It’s no accident that David Gray’s new album begins with him lying in the grass, watching a sapling emerge from the shell of a fallen acorn. As a metaphor for the 50-year-old singer-songwriter’s state of mind, it could scarcely be more striking.
‘Something’s happened to me in the last four or five years – a sort of weight seems to have lifted off me,’ he tells Weekend. ‘Making this record, the doors of possibility were wide open. I was like some kind of water diviner with a stick, going where there’s a pull from the earth, a pull from the music, seeing if I can find the source of something that has fresh magic about it.’
Fresh magic is in plentiful supply on Gold in a Brass Age, the 11th album in Gray’s 26-year recording career. The title, filched from a Raymond Carver story, is typical of his approach to the lyrics on the record – ‘pickpocketing abstract words like a jay picking things out of a window’. And yet, from this, emerged a recurring theme of rebirth, the passage of time, and the cycle of life. It’s obviously a subject that’s been preying on his mind.
‘I think it’s on everybody’s mind,’ he says. ‘But certainly, when you’ve been around a bit longer, you get to look at life from more than one angle. You pass through phases and times and you watch governments come and go, friends come and go, people die, people be born. So yeah, how fragile and momentary our lives are is a constant theme.’
By Gray’s own admission, it took him a long time to emerge from what he calls ‘the impact crater’ of White Ladder, the gazillion-selling 1998 album that saw him make the leap ‘from obscurity to ubiquity’ with dizzying speed.
‘Being in the vortex of this mind-melting success was overwhelming,’ he says. ‘The ramifications are total. It affects every area of your life. I’ve been lucky to have people around me, like my wife, who were there before the storm broke and helped me come to terms with it in my own way. I watch other artists reacting against fame and trying to sort of shake off this dreadful cloak that gets put on you. You’re paraphrased to death into some kind of horrible cartoon version of yourself.
‘But it’s not just that. I basically worked too hard for too long and burned myself out a little bit. Touring albums around the world for 18 months every couple of years, it has a sort of wearying, long-term effect. I wasn’t enjoying this magical realm enough.’
If all this makes David Gray sound serious and self-absorbed – ungrateful, even – he isn’t at all. Thoughtful and refreshingly honest, he’s also funny and self-deprecating, punctuating his sentences with a rasping, positively filthy laugh.
But the aftershocks of White Ladder also coincided with ‘an enormous amount of emotional upheaval’: ‘Life, death, birth, illness, misery, suffering – the stuff that visits us all,’ he explains. ‘I won’t go into everything that’s been going on in our lives, but there’s been more than enough for a group of people to deal with.’
It’s with no small amount of relief, then, that in recent years he’s found himself in a calmer, more peaceful, more creatively free space.
‘I wouldn’t change a thing in my life,’ he insists. ‘That isn’t to say I’ve achieved some kind of Zen level of balance and control. As a human being, I’m a walking fucking disaster area. But in the sense of the joy and the enthusiasm I have for my work, I’m completely undiminished.’
Did turning 50 feel significant?
‘It feels like a good innings,’ he says. ‘I’m happy to be 50. My dad died at 57, which is a terrifying thought, not that far away. When, hopefully, my ship sails across that particular line, it will feel significant.’
Gray spent his early years on the outer fringes of Manchester, before his parents, who ran their own clothing company, hoiked him off to live in a fishing village in Pembrokeshire. He began his music career playing in punk bands – an influence that carried over into his raw, visceral early albums, which found a cult following, but failed to sell.
Having been dropped by his label, he made White Ladder – a collection of wise, wounded songs recorded over a bed of acoustic guitars and skittish electronica – in the living room of his north London flat as a last throw of the dice (‘I know it sounds a bit dramatic now, but it was definitely a do or die moment’), and released it himself. So no-one was more surprised than him when it went on to become, at the current count, the UK’s 28th biggest-selling record of all time.
With success, inevitably, came criticism, with Gray standing accused of opening the floodgates for a surge of sensitive male singer-songwriters. For others, the album, and its signature tracks This Year’s Love, Please Forgive Me and the Ivor Novello Award-winning Babylon, became a byword for a certain strand of safe, corporate pop – somewhat ironic, given the punk, DIY nature of its creation.
‘People didn’t know how to present it, and that was the best they could come up with,’ he shrugs. ‘That it was a chill-out record that people listened to when they were eating smoked salmon. You can’t take that stuff seriously. I prefer to see the looks on people’s faces when I’m on stage.’
Another problem with success on that scale is that ‘everyone wants you to have more of it. But that’s not necessarily going to happen, for many reasons. It might be that the world just doesn’t want you again next year. It was flares this year, skinny last year.
‘There is a point where you think it’s going to go on forever, and somewhere down the line you work out it isn’t, and it’s a bit of a nasty shock,’ he admits. ‘Then you just have to roll your sleeves up and get on with it. You’ve got to be happy to make the music you’re making. If that means 250 people rather than 250,000, so be it.’
What about his own teenage daughters, Ivy and Florence. Are they David Gray fans, or do they prefer Ed Sheeran?
‘I’ll answer the first part of the question,’ he laughs. ‘They’re a bit old now. I don’t mean that as a slight to Ed in any way, he’s a lovely man. There was an Ed Sheeran phase, but they’re into grime and dark shit now. I wouldn’t describe them as David Gray fans, but I think they’re definitely on my side. They’re working out that some of their friends think I’m pretty good, so that’s okay.’
Gray isn’t expecting Gold in a Brass Age – which, with its soulful grooves and frequent falsetto, feels like a more loose-limbed take on White Ladder’s distinctive folktronica – to outgun Sheeran. But early cuts The Sapling and A Tight Ship have been well received, and tickets for his upcoming UK tour are moving fast. (He’s been putting a lot of thought into his stage outfits: ‘I’ve gone wide with the trousers, that’s the really big news,’ he reveals.)
Refreshed and revitalised he may be, then. But Gray does occasionally still have to remind himself not to take things too seriously.
‘The idea that music is something important is quite destructive, because ultimately it isn’t,’ he reflects. ‘And yet I would die for it. That’s the inherent contradiction at the heart of making art.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, 28 February, 2019
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