Bulletproof Within the Music

An Interview with David Gray

by Michael Franco

28 September 2009

For his first new album in four years, David Gray decided to go for broke, sacking his entire band, calling up friends like Annie Lennox and Jolie Holland, and -- for the first time in a long time -- no longer being self-conscious about what he's doing, describing himself as feeling "liberated" now ...
Photos: Phil Knott 

Full Steam Ahead

For most artists, releasing three consecutive #1 albums in the UK would be reassuring.  For David Gray, however, such good fortune was more a reason to be wary.  “I don’t trust security very much,” he says, disdain in his voice.  “It breeds complacency.”

Complacency is something Gray fears, so much so that he did something few artists would even consider while riding the top of the charts for the better part of a decade: instead of using the same formula and players that helped him achieve so much success, he scrapped most of his band and assembled a new one, resulting in Draw the Line, his first album of new material in nearly four years.  Moving long-time collaborators Craig “Clune” McClune, Tim Bradshaw, and David Nolte out of the fold, Gray brought in guitarist Neill MacColl and drummer Keith Pryor.

True, music has never been known for its promises of job security, but for Gray, letting some of his band go was difficult.  “We had a wonderful time,” he muses nostalgically.  “Everyone had everything they could have possibly wished for.  It all happened.  We went around the world and we had a blast ... I don’t know what the future holds.  I don’t know whether we’ll do this again.  Maybe we will.”

Still, though the decision to reconfigure his band was hard, Gray felt his music would suffer if he did not.  “I needed to do something different,” he notes.  “It just felt like some vital force was waning, you know?  And I needed a new challenge ... we’d been through a lot, and it just felt a little bit like it was reaching the end of its natural lifespan.  I just think it was something I sensed.  It wasn’t like I woke up one morning and felt, ‘I’ve had enough of these bastards.  I’ve got to get rid of them.’  It wasn’t like that.”

And though Gray’s decision to begin anew was a bold move, he admits it came with some anxiety. “There’s an element of [fear], yeah,” he says.  “You’re stepping into the void.  You don’t know what’s going to happen, but that’s what life should be about – taking risk.”

As soon as Gray began writing with the new lineup, however, all doubts dissipated – and so did the creative stagnation that had been plaguing him. “The moment we started to work,” he explains, “I just realized I made the right decision.  I could sense the potency of the music straightaway and I was firing on all cylinders again.  It was a wonderful thing.”
The result is Draw the Line, Gray’s first album of new material since 2005’s Life in Slow Motion.  The difference between the two is not only noticeable, but also fairly dramatic.  All of the classic Gray elements are still intact—lush arrangements, sweeping choruses, introspective lyrics—but the underlying tone is completely different.  Whereas Gray sounded like he was hewing to formulas on Life in Slow Motion, Draw the Line sees him combining the songwriting maturity of his successful albums with the insatiable hunger of his early ones.

“We could hear that,” Gray agrees.  “We could hear the potency of the music, the strength of the music.  That’s what you want to hear coming back through the speakers.  It sounds like the real deal to me ... there was a ripeness to it.  And even if the sentiment of some of the songs are kind of troubled or dark or whatever the fashionable word is to describe such things, the counterpoint of the joy of the music making seems to just lift them up.  They never sag into [being] world-weary.  It’s always very outright, very outward, this record.” 

Gray attributes this renewed creative vigor to his new band. “The tone of this band,” he begins, but then trails off.  Finding the right words, he adds, “There’s a bit more attitude to the sound sometimes.  It allowed to me write a kind of lyric and a kind of song that I haven’t been able to successfully execute for years.”

As for the album’s title, Gray admits that it’s a reference to his new creative start.  And for those music fans that are so obsessive as to read meaning into track listings and song titles, he agrees that there are clues to be found there, too.  The album, for example, begins with “Fugitive” and ends with “Full Steam Ahead”.  Could this, perhaps, be Gray’s way of saying that he’s broken out of the bonds of his own legacy to forge a new one?

“The title of the album, Draw the Line, is the demarcation of the end of one thing and the start of another and also the sense that enough’s enough ...”  Referring to the track listing, he says, “This stuff matters to me.  Nothing’s there by accident.  I think all the questions everyone asks me about the record and about me and everything—all the answers are on the record anyway.”

More than jumpstarting his creative process, Grays notes, his new music has allowed him to step out of the shadow of his own achievements.  Though he’s grateful for the success of White Ladder and subsequent albums, the attention and expectations began to feel stifling.  Draw the Line—with its combination of new musicians and creative energy—allowed Gray to leave all that behind him; to, as it were, cut lose the albatross hanging from his neck.

“It’s allowing me to be far more bullish and outward in everything I do and everything I say.  I feel empowered by it.  I’m free, liberated from the complexities which I’ve plagued myself with in the light of all the success and the sort of hall of mirrors that I had been living in in the post White Ladder-world.  I’ve sort of managed to extricate myself from all this worrisome complexity and suddenly life is sort of wonderfully direct and simple again.”

But while Draw the Line is the result of Gray breaking with his own past, it is not contrived.  It is not, in other words, a paint-by-numbers statement, a conscious attempt to create the musical antithesis of his past work.  Rather, it is the result of Gray approaching his craft with renewed vigor, unencumbered by his own looming legacy.

“The thing that’s wonderful about this album,” Gray explains, “is that it’s not a conscious anything.  It’s just an act of surrender to the music.  It’s a surrender to life and a surrender to the blessing that was everything that happened.  It’s not like I [was] consciously striving when making this record to be anything or do anything.  The record itself will just do that.  The music will do that.  It’s the fact that I’m not self-consciously trying to do it.  That’s what’s liberating.  It’s like I’m suddenly just enjoying making the music and I’ve stopped thinking about all that bullshit.”

Helping Gray in that process of liberation are some stellar guest vocalists: former Eurhythmics singer Annie Lennox and underground American gem Jolie Holland, each of whom sing a duet on the album.  Speaking of the former, Gray is so amazed by the collaboration that he can barely find the words to describe the experience. “Unbelievable,” he says.  “We were blown away by her. She absolutely nailed it.”  Indeed, listening to the track that Lennox guests on—“Full Steam Ahead”—it’s sometimes difficult to even tell which artist is singing which line, their voices are such a natural, harmonious match.

When speaking of Holland, Gray is equally amazed, but more descriptive.  “Her voice is the most natural thing I’ve ever heard ... she’s got the blues, jazz, the Appalachian logic slugging through her veins.  Most people strive for it in some sort of self-conscious way—in a sort of PJ Harvey, Tom Waits-ian [way]—they try to be bluesy.  But she just is that stuff ... she’s not one to sort of hammer home the melody.  She likes to sort of swim around and sort of splash and dive in music’s possibility.  She feels the swing, the jazz, the blues, [and] she bangs the note.  She doesn’t sing in any straight lines.  There’s something so pure about her.”

There are other standout moments on the album, of course, and one of them is “Stella the Artist”.  Channeling classic ‘60s pop and combining it with modern indie charm, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Belle and Sebastian album.  The track stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album, and Gray’s mood lightens when discussing it.

“That’s the sound of a band having fun.  Simple as that.  We were just having a ball.  We had just played ‘Fugitive’ the day before and the next morning I came in and that one came out of nowhere.  We were just making stuff up.  We were having a real laugh.  The engineer stuck my Steinway through this massive compressor and put a tremolo on it and it just sounded like crazy.  It was like a Marshall stack blasting out of a piano.  That’s how it felt to play it, through the headphones.  So we just had a ball.  Everyone was just having a laugh.  You can hear this sort of liberation that we were all feeling in the music.  Some of the songs are deep and meaningful and blah, blah, blah ... but that one’s just the sound of people having fun. ”

The sound of a band having fun—that, perhaps, is the best way to describe Draw the Line. No, it’s not always an uptempo affair, but it is always an impassioned one.  If Gray’s goal was to infuse his music with raw vigor, the gamble has paid off.  And, if he wanted to make a statement about taking control of his own career, he has most certainly succeeded.

“That’s basically what this album is saying: ‘Here I am.  I’m looking you right in the eye, staring out of the cover.’  That’s how it feels.  That’s how the music feels.  I feel very bulletproof within the music.”

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