You would be forgiven for thinking that this was the difficult second album, but in truth it is the (comparatively) painless sixth. Just to throw some context on the impact and scale of its predecessor, White Ladder is double platinum in the United States. And even though he'd been releasing albums for almost a decade it earned David a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. The American success is less than half the story. In the UK it was certified seven times platinum in the UK with sales of over 2.2 million accrued over more than 100 weeks in the Top 40. In Ireland, at the time of writing, the album has spent 175 weeks on the chart and is the biggest selling, non album of all time. Beyond statistics, the essence of White Ladder's creation contributed to its unique status. Here was a record made at home after a series of thwarted excursions into the mainstream and certainly not one fashioned with a view to reaping success on such a scale; an album of unlikely and homespun origins whose instinctive honesty and simplicity found favour around the world back home. Clearly its successor would never have the luxury of consensus, building on such dramatic terms.
So how do you follow that? Well, in this case you assemble the winning team: David Gray, his song writing partner and multi instrumental force of nature, Clune, and all-round studio visionary, Iestyn Polson, and retire to a tiny studio (all 20 by 10 feet of it) and make the best damn record you can. The fruits of that labor (recorded intermittently in between spring 2001, after the end of touring in September that year, but chiefly in the months leading up to August this year) are certain to both surprise and defy expectations, while demonstrating that Gray's talent has flowered on a par with his commercial success and that he is, without a doubt, a major force in contemporary music and songwriting.
From its opener, ‘Dead In The Water', what strikes you is that this is far from an attempt to court success on easy, commercial terms. "The words to that song came one morning and they were a bit like the old me, says David. I wasn't sure whether he was gonna resurface… they had a bit more of an edge to them. I became glad of it, but at the time I was a little bit unsure. It's more like the old style ‘Birds Without Wings'/ ‘Let The Truth Sting' approach… From the outset, it makes it distinctly different from White Ladder, which had a real lightness of touch."
By the last track and first single ‘The Other Side', it's equally clear that this is a serious record. If you can honestly say you love music and you love life, then you won't be disappointed, which isn't to say you won't be surprised.
"After the huge success of White Ladder there was a certain amount of psychology involved with making this record, says David. It's generally unhealthy to be concerning yourself too much with what other people might think. The task I faced was to get past all that, and get on with the job of writing and recording some music that articulated how I was thinking and feeling in the here and now. When recording started there were lots of songs lying around from the previous few years. I really believed that they were important songs, singles, whatever. Hardly any of them made it. As soon as the new songs started to come there was a freshness and a mystery to the recording process that the older songs couldn't bring. Just for a little while, a new song is free of all that ‘being important', ‘commercially viable' crap that you make up in your head. When you first sing it, you sing it innocently, and it's at that point that you've got to nail it. It's great when it happens, but, of course, like most things, it doesn't always work out that way. I kept writing right up until the mix, and songs like ‘The Other Side' were recorded only a few days before we stopped. "There wasn't time to sit around procrastinating. I finished up the lyrics, and we recorded the whole thing in a couple of hours. It's those instinctive, unselfconscious moments that for me are the strongest parts of any record. They don't arrive by magic, they're more a by-product of hard work. If I had to say the record has a theme, it would be one of loss really. As the title expresses, there's a vividness to life even at the bleakest, darkest, moments. Those are the times when you get the most out of other people. It's as though the poignancy of the thing almost gives you a lightness. You feel free of all the stupid shit. You kind of see life and people and what they're good for… The key cog of the whole thing is that people die and they don't come back but remnants of them resurface and re-occur and catch you off guard, and it's not always an easy thing to come to terms with. I'm just doing what I do. It's not that there's been a decision made to go in this direction, that's just the way it's gone. The ‘pop songs' that were hanging about didn't seem to be ringing true there wasn't enough substance there. Suddenly they weren't where I was at and I needed to express what I'd been through."
So what we have here then is a classic, creative paradox, a life-affirming record hewn in the name of mortality. And not one unleavened by lighter moments either. While the tone of White Ladder has shifted, the simplicity of its sound and structure are retained. Something that is due in part to using a studio that's as close to home (in size if not in terms of technology) as you're going to find. It is funny using such a tiny studio, says David. "There are limitations to that. You can't get a piano in there for one thing, so you do your take on a digital. By contrast any little stupid instrument we bought seemed to feature, from dulcimer ‘Be Mine' to toy piano ‘Last Boat to America', melodica ‘Kangaroo', and dodgy old synths and keyboards. One day we decided we'd hire a steel drum and play it ourselves. But it is just a big can with dents in it. You need 20 to make the sound blend into a sympathetic whole. With one, replicated over and over again, it just sounds horribly out of tune, it sounded fucking terrible! That was a waste of a day. This record sounds a whole lot bigger and deeper than White Ladder did. This time, at least, we had some decent microphones so we could record the drums properly. It's been done to a higher level but it still feels home made. We just decided that that's our vibe at this point in time. I'm not arsed about making some super-clean sounding studio record. I like the lo-fi quality. We just took up where we left off [with White Ladder]. Once you've got all your anxieties out of your system, it's the same old process, it's a simple thing." Steel drums apart.
So, what could have simply been the next step on the career path, reveals itself instead to be something far more singular. An event and a piece of work in its own right. A record about change and loss that is anything but a linear progression from its predecessor, and one made for a million ears to hear but that emerges infused with intimacy and that plays and was built by its own rules.
David Gray Facts
|Birthplace||Manchester, England, United Kingdom|