Q&A with British Singer, DAVID GRAY – Talks About The “Scintillating & Beautiful Torture” of Creating New Album, Mutineers.
Posted On 29 Sep 2014
Twenty one years since his first studio album, David Gray’s tenth and latest album, Mutineers, finds the singer-songwriter steering into unfamiliar territory while cultivating a pugnacious but respectful relationship with his own history. “I think if you’re going forward with an open heart, good things will happen,” says David. “You have to sort of tear up the past and let it go.”
David’s past includes the phenomenal success of White Ladder (seven million copies sold), which brought with it the hit song, “Babylon” and one of three UK number one albums, with records that became ubiquitous and others that needed to be sought out to be heard. It’s a richness of terrain and experience over a duration that belies the traditions and expectations of popular music as surely as the songs themselves.
“I was reaching, I was feeling for things rather than knowing and placing, and something far more interesting happened, and there’s such an authority about any recording that’s made in the heat of the moment when you’re actually discovering it as you’re recording it.” It was spontaneity of process and feeling that, says David, recalled some aspects of making White Ladder, in a bedroom studio back in 1997.
Mutineers then, is an experiment that seems to fizz with the joy of its own assembly. The sound of a musician making a clean break and some sharp turns but also reconnecting with the freedoms of an earlier dream, a rebuke and a salutation to all that’s gone before. David took a few moments out of his touring schedule to chat with All Access Music writer, Nicole DeRosa to tell her more….
Hi David! How are you today?
I’m good! I’m as well as can be expected with this touring schedule. It’s doing it’s best to destroy what is human in me. (laughs) But, I’m hanging in there!
So where does this interview find you? What else is on the agenda today besides our interview?
I’ve got a few interviews and then a gig in Salt Lake City. It’s somewhere I haven’t played before called, The Red Butte Amphitheater, so the prospect of that awaits in a few hours time. It should be a good show. We were in Denver last night and we’re crossing the country at a rate of knots now. It’s real touring!
Please tell our readers more about your new “baby,” aka your new, tenth studio album, Mutineers, which seems to take your sound in a lighter direction. How is it different than all your other albums?
Well, it took a lot of “mating” (laughs) because I was looking for something different with this album. When I got off the road in 2011, I knew all the things that I didn’t want, but I didn’t know what I was looking for, except for some vague qualities. I wanted something uplifting. I wanted it to be saying something positive rather than just some weird middle aged jaded moan. (laughs)
In a sense, it was a creative reinvention, but it had to go hand in hand with dealing with myself as well. I guess I was a bit beaten up and kind of jaded after what was a lot of touring. As much as I loved all the shows, I felt like I was at the end of something. It wasn’t just making another record. I was at the end of a cycle of records and looking for a new start, a new way, a new sound.
It was all about finding a producer, a key person to help me get there and that took some time. I experimented with the way I was trying to write songs. Any new approach or new nuance, just to see if I could get something different to happen and I experimented in the studio. But, really the key point was finding Andy Barlow. Once we clicked as a creative team, suddenly new vistas of sound became within reach and then we really got down to the business of really making the record. It was very intense, it wasn’t easy. His grief was to not let me make the same record I’ve made before, and he stood by that.
He took me out of my comfort zone completely and it was deeply uncomfortable at times. And at times, I thought the process was a bit crazy. He didn’t want to work on things that I wanted to work on. He tried to make me to do things that I really didn’t know why…I was a bit vexed, to say the very least on several occasions (laughs) but out of that sort of chaos and confusion and uncertainty, I was sort of reaching into the void for something concrete. And because of the element of risk and vulnerability that I took on board, trying to do something different…when I found something, it had an extra zest to it. So, I feel that the record has an extra sort of spice. Because it was a total commitment and you can hear it and me, laid bare on the tracks.
You and Andy Barlow, from the band, Lamb, are a great match. You both experiment with electronics and acoustic sounds and have a beautiful way of marrying them together. How was it working with Andy? How did that partnership come about?
Andy was someone that my manager knows. We were looking for a producer and going through the usual fashionable list of big names. Neither my manager, nor I hold much thaw by picking your best friends from a catalogue style of working. (laughs) We prefer the accidental encounter. He just said, “While we’re waiting for replies from some of these people, I think there is someone you should meet…I think there is something really good about him.” So, I arranged to meet Andy and the day before we were due to meet in London to talk about music and making records and stuff, he just rang me up and said, “Look, Dave, to be honest, I don’t know what the point of meeting to talk about music is…why don’t you just come down to my studio and we’ll make a track.”
When he said that, I thought he was a man after my own heart. (laughs) I like that…jumping in with both feet, so I said, “You’re on!” I sent him a couple of demos and he picked a song. The next day, I drove down first thing in the morning and we worked on it until about midnight. And that song was, “As The Crow Flies,” which ended up on the record. So, something unexpected happened. I wasn’t sure what I thought of it to begin with, but I knew that it was exciting, because it wasn’t the usual thing. So that’s how it began.
I read that when putting your new album, “Mutineers” together, you said you started writing in a sort of “backwards way”. What was it that was “backwards” about your songwriting process?
Well, I just tried things which for me, weren’t second nature. I would usually hear a melody and then I would try and find a lyric to fit the melody. I’ll get a chord sequence and a melody comes with it…and then, in the chord sequence and rhythm of it…is a melodic rhythm and once I have that, I have a sort of concrete pattern of the song with some other sections, perhaps if it wants to go to a chorus…or bridge. This would be the way I map it out and then I’ve got to find the lyric.
At first, I’m intuitively singing garbage (laughs), but hoping something is gonna stick. Maybe just one line will help start to shape the song or I’ll get a feeling from the melody that there is an atmosphere there and it evokes a certain kind of image and I’ll start from there. That’s my usual process.
How do you know when you are on to something good during the writing and recording process? Do you always know right away?
I started to work with ideas and lyrics and work back into music. So, I’d write some lines or have a title and a few images and I’d try to stick them into some kind of chord structure. But, the weird thing was…it doesn’t sound like a very profound, sort of difference…but it totally disabled my sense of taste. Because all of the melodies that I enlighten upon would be dictated by the rhythm of the words and I could’t see if they were any good or not. So, because I was trying to give this a chance…I preserved and finished several things and it was only much later when someone else heard them, and most cases, it needed somebody else to come along and say, “I love this song, Dave.” And I’m like, “Really?” (laughs) because I just couldn’t hear it…something of merit. But, that was a huge advantage, I think. It means you don’t indulge yourself or you don’t turn on the sentimentality at all in the writing process. You’re being very sort of functional and objective about it.
It seems counter intuitive that is what the best song can come from, but so many of my best moments have come from a more objective way of working. They are not from a sort of rush from the heart inspiration. Although, there is nothing that can beat that. A scintillating moment when a song that has been waiting to be born inside you for years, suddenly finds its voice and you are taken over by it and half an hour later, an hour, two hours later, you’ve written this thing. It came from nowhere it seems. We call that inspiration. There is nothing that can beat those moments.
What was your writing process like? How do you capture the inspiration when it comes?
But in terms of the day to day work, it’s just like a novelist has to sit down and write. They can’t wait for something to come. So, I turned my little process on its head beyond extending musical ideas from lyrics or titles. I then began to hear music in other peoples words. There is one poem which I used as a starting point for the song, “Gulls”. And its basically a virtual quote at the first verse of the poem, which starts my song. That was very rewarding. And then I was reading a short story a bit later and the same thing happened. I heard music in just a few lines. And then the song, “The Incredible” was written off the back of that. So this was the way that I sort of mixed it up. I guess I didn’t want to be just making some sort of jaded inquiry into myself and my own world. I wanted to be somewhere else.
Is there a specific theme to the record?
There are two themes on the record. One is a sense of returning to the moment, living in the moment and being completely alive with excitement. Then there is this other yearning on “Birds of The High Arctic” and “Gulls” and “The Incredible” its like being in another place, free of the human taint. Its a yearning to be out there…somewhere in the wilderness, out in your music, so far away from the everyday. So these two things seem to fit together.
Those are the two themes – a sense of returning, because I do feel it was returning to the source of my music, making this record. The trial and tribulation of the recording and creative process that went into it. It stripped away all the bullshit and I got back to what really matters. So there is that essence of it and then there is this other yearning for the more esoteric, the more far flung reaches of the imagination and of the known world. Thats how I would characterize it anyway.
This is your first release with Kobalt, but also remaining on your own label, IHT. Does self-releasing give you more freedom as an artist? How is your relationship with them going?
Well, its in its infancy and I think there are a few “teething” problems because Kobalt, in some sense is still a theoretical company. They really haven’t worked enough things through. It’s a learning curve for all of us, but its a rapidly changing world. They have a definite sense of hunger there and that is why we ended up doing something with them.
They were very much up for the whole thing and they made a very detailed offer of how they were going to break everything down and work it. Its another jump into the unknown, ya know? I mean, every record is different and we make decisions based on what the best options are at any given time. The way I have always preferred to work is, I like to finish my record and then present it to the record company and if they want to work the record then they can.
There have been some definite plus points, but like I said, I think there are few “teething” issues as well. Its too early for me to really be able to give you a judgement call on that. Its like I’m out here in the field, getting a feel for how things are fitting together. I mean, America is a country, where bullshit can only get you so far. Its really about the relationships of turning up. The giant act of turning up. Its a big place, do you know what I mean? You can’t do it via email…ya gotta go for it!
I’ve obviously been around enough times to know what a record campaign should feel like when its all clicking together. Its early days, but they are incredibly passionate about the record. But they are still working their mechanisms out and we, as a record company are realizing what it is we need to give them, or what impetus we need to give them or what instruction they need, so its in its early youth.
So all this references to babies (laughs) and infancy, I was going to ask you…its hard to choose your favorite child and well, you can’t really do that, BUT, everyone has their moods and I’m sure its every changing, but do you have a song that is closest to you on the new album?
I do like “Gulls.” It has a spell that it weaves over me, so if I had to pick one, yeah, it would be very difficult, but I would probably pick that one.
What was the first song you fell in love with growing up and why?
I think the first single I bought was, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” but The Boomtown Rats. So, I will have to give them the credit for that. I went out and spent my pocket money on that, back in 1979.
I have never heard of The Boomtown Rats but I dig their name and title, David, so I’ll look them up! Thanks for the homework! On that note, have an awesome rest of the tour and a great show in Salt Lake City tonight!
Yes! You must look them up then! Thank you Nicole and it’s been my pleasure!
BACK IN THE WORLD
Visit DAVID GRAY at his website here for upcoming tour dates and more!