After years of struggling, David Gray’s fortunes changed when Ireland embraced him. His hit “Babylon” caught on as his album White Ladder sold 100,000 copies on the Emerald Isle. The rest of the world took notice and his career took off.
“I have such a deep relationship with Ireland—they took it off me and freed me from it in a way,” Gray gushes. “I have a long, loving, and complicated relationship with the island. If it wasn’t a successful run there in the very beginning of my career, I would be nowhere.”
He is back after a five year absence with the release of his long-anticipated tenth studio album, "Mutineers." The album is a rare thing of beauty, with songs about the beauty of nature and relationships intertwined. “This land belongs to the gulls/And the gulls to their cry/And their cry to the wind/And the wind belongs to no-one,” he sings in Gregorian Chant on the track “Gulls" over a sparse atmospheric musical bed of piano chords and scratchy guitars.
Gray’s vocal chords seem to be choked on hope and heartbreak at the same time, making him one of the most believable acoustic soul singers holding a microphone today. When he sings “Dived, plunged into your eyes/Living every hour like a century/There will I always be” on “Last Summer,” there is a beautiful ache of longing that will hook the romantics out there!
Gray’s collaborator, producer and occasional combatant during this raid on new horizons was Lamb’s Andy Barlow. Together, the two artists were able to create an experiment in sound that ranges from pensive piano ballads to rousing chant choruses that stick in your grey matter—pun intended! On “Back in the World,” Gray sings “every day that I open my eyes it feels like a Saturday/with a lift of a curse got a whole different person inside my head/no more trudging around stony-eyed through the town like the living dead. ”It’s a great announcement that he’s back in circulation and the album sounds and feels like resuming a conversation with an old friend.
“It felt like a right way to start the record,” he says of the track. “I wanted to start it with ‘Gulls’ but the sequencing didn’t work. It was a statement of intent. It was a literal intent. I am back in the room, back on the road, the whole thing.”
We had a quick phone chat about the album, the difficulty in getting your music noticed in the digital age, and his upcoming tour. And if you think he was pleased to get a free new U2 album in his iTunes account—think again. Read on.
You mention track sequencing as being important, but the reality is that people download little digital snippets of what they like as opposed to buying an album. How do you reconcile that?
The world is different—the way people are streaming and listening music has certainly changed the game. I still make a record to be listened to from start to finish. Each song is a separate statement on its own yet an interrelated thing at the same time. There is something that binds together in a theme of sorts. Form is dictating the content. We live in a world in these digital grunts and, as an artist, you hope your album gets heard above that.
I noticed in the lyrical content and in the song titles there are references to birds. Is that a theme of the album?
There are loads and loads of bird’s references throughout my songs over the years. I made it a central theme on this album. Nature and birds are a massive part of my life. I am always out in nature. 99% of the time I’m actually not: I am in a studio, in the hotel and the bus. Yet I always yearn to be outside with nature and the birds.
Do you stalk them with binoculars?
I am a rank amateur ornithologist with a pair of binoculars, yes (laughs). It is a sense of otherness that I get from them. When I am studying them, I am lost in them. That’s what I find so intoxicating about it. There’s twin themes in this album: the joy of being, a zestiness. There’s also this yearning, like ‘Gulls’ there is this desire on a human level to unwind, escape, walk, and look, at nature.
How has the album been received? Has anything surprised you?
It has been very well received. There’s nothing that shocks me about it. It's a stampede out there: it’s hard to get people’s attention. We are going to extreme lengths to get this music heard. I feel like I am grinding out every sale, every radio play. That’s something which has struck me—much harder to get a sense of momentum these days. Get it out there, moving it beyond just the converted. It’s strikingly hard to do it at times.
U2 had a novel way of doing that recently. What’s your take on it?
It’s okay if you’re U2 and you have a billion dollar tour to fund giving away the music for free. Most of us are not in that position and I think they made a huge mistake on many levels. it’s a complete miscalculation and it is a digital intrusion. It’s like they broke into my house and put something I didn’t want on the bed. It’s like ‘f*ck off! Don’t put something I didn’t order on my computer!” The thing they crave the most of is publicity and in that score, they won. The music business is in a sickened state and this was a death knell: publishing and ownership of music has all been hurt for the rest of us because of their publicity stunt.
Before you became a global music name, you hit big in Ireland first. I’d imagine playing there is special to you.
The Irish are the best audience, bar none. I played there earlier in the tour and I can tell you they were some of the best shows I’ve played in my career. I can’t wait to get back there and do some more.
Visit www.davidgray.com for a full list of dates and to sample the album.