David Gray never had to worry before about living up to his own success. But after birthing three failed albums in a row, Gray became a bona fide pop star (for VH1 viewers, at least) with 1999’s ”White Ladder,” even scoring a belated Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. So while crafting his new album, ”A New Day at Midnight,” the 31-year-old singer/songwriter finally found himself with something to lose.
Nonetheless, the hushed, melancholy ”Midnight” (sample lyric: ”We’re running through a world that’s lost its meaning”) doesn’t sound like the work of an artist worried about maintaining a hard-won commercial profile. Instead, slow-churning songs like ”Dead in the Water” are steeped in the grief and confusion Gray suffered in the wake of his father’s recent death — hardly the stuff of ”Babylon”-style hit singles. Gray, who’s now on tour in the U.S., sat down with EW.com to talk about ”Midnight,” and what’s coming next.
A couple years ago you said that you’d written upbeat, commercial songs with big hooks for your new album. Where are those tunes?
They became sort of outmoded, I think, because of what happened to me personally. When I sat down to write, this album came out instead. It has a few songs from earlier on: ”Be Mine” and ”Caroline” stand out as being slightly different from the rest. But it was more of a melancholic, sort of moody record in the end. All the things that happened to me turned into music, really, and that seemed more compelling than the ”White Ladder”-esque tunes that were knocking about 18 months ago.
You’ve made this intimate, downbeat little album, but you’re playing arenas to promote it. How hard is it to get the songs across in that setting?
Of course it’s a challenge. To create a moment night after night in a big room is not always easy, unless you’re just willing to become formulaic, pantomiming idiots. I’m not willing to gratify the audience too readily, because it can backfire. And I’m not f—ing interested in that anyway. The other way of reaching people is by taking a chance; the public knows when there’s an element of danger to something. I’m not talking about careening about like Iggy Pop and self-lacerating — I mean playing something you haven’t played for a long time, or playing an acoustic version. Whatever you do onstage just has to be done with total conviction, if you’re not willing to take the easy route of pyrotechnics or flaming codpieces.
The electronics-driven sound of ”White Ladder” evolved almost accidentally, so how did you end up returning to it this time around?
We actually attempted to go into the studio with a band and do it a bit differently. But it didn’t come together. So we ended up returning to just the three of us [Gray, drummer Clune, and producer Iestyn Polson] in front of a computer with a few synths. It wasn’t an album so much about takes or playing, but more about working with loops and various things. After seeing these songs come to life onstage, though, I do think the NEXT album will be more about playing and experimentation. This album is markedly different in subject matter from ”White Ladder,” but not a million miles away in sound. When I look at it now, I wish we experimented more. But it is what it is. There’s always an element of compromise.
Where do you see your career going from here?
Obviously, I don’t know. So much can happen that can change your mind completely. But I play the long game — I’m not interested in being defined entirely by what ”White Ladder” was. It might be my most commercially successful moment or it might not.
Do you have a role model for the path you’re on?
People like Bruce Springsteen, they’ve just kept on. They haven’t always been the hippest thing, or the most praiseworthy thing. They kept faith with what they believed in. And in the long run it pays off. People like him — and Bob Dylan, Neil Young — they just keep at it. It’s fruitless to overanalyze any one album. You just have to keep going, and take criticism on board. And keep a close eye on whether you’re aping yourself. And that’s the challenge I face next time.