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Confessions of a hitman
Sharp suits, a global fan base, his own luxury recording studio - David Gray has certainly come a long way. On the eve of the release of his latest album, he talks about the dark side of success and explains why he wants to leave the singer-songwriter tag behind
Ed Power, 31 Aug 2005
A short, rather sheepish man shuffles into the room, staring at his shoes. He looks, vaguely, like David Gray, the bashful underdog who broke your heart when he sold six million albums and tumbled into the embrace of the dinner-party set.
It is David Gray, of course. But not as you remember him. His suit – shimmering and bespoke – wouldn’t appear out of place in a millionaires’ club. Gray seems plumper and more contented; those old worry lines, that hunted expression, have melted away. He speaks with the understated confidence of a person used to being listened to.
David Gray is nowadays a rock star – White Ladder, his breakthrough record, spent four years camped in the higher reaches of the charts – and he’s learning how to conduct himself as one. You detect no trace of the down-at-heel outsider who, for nearly a decade, was feted in Ireland and mostly ignored everywhere else.
“The new LP, I’m happy with. Very happy with. Excited actually,” he says of forthcoming album, Life In Slow Motion, before I’ve even managed to get a question out.
“There’s been this thing, where people say I’m supposed to be a middle of the road rock star. And I don’t care about that. But they won’t be able to say it about this record.”
He pauses, and meets my gaze for the first time. The eyes are a little glazed. Next question, reporter guy.
His embrace of superstar convention runs deeper than slick patter. Last year, Gray indulged himself, splashing out on a luxury recording studio in an expensive stretch of north London.
Once the high-kitsch demesne of Dave Stewart (Eurythmics cut ‘Sweet Dreams’ here), the Chapel is a labyrinthine church conversion, secreted away in drowsy Crouch End.
A strange mix of scruffy charm and gleaming ostentation, the place offers an irresistible metaphor for Gray’s career.
Downstairs, all is glum and ramshackle; in the kitchen, tea bags fester by the sink; there are empty beer bottles strewn about. These are the sort of surroundings a heartfelt singer, with a clutch of loyal fans but no record deal, might feel comfortable in.
Upstairs, where Gray is holding court, looks as if Terence Conran has just unloaded a van of designer frippery. Burnished mahogany and plush wool pile are evidently enjoying a comeback among the taste-makers. When one of Gray’s assistants asks if you’d like a cup of tea, you instinctively decline, fearful of the damage you might cause if you spilled any.
The Chapel has a history, though Gray doesn’t appear especially engaged by it. This was the studio in which Radiohead finished OK Computer and Blur began the recording of Modern Life Is Rubbish. There are rumours, possibly untrue, of Dylan, Jagger, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrision embarking on a late night jam here in the early ‘70s
During their pomp, the Eurhythmics lost the run of themselves sightly at The Chapel. Stewart’s hereditary tartan bedecks the hallway; he and Lennox installed a ‘throne room’ in the back, ostensibly for ‘chilling out’ whenever their inspiration dried up.
“Dave’s throne was still here when I bought the place,” says Gray, tittering. “I know because it had ‘Dave’ written on the back. For some reason he took it with him. I don’t know what happened to Annie Lennox’s throne.”
He bought the The Chapel because, in order to evolve musically, he required, he says, a larger creative space. After the success of White Ladder – originally self-released, it is the biggest selling album of all time in Ireland and, in the past five years, second only to Dido’s No Angel in Britain – he felt adrift, cut off from the emotions that once he had poured into song.
Three years ago, the feeling that things were lurching beyond control reached a tipping point in the form of A New Day At Midnight, the follow-up to White Ladder and a record with which Gray is clearly dissatisfied.
“By that stage the tail – by which I mean White Ladder – had started to wag the dog,” he says. “It was taking me places, and I didn’t seem to have much of a say about it.”
Assembled between arena tours, A New Day At Midnight sought to reconcile Gray’s desire to evolve artistically and his public’s hunger for another White Ladder. It felt a clumsy compromise.
“People expected more of the same, which I didn’t necessarily want to give them,” Gray says. “At the same time, my father was unwell (he died of cancer before the album was finished), so I was in a strange place mentally. The situation was hardly ideal when you’re trying to follow a record that’s been such an enormous success.”
Gray is slow to completely dismiss A New Day At Midnight (which notched up sales of over a million). You sense it is the circumstances in which it was recorded, rather than the album itself, which hold uncomfortable memories. The Chapel represents an attempt to leave that “crazy time” behind.
“At first, I did find it hard to come to terms with how big I’d become,” he confesses. “We were doing these huge venues that I had absolutely no interest in playing. And they kept on getting bigger. Bigger and bigger. A few times, I asked whether we really had to play them. The answer I got was that, if we could fill them, we should play them. Nothing was straightforward anymore.”
The singer’s new fans were not necessarily of his choosing, either. Gray has lost count of how often he’s encountered his songs in supermarkets or blaring from a hairdresser’s window. Middle-management types, he admits, are rather fond of White Ladder. Builders love it too. Sting might be embarrassed at such an audience.
As he courted drive-time ubiquity, the English music press took to calling him him ‘Gray David’.
“Sometimes I have thought it would be nice to be seen as being a little bit cooler. However, I’ve never allowed it get to me and I certainly wouldn’t court that type of image,” he says. “ I’m never going to give it the time or the energy. When all’s said and done, does it really matter? I’m never going to be David Bowie or Iggy Pop. I’m never going to be an icon. I’m a pretty regular bloke: all I’ve got to speak for me is my music.”
Gray would never wish to return to the toilet-circuit, flogging records from a stall at the backs of venues. Nonetheless, Life In Slow Motion, embodies a desire to swim in more avant-garde waters.
While not as mould breaking as Gray appears to believe (he claims you can detect the influence of Sigur Ros: you can’t), the album is a satisfyingly challenging listen, far removed from the dishwater earnestness with which he has grown synonymous.
“It’s very much the start of the second act of my career,” he says, coming alive for the first time. “Most of the songs on the album were written with the band. There was a lot of experimentation with the recording. We went off on tangents, we jammed, and we worked with the sound.”
More than anything, Gray hopes to step outside of himself as a composer. Around the time of A New Day At Midnight, he’d begun to detect quirks of style in his writing; he was sick of sounding like David Gray. With Life In Slow Motion, the singer is determined to leave behind some of the familiar tropes of his craft. For the first time, perhaps, here is a David Gray album that attempts to catch the listener unawares.
This is most obvious in the project’s lyrical ambivalence. The confessional directness of White Ladder and A New Day At Midnight has been purged; instead Gray evokes non-corporeal imagery – “a cinematic sensibility,” he says – that takes its cues from the sonic rush of the music.
What results is an album that aches to become lost in itself. It reaches towards a catharsis, and, though Gray never really transcends himself, it is fascinating to hear the singer investigating the boundaries of his talent, imploring the walls to come crashing down.
“There are a lot of things I cannot change,” he says. “I will always sing the way I sing. My songs are going to have a certain structure, which I can’t help falling into. But, in that context, I do want to do things differently.”
The shift of emphasis was prompted partly by the exhaustive schedule that came in White Ladder’s wake. Some songs of that era, Gray is reluctant to perform today. He finds it hard to listen to (let alone play) ‘Babylon’, the single that helped break the record outside of Ireland.
“That song, in particular, became lost to me,” he reveals. “You perform something so many times and you start to forget why it mattered to you in the first place. The feelings behind it fade. And then there’s just this mechanical process left. When you lose the ability to be excited about something, it’s time to hold your hands up and walk away from it. “
You get the feeling that Gray is quietly appalled at the vogue for pasteurised singer-songwriters, which White Ladder helped nurture. Although slow to dismiss artists such as James Blunt, David Kitt or Damien Rice, his lack of affinity towards them is obvious.
“Right now, I don’t regard myself as a singer-songwriter,” he says, “I think I’ve been there and done that. At the moment, I have no interest in going back to it. And to be honest, I’ve never understood this tendency to lump different artists together just because they happen to be solo artists or play guitar or whatever.”
Nor will he claim credit for the Irish bands that took inspiration from his DIY route to the A-list.
“I don’t think I’ve inspired anyone in Ireland,” sniffs Gray. “Journalists ask if my success helped The Frames. What’s that about? I’m sure they’d still be doing all right, regardless of how many copies White Ladder has shifted.”
The producer of Life In Slow Motion was Marius de Vries, a left-field presence who has overseen records by Bjork and Rufus Wainwright. Gray credits him with what he says is the album’s unorthodox nuances. Under de Vries’ tutelage, the singer learned to use the recording studio to experiment, contorting the material into unexpected shapes.
“Marius was great,” he says. “I’ve always been a bit afraid of the studio, hamstrung by my inadequacies, but I’ve lost that fear completely. By involving a producer and working on a larger scale, putting in the hours and paying attention to detail, the realms of the possible are exploding. I think this record reflects that. It has an expansive feel but it is also relaxed. There’s no sort of edginess or unease.”
De Vries convinced Gray that artistic fidelity and hard slog are not incompatible. Because he came to the studio without any finished songs, most of Life In Slow Motion was hammered out in jams with his band. In the past, Gray would have been aghast at such an approach. Now, he relishes the chaos.
“As a creative person,” says Gray, “you tend to believe that the ‘X’ factor, that little spark, is a spontaneous thing, that it’s there one minute and gone the next and if you don’t capture it, then you’re too late. Marius showed me that, often, it’s just about hard work. You can play a song three nights in a row, and, the first two times, it can be crap. On the third time, it can be great. You’ve just got to keep at it.”
The experimental instincts that underpin Life In Slow Motion will, Gray believes, become fully fleshed out with a return to live performance (a show at Dublin’s Olympia next month sold out in less than five minutes). During rehearsals Gray has encouraged his band to improvise, to push songs into weird new spaces, to wreak carefully calibrated havoc.
“The way I see it, these songs are just a spring board,” he elaborates. “It’s a palette of sounds which we can pick and chose from. We might go off in any of a number of directions. They’re loose songs. That’s the way we wrote them. That’s why we wrote them.”
Later that evening, Gray plays Life In Slow Motion in its entirely, at a showcase in The Chapel’s vaulted studio space. Fans would hock vital organs for the privilege of being here; most of the industry types making up the guest-list appear, at best, luke-warm towards Gray.
Women in expensive frocks flutter about, throwing extravagant air-kisses; blokes with Nathan Barley haircuts are nattering about Dizzie Rascal. You wouldn’t wish such an audience on your worst enemy – or even upon James Blunt.
“Welcome to ‘meet the album,’” mutters Gray, glaring habitually at his brogues. The drummer clicks his sticks, Gray clutches his guitar and, head swaying in that familiar, much-lampooned fashion, starts to sing.
Eye squeezed tight, he seems adrift in the moment. Maybe, he’s thinking back, remembering a time when his suit was shoddier and people came to his gigs because the songs meant something to them. Perhaps Gray is dreaming he’s in Babylon once again.