David Gray has had a long day. Most musicians view contract-fulfilling promotional work as, at best, a chore and, at worst, a Faustian pact with the devil. So it doesn’t bode well that, by the time What’s On catches up with him in the late afternoon, Gray has already spent several hours picking over the bones of his story (to wit: struggling singer-songwriter spends years trying to catch a break, is dropped by record label, funds own last-throw-of-the-dice album, sells a gazillion copies and becomes rich, famous and more than a little confused) with newspapers and radio stations from the Bristol Channel to The Wash.
“I’ve just described it to the Swindon Advertiser as like a steeplechase, and I saw their interview as the water jump,” he says. “So now I’m coming round the final bend, Steve Ovett fashion. Coe is on the inside, and I’m going to take him.”
Fortunately, if the man The Sun once dubbed “Britain’s real pop star” (whatever that means) is feeling the strain, he isn’t letting it show. Punctuating his sentences with a rasping, positively filthy laugh, Gray is, by turns, frank, funny, reflective and refreshingly honest. He is, in short, terrific company.
The reason for our chat is his forthcoming appearance at Thetford as part of the Forestry Commission’s annual summer music programme – something he admits will be a new experience.
“I’ve played in close proximity to trees and vegetation,” he says drolly, “but I don’t think I can officially say that I have played in a forest. That would probably be stretching it. I go past Thetford all the time because I’ve got a little tiny holiday place up in Norfolk. But I’ve never lingered there... I’ve been to the Little Chef on the roundabout near Mildenhall, but that’s about as close as I’ve got.”
He’s quick to brush off any concerns about how the more delicate, acoustic side of his oeuvre might translate to the great outdoors (“You’re basically playing notes on an instrument, a little bit further away than you would be otherwise”) and confesses, with a cackle: “I’ve been through periods when I thought there was something bad about playing an arena, but the way I feel at the moment is I wish I could play in one again. Give me the O2!”
If this is a candid admission that his star might not be in quite the same orbit as it was a few years ago, you also get the feeling that he’s really not that bothered. By his own admission, the extraordinary success that followed the release of 1999’s White Ladder (six million sales and counting) is something that’s taken “a good decade to digest”.
“The whole White Ladder story is like a fairytale that sounds less real when I think about it and talk about it,” he says. “It was an incredible thing that happened. It was magical – a transformation of life, and it’s taken a long time to get my head round it, to accept it. The world kisses you right on the lips and gives you more than you could have ever dreamed of; in a moment of total exhilaration and vindication, you’re given the keys to the world. It’s a lot to comprehend and it blows a lot of fuses. You’ve got to work out how to wear it all – it’s like, what do you do with all the money you’ve suddenly got, or whatever?
“But I feel free of the far-reaching shadow of White Ladder at this particular point in time. I’m enjoying life – I’m more present in life and in music than I think I’ve ever been.”
To those of us who treasure White Ladder’s wise, wounded songs like personal friends, the album’s reputation as safe, boring mortgage rock is, frankly, baffling. And the circumstances of its creation – having parted company with his record company, Gray recorded the album in the living room of his north London flat and released it on his own IHT label – could hardly be less corporate. “There was an air of desperation,” he says, looking back. “You can only keep putting it out and being smacked in the face for so long before you have to stop. I was full of hurt and shadows and mistrust and doubt and it was like, if that hadn’t worked out it would have been another slap in the face and I’d have had to seriously reconsider my musical career.”
None of which has stopped some trying to lump the 41- year-old in with the sort of bland, homogenised “Tesco rock” peddled by the likes of James Blunt, Dido and Travis.
“That’s the horse-shit that people like [Guardian music critic] John Robinson can fucking come out with and get paid for,” he says contemptuously. “There’s no need for me to go there: never complain and never explain – that’s Katharine Hepburn. That’s my new thing. So fuck that. That conversation is about to end, once and for all.
“I don’t need to answer the James Blunt question any more. If you think there’s not more to my music than some coffee table pap that someone at a record company dreamed up, you’ve missed something. Because it’s real, it’s soulful.
“Anyway, my new record [seventh studio album, Draw The Line, due in September] will end that conversation – it’s already finished in my head; I’m just going to have to stub out a lot of journalistic cigarettes as I go.”
Intriguingly, Gray seems just as nonplussed by the bouquets as the brickbats, describing his two Ivor Novello Awards (for breakthrough single Babylon and The Other Side, from White Ladder’s downbeat follow-up, A New Day At Midnight) as “something a load of people in a room decided to give me”. Not that he has any plans to get rid of them: “I use them on the bookshelves to hold the big books up. They’re very heavy - they’re a potential Coronation Street-style murder weapon.”
I don’t think there’s an implied threat in this but, all the same, I feel moved to reassure him the finishing line is now in sight. But before he goes, I have to ask: What is it with the whole wobbly head thing? And does he ever worry, to use his native Mancunian parlance, that he’s going to do himself a mischief?
“I’ve never been told to stop,” he says. “I guess it might not be good for me but it’s something I can’t do anything about. There are other aspects of my personality and general being that could also do with a little bit of change but I seem powerless – I’m like some sort of partial Tourettes, head-shaking idiot. That seems to be the way I’ve been moulded.
“I’ve got this far, but I suppose at any moment I could just collapse on stage. I’m walking a tightrope. People don’t appreciate that.”
And on that sobering note, we say: Thank you David Gray – you’re free to go.
“That was good,” he says, sounding genuinely pleased. “I think I took Coe with the last gag there, so I’m delighted. The tape is feeling good across the chest.”
Published in the Cambridge News, 2 July, 2009 © Cambridge Newspapers