- 12 Jun 19
To celebrate the singer-songwriter's 51st birthday, we're revisiting his classic interview with Lorraine Freeney, originally published in Hot Press in 1993. Seven years later, Gray's breakout album, White Ladder, would enjoy a six-week run at the top of the Irish charts - eventually going 23 times platinum and becoming the best-selling album of all time in Ireland.
“That picture makes me looks like a . . .” David Gray pauses, gazing out the window of the Clarence Hotel at a poster in the street below, announcing last night’s Whelan's gig. He’s searching for just the right word to describe the earnest face staring intently back at him.
A seer, perhaps? An angry young man wielding the Guitar Of Truth, desperate to share his knowledge of life with us? A spokesman for a generation?
“A convict,” he finishes.
Yup, that’s it. He definitely looks like a convict.
“I’m surprised they let me into the country,” he continues, “and I’m amazed that anyone came to the concert.”
But they did, packing the place, making the floor tremble when they stomped for encores. And most of them came because they’d seen his videos on No Disco, and recognised something refreshingly honest and enthralling and, inevitably, fell in love with that growling, exhilarating voice.
“Where did they all come from?” he says incredulously. “I expect indifference, and when you don’t get it, when you get the opposite, it’s amazing. To go somewhere you’ve never been and have a really fantastic gig, much better than where you’ve lived all your life – I’d no idea what it was going to be like here. Maybe it’s something I’ll get used to.”
Since David Gray released his Hut debut A Century Ends last April, he’s also had to get used to the kind of frantic pigeon-holing (The Welsh Mike Scott! The 90s Bob Dylan! Mark Eitzel with less hair! etc.) and hyperbole that dog any new, vaguely original artist. Then there’s all the assumptions that he, being of the singer/songwriter breed, must be a lovelorn, angsty social misfit who can’t wait to leave a gig to get back to his condemned bedsit and a tin of cold baked beans.
“I find any of those artist myths annoying, be they about James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, I don’t care who,” he shrugs. “Maybe they were wacko. I don’t believe it. You create your own mystique once you’re in that position, or rather, other people do it for you. There’s this whole mystique industry, making people introverted and soul-searching, and it’s a load of shite.
“Any human being is soul searching, it’s just that not all of them can sing. I’m lucky enough to have a gift, and to be able to add to the mysticism, to frame it, and maybe shine a light on something through it for other people, and that’s as far as it goes. That doesn’t make me a weird individual.”
No weirder than anyone else, anyway.
“Well yeah, human beings are probably much more interesting than they’re given credit for. It’s actually quite a fascistic tendency within the industry. What happens is that an endless production line of next big things are mystified, and the rest of the population are given zero credit as far as being mystical is concerned. When do you actually open the paper and read about old Tom who used to sit on the corner and actually had some fantastic stories to tell, and is probably twenty times more interesting and experienced than some young idiot who’s just started a band, sold ten thousand records and actually knows fuck all about anything?
“That was the beginning of a tirade,” he stops suddenly, laughing. “I can’t go on. I’m tiraded out.”
David Gray’s honesty, both in his songs and in person, is refreshing. God, how refreshing. He is a one-man bullshit-free zone, talking about the thrills and bellyaches he’s experiencing with the second album, the minor squabbles with the record company, who have expressed doubts about the new material, the self-doubt experienced when he booked eight days in the studio in December after months of touring, “which was a stupid thing to do, because I was really tired. For some reason I had impressed upon myself that haste was all important, that the LP must be finished by the first of January. Eight days is a long time for me to be playing music live.
“The first couple of days were good, but then I lost the edge, and lost my objective opinion. I’ve had a month of being freaked out, so it’s going to be a real shot in the arm to do these gigs here, just to remind me what it is I do.”
What he does is tell it like it is, whether he’s singing about the disintegration of a relationship on ‘Shine’ (“I can see in your eyes what I know in my heart is true/That our love it has faded like the summer run though”) or the joys of lust on ‘Debauchery’, now five years old but still a live favourite, or the starker realities of ‘Wisdom’ or ‘A Century Ends’.
“I don’t want to preach in the songs, I don’t think I do that, but it’s like rebuilding or shaping your own morals. I’ve realised that I’m not breaking something down anymore. The whole punk ethic, and the ethic of the youth for the last fifty years has been to destroy the rigid structure of hypocrisy, be it parental or social, and break down the barriers. Maybe those barriers are still in place, but the fabric of society is pretty dishevelled looking now, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“But in this time of total chaos, when capitalism is just running rampant still, and all other ideologies seem to have ceased, I seem to be trying to build my own moral code. And I think that’s one of the most difficult things to do. My songs have to head towards something, and I think they head towards being positive. You have to have your roots in the quagmire, because that is what reality is, you have to. . .
“I’m sounding so profound and naff,” he laughs apologetically, “but you have to understand the sorrow of what is going on. I’m just Mr Lucky, I don’t have much contact with it now. Especially now I’ve got a record deal, I’m insulated, because that’s what the music industry does to you.”
That insulation from the real, messy world can be dangerous.
“I think it is,” he agrees. “I’m just coming to realise now that I’ve created a certain amount of stock material from a certain period, and all I’ve been doing for the last couple of years is playing music, apart from personal things like getting married – my relationship has fuelled a certain amount of songs.
“I have to absorb something new and go somewhere new. That’s one of the reasons people don’t continue very long in the music business. They haven’t had long enough to develop, and there’s not enough in there to come out before they’re squeezed dry. They haven’t got the reserves to be able to survive that and carry on.
“You have to conquer the insulation thing and go out and experience a bit more. You might have to be brave about it, and fuck making records, and go out and be a bus conductor for a year, to see an angle on life that would be much more interesting again.”
He cringes slightly. Yes, it does sound trite, though we understand what he means. He applies the same logic to his live shows, changing the melody or tempo of songs at will, just sufficiently to keep it fresh, part of the creative process.
“It’s like Dylan – although he’s taken it to an extreme, changing the tunes completely and not singing, just grunting down the microphone – but in his heyday he changed the tune and played around to keep himself interested on the stage.
“Sometimes when it works really well, you see the wonder of creation, something’s happening without you being aware of what it is. You’re in pursuit of innocence, that’s what creation is. It’s like that corny one about a child’s drawing and how wonderful that is, because it’s not self-conscious. Once the human brain starts playing with it with its vanity and its fear, you get something that’s a tame version. Playing a song exactly as it sounds on the record might gratify a lot of people but I like to give it the chance to grow up in a new situation.”
At the moment David Gray plays his live shows on a strictly acoustic basis, with Neil McColl, brother of Kirsty, on second guitar to fill out the sound whenever necessary. Two men and two guitars have rarely sounded so huge.
“When I’m with Neil it’s more than doubled,” David acknowledges. “There’s a chemistry there, and it sounds like a band to me.”
Is forming a full time band the logical next step?
“If I met more people like Neil, I’d try to, although there’s something about the simplicity of the two of us that’s quite attractive.
“I’m a very loud singer anyway – I haven’t met anyone who sings louder – so I think I’m quite well equipped for playing on my own. I’ve never been stage shy at all, and now I’ve done it a certain amount, I can be more relaxed about being there, not as anxious to give it everything I’ve got. When you learn to exercise restraint, things start to succeed. Because I can sing very loudly, and I can sing quite high, there’s the temptation to always go for another big note.”
The new album is only half way to being finished and David Gray is already concerned about what he’s going to do next. You can see the worry lines creeping across his face – and he’s only twenty five, for god’s sake – when he talks about wanting to get it tied up, the logistics involved in getting the right musicians together at the right time, the problem of not knowing enough musicians in the first place.
“But some of the tracks we’ve got down are really good, really, really good,” he beams. “I think it’s the first time I’ve got close to what the people I always admired did. I feel like I’m at the bottom of this huge slope and I’m not sure if I’m wearing the right hiking boots. I need one of those crampon things, if you know what I mean.” I do, although from somewhere in the distance comes the pinging sound of a metaphor being stretched to its limit.
“I don’t understand the process, I’m just learning about it. But I’ve sold few enough records as it is – I don’t want to sit around contemplating my miserable doom.
“It’s all going to work out anyway,” he concludes emphatically, with a reassuring smile. “It has to. There’s too much soul at stake.”