A line under the ladder

Sat, Aug 8, 2009, 01:00

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW:David Gray went from being a struggling songwriter to making the best-selling album in Irish history, only to be blamed for spawning a generation of bland balladeers. A decade later, he's ditched most of his band, kept hold of his self-awareness and 'is looking the world in the eye' he tells FIONA McCANN

DAVID GRAY is unexpectedly upbeat. He comes to greet me in the lobby of Galway’s G Hotel all smiles, dapper and diminutive in a baby pink shirt under a Paul Smith three-piece suit in eponymous grey. Though his first words are that he’s feeling “a little bit not quite right”, he’s got a grin from ear to ear as he says it. The reason? A “big night” on Sunday, he tells me with evident pride. This was followed by a long day’s travel to Galway as part of a promotional tour for his new album, Draw the Line. That too has him feeling chipper. He’s excited by being in the west of Ireland, and he’s thrilled about the new album, and how “present” it has all made him feel.

Hang on a minute. Since when did David Gray become a glass-half-full, Zen-embracing all-night party animal? Can this really be the moody balladeer who was so embraced by the masses while the margins got nasty, deriding his sound as the kind of easy-listening singer-songwriter stuff that – here he steps in himself to provide the put-down – “goes well with smoked salmon, for dinner parties”? His own upfront acknowledgement of his reputation for bland – Rolling Stone once called him “the darling of the Chardonnay-and-chinos set” – is immediately disarming. Yet it appears even old put-downs and hangovers haven’t dampened Gray’s spirits. And despite the fact that he’s just arrived after an epic journey from Zurich through Paris to Shannon and then on to Galway city, all he can talk about is the beautiful drive through the west of Ireland. “So many beautiful horses . . .” he trails off, staring into the middle distance.

He does this a lot, the staring into the middle distance thing, barely looking at me at all during our lunch interview despite his clear good humour. “I’m looking the world totally in the eye, whereas perhaps I’ve been slightly looking over to one side,” is how he articulates this new state of mind, while looking over to one side. Whether it’s shyness or distraction that keeps skewing his gaze now isn’t clear, but in the past he blamed his discomfort with fame for his inability to look at the world directly. “It’s like the glare of the spotlight is way too much for my sort, for me, and to come to terms with what happened took some time.” What happened was 1998’s White Ladder. If you’re reading this in Ireland, there’s a one in three chance you’ve got a copy of the album at home. It sold millions of copies worldwide, but in Ireland, it became the best-selling album in the country’s history. All this after three albums that barely registered, and a dissolution of his relationship with his record company.

The decision-makers at EMI must be kicking themselves now, given that as soon as they parted ways with Gray, he went home and recorded White Ladder in his bedroom, and everything changed. “The early time of White Ladder was an unbelievable time,” he recalls. “There was a certain point where the penny dropped and we realised what we had. We knew it was just going to keep going, the trajectory was irresistible.” Gray is not so churlish that he can’t remember the dizzying joy of that initial success, but he does admit to finding elements of this sudden acclaim and adulation hard to live with. “Contending with all the baggage that success and money brings, you could spend a lifetime dealing with that, with the moral issues it seems to raise,” he says, and he is choosing his words carefully, hesitatingly, anxious to be clear. “The spectre of your own wealth and privilege looms large.” This is more like it, the kind of singer-songwriter introspection I was expecting, but Gray is no navel-gazer: his responses may be introspective, but seem without the concomitant rock-star narcissism you might expect of one so rich and famous.

“There was an element of vertigo to the success,” he says of that steady upward climb of White Ladder. “You almost don’t want to try and comprehend what it all means, the amount of people involved in it, the different equations of people buying a CD, someone spending a very important 15 quid on your record”. You can tell, somehow, that Gray really did try to take in the maths and recognise the individual realities behind those seven-digit album sales. “Someone who’s working in a fish and chip shop in Sunderland deciding to buy your album, that’s a big deal. He’s making a big commitment. You don’t want to let him down.” So much for trashing hotel rooms and dating models, then.

BUT APPARENTLY IT’S NOT JUST the punter in the street to whom you have a responsibility. No, there’s also “the impending destruction of the planet, the slashing of the rain forests and I’m about to chop down a lot more trees promoting my record.” Blimey. But Gray swears he has found a way of taking it all in his stride. “It’s obviously not normal, so you have to find a way of feeling comfortable within it, because it would be such a waste of time and energy and a precious resource if you got consumed by the guilt.” He seems determined to be positive, almost ordering himself to be upbeat. “You’ve go to enjoy it, it’s your responsibility, it’s been given to you.” Ah yes. Didn’t we give it to him? We Irish are still preening ourselves on discovering David Gray and helping to catapult him to stardom. “What happened in Ireland was the most insane and intense of all of it. It was obviously going to be an impossible act to follow, and it cast such a long shadow. There was just no grappling with it. I obviously exhibited signs of obvious discomfort at various points subsequent to the success.”

He is almost squirming as he acknowledges the complications engendered by such a whole-hearted embrace. “I didn’t know how I was supposed to be afterwards. You just can’t seem ungrateful or anxious to move on from something that everyone feels so good about, that they were a part of. I guess there is a conundrum like there always is, but pronouncedly so here because of the scale of the whole thing.” Though he says he still feels blessed – “You know, the world came up and kissed me” – coming to terms with it all took some time, not least because of the three years of touring that followed, and the subsequent death of his father and birth of his first daughter, Ivy. “It was a tumultuous time. There were so many things going on, people dying, people being born, success and then the latent effects of it.”

Then there was the backlash against an artist who had been embraced perhaps a little too publicly by, well, too many people. But he has little time for those who decried him as middle-of-the-road, or just one more bland balladeer. “Okay, I can see White Ladder was an incredibly mellow record. Well, we made it in our bedroom, it didn’t punch you in the face, it was very easy to listen to, incredibly open-hearted and melodic.” He is quick to defend, rushing into his sentences as if to get past this bit, the bit where the whole interview is taken up by what’s long distant history to him. He has, after all, released several albums since then. A New Day at Midnight may have been described by NME as “as uncharismatic as its creator”, but it still managed to top the charts, as did the subsequent Life in Slow Motion.

Then came the Greatest Hits album and it looked to many like Gray, after 10 years at the top, had run out of ideas.

“When [the Greatest Hits album] was suggested, I counted with the usual artistic disinclination towards repackaging something,” he says now. “Then I stopped and I thought of artists I discovered through their greatest hits, and it’s probably most of them.” He lists Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen without any conscious hubris. “That’s basically how I discovered most of the people that I know, and there’s nothing evil about it.” The point, Gray explains, is that he needed to draw a line. “When we did [the Greatest Hits album], it was a coming to terms with what had happened for me. I don’t like to look back very much but I think I needed to do a little bit of housework.”

Now, he assures me, he’s looking forward. To do so, he broke with his long-time collaborator, drummer Clune – whose manic style was a defining element of David Gray gigs – as well as most of his other band members. “I needed to change everything,” is his explanation. “I could feel things just a little bit worn out.”

From such new beginnings came Draw the Line. “It’s the end of one thing and the start of another,” says Gray of the thinking behind the title. “Because there was a chapter and it’s ended and now there’s a new one. But also it’s like, ‘don’t cross this line!’ It’s confrontational, which is intentional. That’s how I feel.” Confrontational? “I feel present.” It’s all about the present with Gray. “Ghosts are created that are nothing to do with you and you try and fight them, and it’s a fruitless task, and you can never look good doing that, anxiously twisting and turning trying to dispel some sort of myth. The only way forward is to literally get on with it and enjoy life and embrace it again.”

If it sounds over the top, it is delivered with utter sincerity. “That’s the point where I’m at right now: the tangible sense of time passing and the sheer glory of existence despite the f***ed-up world we’re all spinning round in. That’s what’s coursing through my veins.”

It’s at moments like this that Gray speaks in lyrics, poetic and precise in his presentation of words. Even articulating his own change in mood and attitude, and the musical results of such, he is lyrical: “The camera angles were all sort of darkly lit interiors, and then the front door burst open and I’m rampaging down the street like some sort of Magnum photographer.” But he’s also surprisingly funny, even at his own expense, as when he speaks of his search for collaborators on his new album. On one track, he decided he needed Dolly Parton to sing with him. So he wrote to her one night, the kind of “hey Dolly, big fan” letter, as he describes it, and sent it off to his manager, only to wake up with second thoughts about his adulatory late-night epistle. It turned out to be too late to recall, however, as the reply was already in: “Dolly’s busy for the next five years.”

“It was a great line,” he laughs. “Dolly’s busy for the next five years. I thought ‘Okay, we know where we stand.’” In Dolly’s stead came singer Jolie Holland, while Annie Lennox brought her vocals to another track. To record it, Lennox visited Gray’s studio, The Church, which once belonged to Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics. “She took the piss out of me because I hadn’t changed the carpets. She was absolutely outraged.” Here he does a pitch perfect Scottish accent: “You’re so mean, David, you’re so mean! You haven’t changed the carpets, you’ve done nothing, it’s exactly the same!”

Lennox, in Gray’s words, “beat an egg white into the whole mixture” on the track that closes the record, Full Steam Ahead, a song he describes in the album’s accompanying press release as “a broad political thing”. Does he think artists have a responsibility to be political? “My remit is to write songs,” he says categorically. “When you start waving a flag and there’s a cause, that’s a whole other ball game that I’m very cautious and wary of,” he says. This from the man who played Live Earth alongside Damien Rice? “Did we save the world or not? They never got back to me on that,” is his wry response.

“It’s far more complicated, and for me, when you start getting involved in all that, you’ve got to be very careful because you might just muddy the waters further.” Which is not to say Gray doesn’t have strong views, particularly about those who try to solve the world’s problems through compilation CDs. “Oh yes let’s consume ourselves out of the problem that is based on overpopulation and consumerism in the first place,” he says sarcastically.

It’s not that he thinks certain problems and human rights abuses should be ignored. “People do stand up and speak out on these things, and that takes true courage. But you need the strength of your convictions, not just ‘trees are good, people are bad’. Or ‘big business is to blame’. It just all just becomes simplistic and it’s not constructive to reduce everything to some simplistic, childlike level. The world is so ludicrously complex: we’re all implicit in its evils and we can all tangibly sense its potential as well.” There he is again, bringing it back to the positive. Positive, yes, but he’s not preaching it. “When Dylan broke through he was the preacherman for a generation, he was decrying things left right and centre, but our culture has eaten itself so many times since then you just can’t be Bob Marley or Bob Dylan, that’s just like another world away,” he says wistfully. “It’s just so very different now, it’s like irony within irony, it’s like an onion of irony you have to unpeel.” He pauses for a second. “Which I’d like to throw straight in Jamie Oliver’s face.” It’s an unexpected moment of vitriol, and he is immediately aware of the crack. “I don’t know why I singled him out, but there are too many chefs in the world.” Celebrity chefs are clearly not his thing, but nor, it seems is celebrity – at least not its usual trappings. He has, after all, been married to the same woman – Olivia – for some 16 years now, the woman who supported him through the lean years before White Ladder, and with whom he has since had two daughters. Married through eight albums – not very rock’n’roll. But Gray takes it very seriously. “Being married is a huge thing for me,” he says. “I like life to be simple. I like making commitments. That’s how I go about things.”

And despite having created the soundtrack for lovers across the globe, he claims he himself is no Casanova. “I was never going to be one for playing the field. It’s just I’m hopeless, I’m absolutely hopeless.” What he has made a success of is staying power, with a marriage and career that have lasted through the lows and highs. Now he’s 41, an age he says “just sounds sort of messy”, but it hasn’t slowed him down. “My appetite for the whole thing is undiminished. In fact it’s increasing in a sense . . . I can’t explain why it still so exciting, but it always is, to write and record. So I’m always looking for the next song.”

FAMILYMarried to Olivia, a lawyer. The couple have two daughters, Ivy and Florence.

BEST KNOWN FORHis music. He has released seven studio albums, and sold 12 million copies worldwide.

CAREER TURNING POINTHis fourth album, White Ladder, became the best-selling album of all time in Ireland and made him a household name internationally.

WHAT’S NEXTHis new album, Draw the Line, is out on September 11th, with the first single from the album, Fugitive, out on September 4th.