An Interview with David Gray

David Gray (Credit: Jake Walters)
David Gray's back with a new album (Mutineers - iTunes) and will be headlining this year's 30-day iTunes Festival on September 14th, but before he does, he'll be performing at Oakland's Paramount Theatre on Thursday, August 28th. We had a chance to catch-up with him yesterday to learn about what went into the new album and his favorite memories of the Bay Area. Tickets are still available for the Paramount show here.

SFBayAreaConcerts: Let's talk about your new album that released in June, Mutineers. Can you describe how your writing process differed with this album compared to your previous?

David Gray: Yeah. I think I've changed a lot of stuff with this record. Perhaps in subtle ways in some ways. But with this writing and recording, I was looking to find a new way in to the good stuff. I would normally write from the piano chords or the guitar chords for the sense of melody or rhythm that’s within it. And then on top of that, put the lyrics. But I've started to try to work backwards. So I’m always taking notes and writing little phrases and things. So one example would be the "Birds of the High Arctic" (iTunes). It would be hard to work such a complex metaphor into a melody coming at it from the other way. So I found a way to sing that, and then worked backwards and wrote a song to attach to it.

I've had a few successes with things like that. I've changed further and started using other people’s words as a way into music. So there’s a poem that begins the song "Gulls" (iTunes), which I culled from a poem by a Belgian poet called Herman de Coninck, so that song was born out of that. I sensed there was music there, and then there was a short story which also led to a song in "The Incredible" (iTunes)

I think there’s a theme of returning to the moment, and there’s a sense of that. A new raw energy, and a joy of being alive, a joy of making music again. There’s a freshness, and a living in the present tense. That’s one strong theme I think that cuts through the record. Obviously, the opening track, "Back in the World" (iTunes), is the most sort of literal exploration of that. And then you've got a secondary theme, but equally as prevalent, is sort of yearning to be somewhere “other,” so outside of the human domain. The sort of track "Gulls", "Birds of the High Arctic", "The Incredible", they all seem to embody this kind of cellular craving to be kind of beyond the world of the human, out in the wild, free of this kind of bullshit we've constructed around ourselves.

So not everything was done differently. But the interesting thing about working backwards was it sort of disabled my sense of taste. And I didn't have a real sense as to whether the melody or tune had any real merit to it while I was working on it, I was just working instinctively to complete it, or make it feel like it was a suitable transfer of melodic momentum and phrasing from one part to another, and complete it satisfactorily as I could. But it was without my sense – I wasn't indulging my enjoyment in the thing. It was only when other people came in and heard it and said “oh, I really like that,” that I went “oh really?” So I think it was advantageous in that way. I was finding a way around myself.

And likewise in the studio, I employed someone who was basically there to sort of challenge my usual way of doing things. And that’s what Andy Barlow did once we got the songs in the studio. He pushed me further to not work a way that I was used to, to shake things up. So it was a process of destroying in order to make to a certain extent. In looking for a traverse across the creative rock face, sometimes you can’t go straight up. It’s time to move over and try a different angle. So that’s the point that I was at. Not all records are so complex and so challenging. This one proved to be so. But we got there in the end, and there’s an added zest and an added excitement and freshness to what we found, because it was hard-won. And when I saw the new sonic vistas opening up in front of me, I rushed in, and there was a real sense of excitement and discovery to be somewhere new.

SFBAC: Where there any specific inspirations that were behind any particular songs on the new album?

David Gray: I don’t know if I can detail my inspirations. It’s really … it’s work most of the time. It’s listening to the music of words. You wish inspiration to come showering down on you like some god-given gift, but that happens once in a blue moon. Most of the time, you’re just trying to make it work. You’re trying to cut the pieces of wood so they’ll fit together and make a suitable piece of furniture that hopefully people will be sitting on for many years to come. That’s what you’re up to. So I’ll have ideas, I’ll read books, and experience things in my life, and see things and witness things, images that embed themselves in me. Then will come out, and some times in conjunction with each other, there’s a song there, or some tension in between. "Snow in Vegas" (iTunes) is a good example. Now that's the closest thing to an inspired moment that I had, because that song had been waiting to be written for a long time. It had that lyric, and had that title. So I think there’s twin themes on the record, I could talk probably more comfortably about that. But whether I could detail my inspiration, I don’t know.

I think just to be clear of the world we've constructed around ourselves. The sort of over-saturated, cloying culture we've developed. I think that sort of yearning to be free is common to most people. Anyway, it's something that’s within me. And it finds its voice when I walk in nature. I watch the birds, the animals, the plants, the ocean. And I long to be further out into it. And that craving gave birth, and colors quite a few of the songs, in conjunction with the sort of returning to the present, and being very much alive in the moment: there’s this other yearning. So those two themes, I think, I can pinpoint on the record. It’s hard to generalize the inspiration.

SFBAC: Historically, you've toured extensively in support of each new album and because of that, the time in between new releases one could argue is longer than other artists. If you've had a chance to think about your next album, do you think you'll apply this new method of writing?

David Gray: Yeah, I have. I've got so many ideas. I think it left the door wide open, and I developed a creative relationship with Andy Barlow, that I think will bear more fruit should we go again. But I also ended up with about thirty or forty finished songs that we never used, so there’s a lot of music waiting to be made. It’s just finding the time. The drudgery of 18 months supporting one album… it stifles a lot of craving to make more music, or to explore further what you've started. It just sort of seems to be that the way the world turns now, you just sort of have to do it in one giant go. That’s something I’d like to have a closer look at as my life progresses {laughter}.

SFBAC: You've been fairly forward thinking with the structure of your own label and the exclusive sales of content through your website in recent years. Do you have any recommendations to other artists in the new music industry paradigm?

David Gray: It’s always been a minefield. Except now, it’s a minefield with a giant gaping hole in the middle of it. That’s the music industry, it doesn't make much sense any more. There’s still a lot of people making a lot of money. There used to be a lot of records made at a decent level, where you might sell tens of thousands in the odd country, and it sort of made some kind of sense, and there was a bit of tour support. But for the sort of small, commercial bands that are making really valid music, these are hard times. It depends what your goals are. So you have to cut your cloth accordingly. I think I've always avoided advertising and sinks like that with product. Wherever possible, I choose not to do that. I see it as a sort of misappropriation. But I've got ridiculous hair, shirts, and at my level questioning and agonizing over this type of thing seems sort of misplaced these days, when the whole … with the shriveling up of radio as a concept, an advert could be one of the most obvious ways of getting your music across. So it’s a changing time, and I don’t think I’m in any kind of position to be giving anyone advice. I think with all these things, you have to follow your heart. You know, I would say if someone offered me a hundred thousand dollars for a piece of music on an advert, I’d say no. But for someone else, in a position without the fan base that I already enjoy, and the structure that I have around me, that might be the money that they can pay their rent for the next 18 months and make another record, and maybe buy a few more bits of kit for their studio.

So it’s like, who’s to say it’s good or bad? So I don’t know. Everyone has to make their own choices. And it’s surely a world in a state of flux, in terms of the music side of it. Sort of gone backwards towards a type of entrepreneurial system, where there’s a lot of pop that’s championed by the TV stations that are exposing these new singers to the world. Like through the Simon Cowell model and various other things. So that’s been one change. Basically, record sales are so catastrophically down that it’s sort of cinema after the birth of TV. That’s where we are with music. It will survive, but it’s reshaping itself. So good luck to anyone who chooses to step into it.

I think the Gillian Welch song, "Everything is Free" (iTunes) – that pretty much sums it up.

SFBAC: You've played SF a number of times. What are your favorite memories of San Francisco?

David Gray: Stunning shows there. Nights at The Fillmore – when we came through with Ray LaMontagne, and we played the Greek, that was an amazing night. I've had so many really charged, extra-special gigs there. I think it’s a special music town. People really give it up when they’re in the mood. So all those gigs come to mind. I've always loved the town. I think it’s the most European of American cities. Because it’s cold. I love it there.

SFBAC: Well, we're looking forward to your show tomorrow night at the Paramount in Oakland and thanks again for making the time today!

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