David Gray Talks “The Best Of…”

David Gray has a career that spans twenty-something years, and traverses an extraordinary path. From his debut and early albums borne from hard work in relative obscurity he was launched into incredible fame when his album White Ladder became a globally ubiquitous hit. Continuing his ongoing pursuit to hone craft and match innovation with traditional values Gray is releasing a new collection The Best Of David Gray – a collection of tunes curated from the entirety of his career, which can be purchased across all traditional formats, but with a twist.

The singer songwriter’s Best Of… is available on Spotify as an ever-evolving playlist of tunes from the artist which is updated every week, reflecting the number of streams each track achieves. The result is an organic shape-shifting collection of Gray’s best music, dictated by the fans, and responsive to the moods and emotions of his own audience. 

“I think if you’re going forward with an open heart, good things will happen,” says David. “You have to sort of tear up the past and let it go.” ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann sat down with one of the most humble men in music to discuss his incredible accomplishments, his keenness to remain hungry, and the enormous value he places on his audience.

Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking to celebrate a ‘best of album’. At the beginning of your career, recording tunes in your living room, did you ever think that your songs would experience the longevity that they’ve had?

David Gray: Well, I hoped so. I think that no one can know that really, but the artists that I modelled myself on, everyone I started by imitating, people like Dylan and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and John Martyn – they’re all people who have a timeless style of writing, and I think that was the kind of music that I was invested in heavily when I started doing my own stuff. You hope that it’s going to stand the test of time.

Every time I listen to those older recordings I’m checking them to see if they do stand up, and it’s always a difficult moment when you listen to them because the way that they sound in your head is quite different to how they really sound. You come face to face with the humanness of what you did, over and over again!

I’m so glad that people are still enjoying the music, and I’m still enjoying making music. All is good in that respect.

CF: I read an interview with you, years ago, when you said that being broke and having limited equipment forced creativity – limited resources shaped the sound of those early recordings. Have you held onto that discipline of maxing your tools?

DG: I’d like to bring it back! (Laughs) In the music business of the present day, there isn’t any money! (Laughs) THAT is the only way now, I think that’s the problem with the industry these days, the first question isn’t “Is it any good?” but “How much does it cost?” because if you want to make a video or make a recording, everybody just looks at you and wonders about the money, because no one buys it (music) any more. It’s a real problem, but I think that’s right – the limited palette, I think is a huge plus.

Obviously if what you’re writing is classical, or if you’re writing for an orchestra it makes it very difficult, if you’ve got no money… to do what you’re doing and to hear what it sounds like. But, when you’re working in the style that I have there’s lots of ways round that. A lot of my favorite records consist of not very much at all. Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen springs to mind, and the early Dylan records – you don’t need much to get your point across when you’re a singer songwriter. There’s minimal dance music too – which is made in someone’s bedroom, and it can sound amazing – and it’s just them and their computer. So, there’s so much you can do, and it’s best to just focus on that.

I think White Ladder was informed by the fact we had no equipment and no money but somehow, within that, we managed to get very creative. In a way it’s more of a problem when you can do anything you want. Control is always helpful.

CF: So, with all that in mind – do you have one trusty piece of equipment that you’ve held on to?

DG: Well, I’ve still held on to my guitar. I still have a Roland box, which is the sound of White Ladder. Obviously, we don’t use the samplers we had then, because everything is done in the computer. But I still use some of the mics that I had back then, and my guitars, and my amps… I’ve still got the same amp… in that way, yes… but these days everything is inside a box, inside a computer, and you only have a few bits and pieces that you use. There’s a world inside the computer.

CF: It was a rerelease of your fourth album White Ladder in 1998 that was arguably your “breakout” year. What about those songs, at that time, do you think resonated so strongly with audiences?

DG: I think it was a very open-hearted record and it sounded distinctive. It had a kind of contemporary feel to it and the soundscapes involved elements of dance music, and electronics, as well as what people considered more traditional, even though electronic music has been around for the better part of a century now. So I think, the sounds, the songs were very minimal and it was just that was our moment, and the story built. There was a sense of inevitability about it as it began to build… it became a thing of great momentum and we believed it.

We’d been kicking around the music scene for years and we didn’t think it would happen, but when it did start to happen we could feel that it was going to carry on. But I guess the songs have had that open hearted, melodic element that reached out to people so when we saw them responding…we turned up on a local basis to make sure they wouldn’t forget!

CF: Is there a particular moment – perhaps when you achieved your first number one album – that changed your perception of what ‘success’ looked like?

DG: Oh yeah! It changed everything. Going through the whole thing of success it changes everything in good and bad ways. It changes you in peoples eyes. Sometimes it’s so hard to come to terms with… the first negative things… when your shows get bigger and bigger and you sell them out all of the time you start to take it for granted. A few years down the line, when that stops happening you think “Oh Christ” and you realize that it was a big deal. I very, very quickly got used to it, and you have to realize that it’s not always going to be like that.

It’s a complete head-spinner on every level. I think as our ascendent curve went up and we reached the heady heights of success on a global basis we had the most wonderful time just getting there, and enjoying the response of everyone everywhere we went. I think once success has arrived and parked itself in your driveway then it becomes a difficult thing. Learning to live with it, there’s a certain expectation, and the way things are – everything changes on so many levels – personally and professionally, it’s a challenge to negotiate. It’s a good thing though, when the world comes up and embraces what you’ve done. It’s never an easy ride!

CF: As a follow up; you have a famously humble approach to craft and the life of a musician. How do you stay hungry, and what inspires you to continue to create after so many successes?

DG: I think it’s something I need to do. It’s an integral part of my being. However I was born and whatever happened from a very young age, the primal howl of what music is, is something I have to keep doing. I need to keep returning to that fountain again and again for another drink, it’s somehow… I wouldn’t be able to live without the creative part of me being able to express itself. Some people have amazing strengths in what they can do, I don’t have them! There’s a lot of things I don’t have, but I do have the belief and audacity to use my musical powers and lyrical powers to adapt to push that stuff out.

It’s all borne of the NEED, I need to keep making music! If I don’t make music or art or something, I get into myself… it’s my way out, my bridge to other people, I find. Life is a struggle and in some ways I’m kind of intense but music helps me get across. I approach the thing with greater intensity with time, it doesn’t lessen, I feel more driven and more obsessed the more I find out and the closer I get to where I’m trying to get. Well, that’s an illusion, you never get there! But as the layers come undone, as I get further and further through my creative life I’m drawn further… my eyes are drawn down the road to what’s going to happen next.

CF: During the writing process, as a songwriter, do you now have an ear that can spot a song that will be commercially successful?

DG: No. No I don’t. I do think I know when I’ve found something that matters though. Whether it’s going to be commercially successful involves so much more than the quality of the piece of music. There’s the way that radio is, and the way that the world is, and I had my big moment when everyone jumped all over it and told all their friends about it. It’s very hard to get back to that… but y’know I think I know when I’ve done something that really stands up and has a hold over me, which doesn’t lessen when you work on it, and as you get to know it; a song that grips you and you feel that there’s something extra to it. I know when I’ve made something like that. That’s what I’m looking for, always.

CF: Given the longevity or your career and the spectrum of rock and roll experiences you must have had, can you share something about the most grounding moment you’ve had in your career?

DG: So it’s easy to forget why you really, really, really why you do this, and how much it can mean to people. You can get very used to success and people buying your tickets, but music is made of emotion really and it’s easy to lose sight of that, and that people invest all of their emotion in (your work) too. I can be very moved when I witness a crowd responding to a song that means so much to me. People need to hear music, and to come to a show, but I need that as well – I need that crowd and those people, and that’s the music too – we need their reaction. In a way you’re in a very vulnerable state, standing up there, even with all the gear and experience behind you. 

You go up there, especially with new songs – you’re putting it out there and you’re hoping that people don’t drop your babies, but take them in their arms. I think the humbling moment is every time! Every time you go up there it can be harrowing – you don’t know if the press are going to have a go or what the press are going to say. It’s a scary moment. Standing in front of a crowd every time you have new material is a trust thing… there’s no safety net, you have to step out onto the wire again. You really know you’re alive. Every time I have a moment like that it reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing. Because there’s nothing worse than being bored.

Once you get beyond being terrified (Laughs) it’s really not boring, so even if it goes badly at least you know you’ve tried something. Those are the moments for me that remind me I’m right back where I started, each time. I’m back – not because I’m doing something formulaic, but because I’ve put my heart and soul into every record and I take it out there, and I’m putting it across, and handing it over. It’s humbling to realize how my you need your audience, because they’re kind of invisible to you in some senses, you don’t know them by name – they’re out there in the dark – but you need them, heart and soul.

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