His latest effort, Draw the Line, hits stores September 21, and Gray chatted with the Music Mix to discuss his new musical direction, the upcoming fall tour and why he hopes certain tunes won’t make you gouge any eyes out.
Entertainment Weekly: You have two immediate standout tracks on Draw the Line — duets with Annie Lennox [“Full Steam Ahead”] and Jolie Holland [“Kathleen”]. How did those collaborations come about?
David Gray: Well, with the Jolie track, I already had the vocals all worked out. It sounded so country to me that I needed someone who just had that Southern music in their blood. Dolly Parton was the first thing that came into my head, but Jolie was playing in London and someone rang me up and said, “Dave, are you going?” And, it was like the penny dropped: “Jolie is the person to sing this.” I’m such a huge fan of hers. She’s got music in her blood, that Southern twang, the jazziness, the blues, it’s like as natural as honey suckle climbing up a wall. Most people are just aping that style, albeit aping it well — Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, you name it — but she’s just got it in her. So, I went to her show and saw her afterward and asked her if there was any way she could find an extra day to come in.
I think that song, “Kathleen”, it’s like the sleeper song on the record. And then we weren’t finished yet; there’s Annie Lennox on this stupendous album-closing track, which cost us about an album’s worth of effort to make, actually. It was all finished, except for the vocals, and it was obvious it needed to be a duet. I thought it should have been another man, like a Righteous Brothers sort of thing, but it was my manager who suggested Annie. Now I can’t imagine anyone else on that track. There’s a dark sentiment to the song and the lyrics are quite harrowing, but she makes a line like, “Bullied, cornered, pimped, and patronized” sound like fun. The duets provided such a treat. Obviously I love the sound of my own voice (laughs) but it’s nice to have somebody else involved.
EW: There’s a lot of David Gray familiarity for fans, but there are aspects that are noticeably different from previous albums, too. Was that intentional or was it something organic that just happened along the way?
DG: There’s a sense of release of energy on this record, it’s like pent-up forces smashing through the dam and coursing down through the music. For a while I’d known that things were going to change and with the new band — there’s a slightly different attitude to the music. It unleashed a wave of ideas and imagery and unlocked a voice that I’d sort of lost. It’s a slightly more confrontational, panoramic style than when I started out. I think whatever it was that sort of had me trapped, I suddenly got over it, you know? It might have been success itself, fame, money, the profound changes your life undergoes when this s— happens to you and you’re living in a hall of mirrors. Instead of filming the interiors of my own emotional landscape, I’ve now kicked the front door down and I’m sort of this roving, magnum photographer just taking a snapshot of anything and everything.
EW: With all these changes, are you anxious to get on the road with this album?
DG: Yes, of course. I’ve been lucky because I’ve already had a little taste of it because I’ve been doing appearances on shows in the U.K. this summer and we tested some of the new material and it was amazing, actually. The thing about this record is, unlike previous records, I’ve just abandoned the modern way of recording. Most of the songs on the record are recorded live and played live, so it’s getting that little bit of magic out of performing them live. It’s just made to play on the stage, there’s such a sense of vitality to it and I feel so present in the music and in myself that I think the live shows are just going to fly.
EW: It’s been almost a decade since White Ladder and you acknowledged how much you and your music has changed since then, but do you appreciate the success that album had in a different way now, too?
DG: Of course, yeah, and you sort of realize how fast it’s all going by. I feel a sense of empowerment now where perhaps I once had a sense of vertigo. I tried to work out, “What does this all mean?” There’s no making sense of it, the millions of people buying your records or buying your concert tickets. When the world blesses you in the way it’s blessed me, if you’re wearing anything less than a smile, it isn’t a good look. It’s taken me a while to find mine again, but it’s back. I feel a huge sense of satisfaction with what I’ve been able to accomplish with this record, I’m very proud of it. It shines a light on a whole range of facets of my writing and my music and me that aren’t so obvious on White Ladder. Which is obviously what I’m pigeonholed as, “David Gray, White Ladder, ‘Babylon,’” that’s my little sentence in the rock music manual, you know? (Laughs) I have changed unquestionably; I appreciate things in a different way than I did because I’ve got some perspective on it now. It’s almost like I’ve grown up and now it’s for real.
EW: There are so many musicians who probably feel the same way. Do you feel a certain kinship with them?
DG: Yeah, of course, I can sympathize with that. It’s difficult to grapple with shadows and illusions. Once they’re made you have to go and shine your light again and say “Over here! I’m over here! And this is actually the way it is!” There’s no clever, self-conscious move where you’re like, “This will show them all!” There’s no sort of kung fu s— you can do, unfortunately, because there’s quite a few people I would like to try it out on (laughs).
EW: How did you approach recording this time around?
DG: We were just going for takes, you know? We’d go three days without getting “Jackdaw,” and than on the fourth day you get the one and it’s all worth it. All the usual rollercoaster s—. We were all getting to know each other, it’s a new group of people. But, it was just wonderful to hear the results, it all just sounded so right. They’re like boulders in the road, these songs, you can turn the hoses on them but they’re not going anywhere.
EW: Were there any albums or musicians you were heavily listening to while recording this album?
DG: I really connected to the Bon Iver record. There’s a record called Pride by Phosphorescent that I really, really like, too. But I can’t say that either of those things fed into the record, because this time around, I kind of shut the world out, really. I didn’t listen to too much because I was too consumed with what we were doing.
EW: So many of your songs have made their way into American music and television. Is that something that’s trickled over to England? What’s your take on your success in that realm of pop culture?
DG: I don’t know what effect it all had, and I don’t know what it all means. I’ve had my music in some programs in the UK; sometimes it’s titillating to have your music crop up in something you’re actually watching. There’s a long-running soap opera called Coronation Street which my wife watches avidly, and occasionally I’m on that and that’s amusing. If its done artfully in a good television program, it can be very good means of exposure. But, music is so bloody omnipresent in everything, every moment of every sodding day that it starts to cancel itself out. It’s not something I’ve got a strategy on. I’m sometimes uncomfortable with the cheesier things, but you never know how cheesy something is going to be when it’s being made. And it’s hard to gauge whether your song playing when they gouge someone’s eye out is a good or a bad thing.
EW: Your first single, “Fugitive,” had its music video debut recently. It’s a pretty visually captivating video with all the art elements, are you happy with it for the song? Do you enjoy the process of making music videos?
DG: I think it would have been a bit more fully realized from the art perspective had we had, like, ten times the budget. The last time I saw it, I was worried that the narrative wasn’t so obvious with the picture, and it just seemed like some children’s television program (laughs). What I was most pleased about was that I look like I’m having fun in it, I look alive, as opposed to uncomfortable. It’s not my favorite part of the job, you know. I think songs already have their own videos written into them.
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