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The People's Choice
In an age when hype springs eternal, DAVID GRAY is that rare phenomenon a success story scripted by the fans rather than the industry. And a distinctly Irish success story at that. A certifiable platinum-selling box-office blockbuster in this country, the Welsh singer-songwriter still awaits a similar eruption of Gray fever in Britain, Europe and America. But his latest album, White Ladder, could be the record which tells the world what Ireland already knows. Now as he prepares to wow the faithful at Galway s Big Beat festival, JOHN WALSHE presents the inside story of the best kept secret in the west. Pics Mick Quinn
John Walshe, 07 Jul 1999
When LL Cool J sang Something
Like A Phenomenon he could have been describing David Gray and Ireland s love affair with the Welsh singer-songwriter. Like Costello, MacGowan and Scott before him, Gray is a visitor who has captured not just the attention, but the heart, of music fans. His latest album, White Ladder, has gone platinum here, and has not been out of the album charts since its release last November.
Unlike most things, Gray fever didn t start on The Late Late Show, but David s Irish tryst still had its genesis in RTE, in the rather glamorous confines of No Disco.
In 1994 and 95 the impact and influence of the late night music programme (then presented by Donal Dineen) endeared David Gray, along with Kristin Hersh and American Music Club, to a generation of young Irish people starved of real, honest music, in much the same way as Vincent Hanley and MT USA brought artists like Suzanne Vega into our lives during the 80s.
But David Gray had been singing and writing music for a long time before he first graced our TV screens.
I started writing before I started playing the guitar. I was always interested in poetry and whatever, the finer things in life, he laughs, self-deprecatingly. As soon as I learned a few chords, the first thing I did was try to write songs and terrible affairs they were as well, influenced by all kinds of dubious 80s bands. The more chords I learned, the more songs I wrote. Every new chord brought a new song.
When did he realise he was any good at it?
I was a pompous little git and I suppose I had a confidence about what I was doing from the word go, he smiles. I think you ve got to be slightly arrogant about it, it s part and parcel of the creative make-up.
I remember when I was about 17, telling people in discos that I was going to make it. They d just laugh at me but I had it all planned. It never works out quite according to plan, but I was telling people then that I was going to go off and become a singer, all the classic naive things you say. Lo and behold, here I am.
Here he is, indeed. That thrusting young Welsh singer came to the attention of Rob Holden, then an A&R man for Polydor, who was so impressed that he decided to quit his work at the record company to manage David, along with Orbital. A record deal with Hut soon followed, as did Gray s debut album, A Century Ends, in 1993.
Dave Boyd, who runs Hut, is a big fan of Dave [Gray], explains Rob Holden. Everybody who was involved at Hut then was a big fan of the record but it didn t catch fire like we would have liked it to.
The album, though, was a revelation for those who heard it, possessing honesty, emotion and lyricism in spades. One commentator to be bitten by the Gray bug was Quadraphonic s Donal Scannell, then writing with Dropout magazine. What was it that attracted him to the music?
That voice, his lyrics, the melodies, enthuses Donal. By virtue of his stripped down sound, he was so powerful and so different from all the shoegazing stuff and all the indie stuff that was around at the time. David was genuinely exciting. He just arrived with this debut album, A Century Ends, that was fully formed: it was just a great album full of songs like Debauchery , Wisdom , and Shine that you didn t have to make any excuses for.
A Century Ends soon became the Dropout office soundtrack. We d play it for visitors/strays at the merest excuse, says Scannell. One of Scannell s counterparts at Dropout, Donal Dineen, also picked up on the album, which became a permanent fixture in his walkman for his train journeys up and down to Kerry/Cork, until he fell asleep on the train one day and someone nicked his walkman with the tape inside!
Dineen then started working on No Disco, and Shine and Wisdom soon found their way onto his regular playlist, spawning a tremendous reaction from around the country as letters poured into the studio, enquiring about the Welsh bard.
That was the turning point, explains Donal Scannell. The letters kept coming and after a month, we were like We have to do something about this . Jo Nestor at Virgin agreed to pay his flights over, so I booked him for this show called Plastic Orange on Network 2, Donal D. booked him for No Disco and, together with a friend called Felicity O Brien (a production person first for Macnas and then Riverdance), we organised a gig in Whelan s and a gig at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork.
For some reason we believed in him and so did Jo Nestor at Virgin, he continues, so whenever we wanted to do something and requested it from the record company, we were pushing an open door.
David himself pays tribute to Messrs Dineen and Scannell for sticking their neck out and starting the ball rolling , and he remembers those first Irish gigs really well:
It was an unforgettable evening at Whelan s. I had no idea what to expect. I remember turning up at the venue and there were loads of people in it. I remember thinking, it s one of these double-venues and I ll be in some back-room with one man and his dog. But they were like, This is your gig, Dave. These people are here to see you . Pat Ingoldsby did this big introduction thing, which was totally unexpected, and said Give him a welcome he ll never forget , and they really cheered. There were more cheers than I d ever had going off stage, and this was going onto it.
Then there was the Triskel Arts Centre, which had a tiny capacity, something like nine people, he laughs, but nevertheless, I was amazed that we d sold out a gig.
The Gray train really started to build momentum after that, with Dave returning regularly for live dates in front of increasingly rabid audiences. The Mean Fiddler s Bernadette Barrett, who began promoting his gigs in this country, was one of the first people to jump enthusiastically on board the starship Gray.
I think it started with hysteria on a small level and then grew bigger and bigger over a three-year span, she says. There was at least one tour a year, and then it just picked up. They are one of the hardest working bands I have ever worked with.
David s publicist, Martin Byrne of Friction, agrees: One of the key elements to David s success is the fact that he has always made an effort to play gigs right around the country, even to the extent that he s prepared to lose money on gigs regionally for the sake of doing regional dates. He thinks it s fair to go and play to an audience, rather than to expect an audience always to come to him. That s a huge part of what has helped his success: he respects his audience.
Incendiary live shows meant an ever-
increasing fan-base in Ireland, but David Gray s dealings with the record label did not run so smoothly. He followed up A Century Ends with 1994 s Flesh, which was a rockier affair but still filled with all the emotion, honesty and anger of his debut, (as well as the introduction of the mysterious Clune on drums). Flesh, through songs like Coming Down and New Horizons , confirmed Gray s reputation as one of the finest new songwriters around, but, like its predessor, it failed to set the world on fire commercially and Hut found themselves unable to gamble on a third album.
However, Managing Director of Hut, David Boyd, who is also head of A&R for Virgin, maintains that he was and still is a huge fan of David Gray.
I originally heard David s music from a demo and was just blown away, he recalls. It was my kind of music: emotional, heartfelt and quality, quality songs.
After Flesh, though, Boyd found himself in a predicament: I was putting David Gray records out when people were buying Nirvana. I didn t care, I just loved the music and I wasn t really that bothered about radio and all the rest of it: I just wanted to put this man s music out. I didn t have any big sales expectations for it whatsoever, but after two albums and three years on the label, it was fitting that the backdrop should change.
I did give him a fair crack of the whip and to this day I still support him. I am very proud to have those two albums on the label and to have had any association with David Gray.
It was just one of those things. People were into Oasis and all that. But then along comes Ron Sexsmith, and gets critical acclaim and record sales, whereas David didn t, and I know who I prefer.
Indeed, this goodwill is reciprocated by both David himself and his manager, Rob Holden. Boyd actually released David early from his contract so that he could sign up with EMI America, with whom he released Sell Sell Sell in 1996.
In hindsight, however, David and his band rather rushed into that deal and spent a miserable year chasing their own tails. The low point was when the company sent them into the American Midwest to prove ourselves .
Dave explains: That was soul-destroying. I ve played some tough gigs, like most people who picked up a guitar have, so no big deal there, but it was just an embarrassing shambles. The lunacy of it, you can t imagine: you d be booked into a hotel 50 miles from the gig, in a different state, when there s a hotel across the road from the venue with a vacancy sign up.
Apart from Minneapolis and Chicago, they were pointless gigs. The band were cracking up. It was absolutely crazy; you start to think this is a pointless fucking waste of time and you stop enjoying it. You can t see any saving grace by putting it down to character-building. You think, Fuck, my character s big enough what I need is to sell some records . Lay off the character, work on my bank balance.
Completely disillusioned with the whole business, Dave split with his manager (who has now returned) and made the decision not to record another album with EMI. When he had passed through two major record companies with little to show for it except critical acclaim, David admits that yes, he did consider saying fuck this for a game of dominoes and calling it a day.
I gave it some serious thought, he admits, but I couldn t see what else I was good at. I got really disenchanted after the EMI thing cos that was like: I ve released three records, I ve done fuck all, I think I might be slow on the uptake here: this is a pattern that can t go on.
With the benefit of time and success, though, David Gray can look back on this period with more detachment.
When things all go wrong, it s easy to blame the record company but the buck stops here, he says, pointing to his chest. Ultimately, the decisions you made that led you to be there are your own. That record companies are crap, insane, huge and messy non-decision making entanglements in their own right is just a fact. That s not the reason why things don t work. You ve got to make the right record.
Now it s all happened and I don t look at it with any bitterness. It was just a process I had to go through in order to get to where I am now. There were a couple of complete wankers along the way who I would like to avoid, but that s the way it is.
He does feel, however, that there are not enough people in record companies with the patience and foresight to let an artist develop.
The big problem is finding some space to nurture things, he stresses. In the brutal, commercial, music world, it s hard to get things to grow. You have to have someone with long-term vision who s going to allow a Mercury Rev or a Verve to blossom.
For David Gray, the person most
responsible for this growth was, well, David Gray. Having decided to resume the good fight, he set about recording what has become the platinum-selling White Ladder on his own IHT label.
White Ladder fused David s beautiful songs with samples and effects for the first time, to surprisingly startling effect.
I didn t think that the rockier side of things was very complementary to what my aims were with lyrics, he explains. Whereas, sampling still leaves a lot of room for the songs to lead the whole thing.
You get the odd person on the website calling me a traitor for using a sampler and we expected a lot of that, especially with something like Please Forgive Me . We thought that maybe people would hate it but it seems that most people just went for it.
White Ladder was recorded mainly in David s London home and anywhere else they could borrow for a few hours.
The mad things we had to get up to to record it, he chuckles, like borrowing people s flats and recording while someone was cleaning up or making a cup of tea in the background.
He cites the masterful cover of Soft Cell s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye , which closes the album, as a prime example.
It s an absolute miracle that it sounds so relaxed, he laughs. If only people knew how it was made: we couldn t use drums at my house so we got into this photo studio which was supposed to be vacant for two weeks.
We had everything set up, when the guy s assistant turned up and had loads of work lined up. We decided to try to work around him but he was there all the time. So we had models posing around in the background, phones going and people talking while we were doing a take. We had to do these incredible edits where mad things were happening in the background. I don t think I could do it again but we were on a roll with the whole thing, and it had to happen.
When Mark Almond was interviewed recently on Paul Power s Today FM show, Power played him David s cover of the song. The former Soft Cell singer professed himself mightily impressed, and left with a copy of White Ladder tucked under his arm.
Good on im, smiles David when I inform him of this fact. I was bang into that Soft Cell album it came off, all those weird songs about dwarves and all.
I wondered if while he was recording it, David foresaw the future success of White Ladder?
We thought it was really good but when you re making music you have to think like that, otherwise you wouldn t bother, he confesses. We knew we were making something that was more commercial, and I mean that in a good way. I think that was because we had mastered the recording process a lot more. The songs seemed to be holding it all up, rather than my driving it with some mad, passionate performance. I got a bit more laid-back about it and let the music do the work. I had a good feeling about it and the whole way it was built out of human rather than financial endeavour.
Upon the release of White Ladder last November, Dave and band undertook a countrywide tour which meant that his music reached as wide an audience as possible.
Janine Nallen, Distribution Manager with Grapevine, who handled White Ladder, feels this had a lot to do with the album s ultimate success: That tour helped an awful lot and the album continued to grow after that. But it s a brilliant album, and that s the main thing we look at, she says. This is an album that will continue to grow and I think it ll still be a big hit this Christmas.
Janine admits that getting shops to stock independent albums isn t always easy: With something new from an unknown artist, it can be quite difficult. But David had sold a few thousand of each of his previous albums, so there was a basis to work from with the retailers, and they had confidence in him and his selling potential.
David s potential in Ireland has finally been realised, with two sell-out shows in the Olympia in March, followed by a headline appearance at The Trinity Ball. White Ladder has gone platinum and continues to sell well. At the time of going to press, the album is still in the Irish Top 20. This summer, David is playing at the Fleadh in Finsbury Park on July 10th, and is headlining the Big Beat Weekend in Galway on Sunday, July 11th.
That s gonna be great, he says. We haven t done many gigs in Ireland this year so hopefully everyone will march down there, the hordes, and we re really looking forward to that.
With this record it s as if we ve swung from cult status to the mainstream, which seems quite dramatic from where I m standing. Suddenly, we re selling a lot more records and there are people in 2FM playing the tracks, which has never happened before.
From not being in the charts, being there is a pleasant change. It s weird, because we ve been stuck over in England throughout the whole thing, and you just get a phonecall telling you you re in the charts and you re selling lots of records. I ve always believed that if we were given a bit more exposure it would take off, and it s the right record for it to have happened with. It s given us the confidence that next time we can take our sound a bit further.
His manager agrees: Unless the people in Ireland are completely different to anywhere else in the world, once people are exposed to the music, either by being able to play shows there or getting played on the radio, they will buy it. That s always the problem, getting some attention.
So is White Ladder the beginning of a new era?
The whole thing was a new way of working for me, David admits. I had to open up to other people, not just in music but in life as well. I d been the solo artist in angst , not making it and failing all around the world [laughs]. I had to get more people involved and lighten up about the whole thing. Other people s ideas came in right from a song s inception, and the songs all took shape from the atmosphere and from people working in tandem.
His next release, however, is likely to be a Nebraska-esque collection of mainly acoustic songs, which were written before White Ladder.
I ve got a backlog of a couple of albums worth of songs, and I think I m going to record some of them, cos if I don t they ll just fade away, he says. I want to make an acoustic record just to get the songs out, and that ll give us some breathing space before the follow-up to White Ladder.
In an age when hype springs eternal, David Gray is that rare thing an artist borne aloft by the fans rather than the business. Gray, truly, is the People s choice.
David Gray fans love the fact that he s their thing, that they heard about him from a mate, found the albums and know every word, notes Donal Scannell. They go to a gig and then there s a really charismatic guy on stage playing these heartfelt songs and then having a laugh between songs. Sometimes I think the fans take it more seriously than anyone I keep expecting them to sshh Clune when he goes off on one of his rambles.
David himself is quite proud of the fact that it is word of mouth rather than big budgets, which has fuelled his success.
We have never taken an advert out or done a poster campaign, and on this record that s cos we can t afford to, he smiles. There s lots of ways of building things to a certain size: you can pump them full of helium and float them for a while, but it goes down quite quickly. This is a gradual process, more like the forming of sedimentary rock [chuckles].
When people discover something for themselves, it has more personal value. It s not just something they ve been force-fed and that s very much how it s built for me. It puts you on a more solid foundation.
He admits that the personal nature of his songs and the intensity of his live performance have attracted some rather over-earnest individuals, or Grayites as he smilingly refers to them.
I attract a disproportionate amount of nutters, he laughs. It doesn t surprise me. I can t really complain because I do this heart-on-the-sleeve, passionate thing. There s not that many people bandying that sort of stuff around, so it s like a moth to a flame.
His website has been a focal point for much of this over-zealous fan-mail.
They re very flattering, he admits. But it s unbelievable that some people go into so much detail. It s like On the third gig, he wasn t quite as good . It s called a tour, he laughs. Ever heard of a hangover?
The smiling, and rather wholesome David Gray before me today is a far cry from the feisty, wilful singer-on-a-mission of his early days. Has he left the angry young man behind?
He seems to have mellowed, the angry young fella, smiles David fondly, as if remembering an old friend. I listen back to the old records and I m always astounded cos I sound so fucked off about things. I ve a few songs written in a ranty vein, so the angry man is still lurking in the shadows, but he s not so young any more.
If he needs any help resurrecting the fury of yesteryear, David could do worse than look at the apathy with which he has been greeted across the water. The Good Ship Gray has been a particularly Irish success story, that has yet to translate to the rest of the world. The UK, in particular, has proved a hard nut to crack.
I ve always believed that Dave would have a hard time of it in England, opines Donal Scannell. He s too passionate, too innocent. But 1999 has seen a surge of interest there Dave has started selling out venues in England, especially in London, which is amazing.
I think that Dave isn t trendy enough for the fickle British media and they didn t discover him it was a bunch of thick Paddies. It will take a while for Dave to take a firm hold in England but if he sticks to his guns, he will.
America, too, is looking up for the Welsh troubador, who has a strong fanbase in LA and New York particularly, and Scannell also believes that Europe will follow Ireland s lead into a new dawn of Grayism.
I think that Dave will do really well in countries like France and Spain, where they re really passionate about their music and they take time to listen countries that are always miles ahead of the UK and the US in terms of breaking good acts, he observes.
Babylon , the second single from White Ladder gets its Irish and UK release on July 2nd. I asked David whether he felt this could be the song to break the mould in England.
Every time we put something out, I ve got high hopes but they re kind of tempered by my track record in league division UK, he sighs. We re still nestling down at the relegation end of the league table. There are a few people who have been supportive in a low-key sort of way but there are no real flag-wavers and it doesn t really amount to an assault on the British public.
In Ireland, if you go there and do a good show, everybody knows about it, opines manager Rob Holden. You can do a blinding show in London and nobody notices, apart from the few people who were there, unless you can construct all the apparatus around it.
Mean Fiddler promoter, Bernadette Barrett, so instrumental in David s development in Ireland, is planning on replicating that success across the water, where she now works. Certainly, David feels he played his best ever English shows this year.
We sold out The Garage in London, which holds 600 people, and we were surprised by that, he notes, before chortling. But I think the fact that 500 had come from Dublin might have had something to do with it.
We really sense that we can do well there in the same way we ve done well here. I m hoping that the Babylon single will have a magical effect but I m not holding my breath.
How weird is it to go from a sell-out show in the Olympia to playing half-full venues in the UK?
I ve been playing to half-full venues for years and the fact that they re half-full is actually an improvement, he smiles. We prepared ourselves for a massive downer the night after the last Olympia show, when we played at somewhere like The Fleece and Firkin in Bristol. We had this psychological armour on, but it was a really good gig.
I get just as strong a sense of satisfaction from a gig to 50 people who are on the fence. Turning them round and getting them going mad for it is just as exciting as playing to 1,600 rabid fans who are going to shout and scream all you ve got to do is enjoy it and they ll enjoy it with you.
Grinding out the results gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction, cos I know there s a lot more of that to come and our strength always revolves around us playing live. I m up for the challenge. n
David Gray headlines the Big Beat Weekend in Galway on Sunday,