindication that his hunches about the songs and the recording had been right.

"More man hours and care and attention went into the White Ladder record than any of my other recordings put together," Gray notes. "We had the time to dwell on things at home. We had some really good tracks that never made it, but we didn't want anything on the record that wasn't going to work. We would weed them out until we had an album that sat together as one long continuous whole.

"It's a mood, it has a consistency. Like my favorite records, they work from beginning to end, and that's what we were attempting. The spirit behind it was phenomenal, really. You can spot it a mile off."

With White Ladder doing well in Ireland, Gray turned his sights on America. As he began the process of looking for a label to handle White Ladder's distribution here, he came to the attention of Dave Matthews, who was contemplating putting together his own record label. Matthews had been a fan of Gray's since the very first album and vigorously pursued Gray, eventually making him the first signing to his ATO (According to Our) Records, which distributed White Ladder in the U.S.

Gray knows just how lucky he is to be enjoying the success of White Ladder, and he's characteristically philosophical about its place in the world and why it took three albums to make the changes necessary to produce this work.

"It took me that long to make a record that worked for me, that was so right, that there were no holes," he says. "There's always been problems there. I've attempted things and some of them have come off on my previous records and some haven't. They've been slightly patchy.

"It's a complicated thing, recording an album, and I've never been able to stomach being produced, with some sort of gloss being put on it or someone's certain style. I couldn't accept that, so I stubbornly stuck it out and made my own miserable failures and had my own minor successes, to the point where we made this record ourselves, and we got it right, based on our hunches about how we should be doing things. I realized my own limitations, and how much I needed other people, and how much the music needs the oxygen of other people's opinions and input so badly."

Following up
With White Ladder still doing phenomenal worldwide business, Gray is preparing for yet another long stretch of touring. His spring stint will keep him in America, while festivals here and abroad will dominate the summer months.

When his schedule finally opens up in the fall, Gray will take the opportunity to hit the studio and begin work on the follow-up to White Ladder. Many artists would find that a daunting task, considering the circumstances, but Gray is typically low-key about the new album's possibilities.

"There's a sort of hunger and appetite for making more music, but without the shadowy doubt that was there before," he says with a laugh. "We just want to sock it to them. A lot of the new material is sort of up, which is a new direction for me. Rather than question that, we'll probably just go with that. But we'll see.

"It's a bit early to say, really, because we've only demoed about half the ideas I've written so far, and we haven't had a chance to properly develop them. The effect of the success will be a big one, but I don't think that we'll fall into that trap of thinking about it all too much. I think we'll just do it and enjoy it, the same as we did on White Ladder. You can't think about it too seriously, you know. 'I must speak to the converted.' You're not supposed to be thinking about that."

This leg of the White Ladder tour could feature up to eight new songs that Gray is contemplating as additions to the set list. While he recognizes how risky it can be to add new material when some fans might be seeing him for the first time on the basis of White Ladder alone, Gray has some prior experience to guide his decision to fold in new songs.

"There's going to be at least half a dozen, maybe even seven or eight," says Gray of his new songs. "Whether they'll all be played each night is another story, but we'll be bringing them to sort of freshen up the set. It's the dawning of a new era, and stepping into the next phase a bit. It's sort of like pre-production for the next album in a way."

As to the nature of the new songs and Gray's satisfaction with his freshly minted songs, he won't pin himself down with any self-analysis on one over another. He insists that a much higher jury exists for that task.

"I'm obviously fond of all of them, but I will literally wait and see how the audience takes to them," says Gray. "You never quite know. I remember doing 'Babylon' years and years ago, when I'd just written it. I did it in a very simple way, but it had such a massive effect on the audience from the very first time we ever played it. A song they'd never heard before. We played it in Ireland on a couple of shows, and it went down like a storm. We thought, 'We've got something here.'

"You never really know until you get an objective opinion, and there's no better objective opinion than from 2,000 screaming maniacs."

Making adjustments
It could easily be this time next year before Gray's new album is available, but fans won't have to wait that long to hear something new from him. On April 17, ATO will release Lost Songs '95-'98, a collection of tracks that Gray wrote after the completion of Sell Sell Sell in 1995 until just prior to the writing of White Ladder in 1998.

The album has been available for months as an import, and Gray has been doing songs from the set since late last year.

"That was just a little record for the fans, really," he says. "I had this load of material, and I thought I should have a stab at just recording this in the simplest way possible, just to make some kind of record of it. Otherwise, you'd just end up with a disparate collection of home recordings and live takes of things, and I kind of wanted to pull all the material together. I got the band together, and we went in the studio for a week, and we recorded it and mixed it in no time at all. Just live, sort of old-style.

"It's very understated and in no way a commercial follow-up to White Ladder. Quite the contrary. It's very mellow, very sparse, very melancholic."

With the sustained success of White Ladder, which remains a constant source of amazement and bewilderment to Gray, and the imminent wide release of Lost Songs, it's likely quite difficult to even begin thinking about a new album. As strange as the circumstances and results seem to be, Gray has developed some new coping mechanisms to deal with his new concerns.

"It's amazing how quickly you adjust," he says. "Now when a single comes out over here, I'm really disappointed when it doesn't reach the Top 20. How times have changed."

Just as potent a change for Gray has been the handful of times that he's left his band behind to do some solo acoustic dates, something that was necessary early in his career.

"It's weird, because it was how I started out, and it was really strange going back to it," says Gray. "Great in a certain way, because you have a total freedom, but I realized how much I'd changed. I've adapted to having a band, and it was weird not having them around. It takes a little while to get back into that whole standing-on-your-own thing."

David Gray knows full well the incredible and precarious place he occupies right now in the musical food chain, and he's not taking any of it for granted. At least one of his previous three albums, Sell Sell Sell, has been re-released — "Generally, these people smell money when it's there to be smelled," he says — and the others will likely follow in the wake of his suddenly raised profile.

Gray is legitimately enjoying every single moment of the stunning spike in his popularity, and yet he continues along the path he was pursuing last year, before the huge response to White Ladder, which is to say he's not taking any of it too seriously, particularly the fact that his shows have become the hottest ticket in every market he plays.

"That seems to happen with most of them," says Gray with that uncharacteristically mirthful laugh. "I've been amazed with the way tickets have sold. Shows have been selling out all over — Boston and two nights in San Francisco took like 20 minutes. We're just blown away.

"When you hear that kind of thing, that brings it home more than anything. We're entering into a real cauldron of expectation, and there's going to be a real buzz in the air. Nothing makes you feel better than that."

DAVID GRAY plays the Taft Theatre on Tuesday. The show is sold out.