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Interview: David Gray

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: David GrayPhoto by Gavin Batty.
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The most recent leg of the multi-platinum singer-songwriter's 25th anniversary tour stops in Columbus tonight in support of recently-released "The Best of David Gray"

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David Gray and I connected by phone a few weeks ago when I was in England for business. Just a few hours before, I had been listening to his most recently released project, The Best of David Gray, while riding a train from London to Sheffield – watching the English countryside whiz by as we made our way north. It was a perfect soundtrack; almost as if he had anticipated what I would see out the window with each song in succession. I’d always admired Gray’s pungent, expressive voice — one of those vocalists whose tone frequently seemed to teeter between sadness and jubilation. Of course, his 2000 breakout single “Babylon,” through which most on this side of the Atlantic made his acquaintance, leads The Best of…’s track list, but the remainder makes important detours to material from his first three studio albums through 2014’s Mutineers. Two excellent brand new tracks, “Smoke Without Fire” and “Enter Lightly” are also included in the mix.

After a quarter-century of making music, Gray is both reflective and optimistic, something he believes makes touring markedly different all these years down the road.

“It’s become more important to me as I get older, so hopefully I carry that lightly,” he explains. “And I think I’ve turned around to face my past and suddenly it all feels all right. I’m pleased that it’s there, and I’m going to delve into it for my own pleasure as much as the audience’s. That’s a kind of new development because I’ve always tried to push on record-by-record, particularly since White Ladder when you become defined by just a few songs and it’s a struggle to move the crowd where you want them, so they’ll open their minds and their ears to something they perhaps didn’t know they were going to hear.

So now as opposed to starting out, it’s much easier to change the feel without losing the crowd, and people genuinely get in on things earlier — really into the music and up for anything. But when you start out playing to thousands and thousands and thousands of people who’ve just caught on because “Babylon” has been a smash hit, it’s harder to move them about the place and keep yourself interested. It’s terrible when you’re bored yourself, but it’s an inevitable problem playing the same songs.

But, the wonderful thing I’m enjoying at the moment is changing the set list as radically as I am — it’s just me up there. Obviously, I’ll play a lot of the songs that people want to hear, but I generally leave that towards the end and spend the first hour-and-a-half sort of satisfying my own wanderlust as I skip through the years and enliven various songs. So that’s what’s changed, I think, the most for me is sort of my own attitude; I’ve suddenly found I’m not defensive about it all and I’m really enjoying playing some of the old songs. And it surprises me the way they’ve stood the test of time for me as a singer, so it’s nice to reconnect with them and realize that I’m making a living exactly the way I was 25 years ago.”

Columbus fans will have the opportunity to join him on that journey tonight at Express LIVE! Joining Gray is acclaimed singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, perhaps best known for her Grammy award-winning epic “Sunny Came Home.” Gray will play additional dates in Ann Arbor, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Altanta before returning to the UK at the end of the month.

I’ve been listening to The Best Of… today, and it’s a really outstanding compilation. But I also came across two additional songs that you’ve released digitally in tribute to your late grandmother, and I found them really touching. If you don’t mind, tell me a little about her and what compelled you to write those in her honor?

“It’s not the usual thing that I would do. She was ninety-nine and we were looking forward to spending her hundredth birthday with her. But she fell just a few months short of that landmark. She had a stroke. I was in the midst of recording, and when she fell ill last year — about this time last year — two or three songs came straight out of the experience. I just wanted to put something up to mark the fact that she wasn’t around anymore. She was someone I got on with really well, like the poetic wellspring of the family. She was the person I could see a lot of my love of words, expression directly from her. So I can trace my poetic flights of fancy to my granny. She was a natural storyteller. And so, yeah, she was someone very special, and was so close to making it to the big one-hundred years. I thought I’d mark the century myself with a bit of a musical headstone, as it were.

I’m really proud of the songs — they’re very direct. Whether they articulate a narrative that’s precise in describing anything…it’s more of the emotion that floods through that came…some of it came directly from watching her. It’s a bit of mess, like, when people get old and they have a stroke or whatever, it’s hard to watch. I found the whole thing a real challenge. God knows I’ve had enough of that experience over the past however many years — there’s been too much of it. These little songs sprung out. They seem light and not too heavy-handed, and they do the job.”

And that’s really what I’ve loved about your music in the seventeen years or so I’ve been listening – you exhibit tremendous sincerity, and it’s so easy to believe what you’re saying in your songs.

“That’s the measuring post, eventually. There has to be a reckoning with the music I’ve recorded to see whether it measures up in that way. Does it feel true? That’s not to say that it’s autobiographical, but does it ring true? Does it feel like something that’s going to last? These two songs you’re describing — I kind of got as close to the essence of making music as I’ve managed in my recordings. Particularly the ‘Eclipse’ track — there’s hardly anything there. It’s really about the empty space as much as about the singing. It’s one of the directions I’m exploring in my music at the moment.”

I know initially you kept your songwriting and production very close to your chest. Is that still the case as you make music now?

“Interestingly, the nature of how I approach that process has changed significantly. It was subtle to start with, but it’s not so subtle anymore. When I’m in the studio, I leave as much space … it’s about finding the right person, the right creative spirit, in the studio to record with who’s going to take the idea and run with it. So sonically, I’m always looking for new space. I leave as much room as I can dare within the music to allow someone else to put their thumbprint on the sound and where it can go. That’s my means of progressing the music out to somewhere it hasn’t been. If I just took the helm, each time it would sort of sound the same. It still has my hallmark because I’ll be singing it and shaping it and making editorial decisions. But rather than fill the sonic space myself, I might put the barest chords and the vocal and see what somebody else throws into the mix. And that’s something that really started happening during White Ladder, my breakthrough, where I left a lot of room for other people to impact the music and change it and put their character in it as well. And it got stronger through that process rather than more dilute. And that’s continued to the present day. The way that it manifests itself in the studio or on the stage will be different with each record. But it’s essentially that process. And I find that more and more I look forward to what other people bring — the surprise in that space — that might lead me somewhere I couldn’t get to on my own. And that’s what I’m always looking for.

It’s so difficult to break. I default solo, I think, because it’s what I’ve been doing for so long. But I’m sort of trying to stop myself so that something else can happen. By making myself vulnerable and entering the unknown on certain levels, something a little different might occur. But anyway, that’s the process, and it’s continuing to this day. I’m in the studio now trying to finish up my latest record, which should hopefully be released out into the wider world before too long.”

I was in London for the past few days, and it seemed like everywhere I went — record shops, restaurants, pubs — they were absolutely blasting 60s R&B and soul music. Just amazing, melodic stuff that doesn’t get played as often as it should in the US. There seems to be a different culture of appreciation — would you agree that Britons listen to music differently than their counterparts overseas?

“We definitely do, yeah. It seems to have a good ear. It’s a real melting pot, you know, of ideas. We’ve got all of these sort of American influences that mix in with the European music background and electronica that have all sort of cross-pollinated in the process. You can usually assert a sound here that feels unlikely to happen in different genres in America, I would say. Maybe the respect is getting less and less as time passes. I think it’s the hardest country to break. There’s no respect just ’cause you’re doing something well. (laughs) It’s really tough going out there. Those early gigs in this country have never left me (laughs). They were hard work. It’s not like it was easy anywhere else. But maybe that’s a part of it as well – there’s sort of a no-nonsense, gritty kind of thing that the Brits have got. But the melting pot of ideas here is certainly idiosyncratic. And the fact is it’s a much smaller place, and things happen a lot faster in some ways, faster than it can be captured, really. So, yeah, it’s ever-evolving. Don’t ask me what it’s evolving into.”

As I was doing research for our interview, I came across an article in The Independent in which you discussed a turning point where you embraced joy — or joyfulness — in crafting music. Are you continuing to find that now?

“Yeah, I think when music clicks it is quite a joyous thing — it’s unbelievably joyous. This next record I put out will be the most upbeat thing that I’ve done. That’s not because of lots of trite observations about how great life can be (laughs) — only Bob Marley was capable of saying the blindingly obvious without sounding stupid (laughing). It’s not like the songs have become mindlessly optimistic, except there’s … I guess there this sort of following on from what you were talking about in that interview, which is probably from awhile back. The floodgates are still open. There’s a real upbeat, hopeful sound. I’m not saying the subject matter is always directly optimistic. But anyway, it’s probably going to be one of the most upbeat records I make. It’s not that life’s getting any easier, either. I guess I’m enjoying the moment and treasuring it, and maybe I’ve got rid of a lot of the baggage I was carrying around about the creative process and what I was supposed to be doing with it. And I’m just enjoying it again in a more child-like way.”

David Gray (with special guest Shawn Colvin) will take the stage tonight, 7 p.m., at Express LIVE!, 405 Neil Avenue in the Arena District. General admission tickets (this show is outdoors) are $30 (plus taxes and fees), and are available via Ticketmaster. The Best of David Gray can be purchased in multiple formats via his official website.


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