Photo: Derrick Santini

“Hanging Images in Sound”: An Interview with David Gray

At the start of his latest tour of Europe, David Gray speaks with PopMatters about his 11th solo album, writing to avoid the obvious, finding the perfect collaborator, and how to avoid "crowing on like a middle-aged man".

Gold in a Brass Age
David Gray
1 March 2019

In many ways, David Gray will always be a victim of his success. Most know him for 1998’s international smash White Ladder – to date, still the top-selling album in Irish history – a record which houses songs like “Babylon”, “This Year’s Love”, and “Sail Away”. Each one of those tunes beautifully captures Gray’s atypical arranging and production choices, and any one of them can stand alone in the growing collection of great 21st century love songs. White Ladder found itself catapulted to success following a quiet 1998 release on Gray’s own IHT label when in 2000 the Dave Matthews-helmed ATO Records helped land it a number one spot on the charts. Gray stood out from Matthews and other sensitive male folk singers of the time by virtue of his interest in melding together electronic and acoustic elements. Even in its most sentimental moments, White Ladder outlasts anything else like it from that era.

Unfortunately, the most popular numbers from White Ladder, in addition to singles on the records which followed it (such as “Be Mine” from 2002’s A New Day at Midnight), led some to believe that Gray was little more than a sappy romantic. Gray is arguably the greatest living writer of love songs, but his repertoire far extends the earnestness of “This Year’s Love” and its ilk. But because Gray’s subsequent records didn’t climb the charts in the way White Ladder did, the popular image of him as “the guy who wrote ‘Babylon'” persists, notwithstanding the impressive discography that came after that fateful single.

The music Gray went on to make after White Ladder was the strongest of his career. For my money, the ornate Life in Slow Motion (2005), with its stately and gorgeous ballads “Alibi” and “Disappearing World”, captures Gray’s brilliance best of all, but Draw the Line (2009) and Mutineers (2014) are no slouches either. Gray’s unmatched wordplay and evocative imageries are head and shoulders above many of his peers, and musically he’s shown that his range extends well beyond the bedroom “folktronica” of White Ladder. As a songwriter who’s already achieved great success, Gray easily could have spent the rest of his career merely tinkering with the sound which made him famous. But with his newest and 11th record, Gold in a Brass Age, Gray does as he’s done on all the records between it and White Ladder: sought out unexplored avenues for reinvention.

With producer Ben de Vries at the helm of the studio (Ben is the son of Marius de Vries, who produced Life in Slow Motion), Gray took on a songwriting strategy for Gold in a Brass Age not far removed from White Ladder, a comparison he himself invites. The songs feel comprised of numerous interlocking bits; pull any one of them out of the puzzle and they might seem like musical half-thoughts, things one might come up with while playing an instrument without thinking. But Gray’s skill can be found in his ability to thread together several fragmentary ideas all at once, such that by the time the ideas coalesce, it’s hard to imagine them having existed in any other form.

On his most recent live LP, the stunning three-night, six-disc Live at the National Concert Hall Dublin, Gray demonstrates that with just his voice and a guitar or piano, he can make his often intricately arranged music shine with just the fundamentals. The songs of Gold in a Brass Age invite similar stripped-down performances: “Watching the Waves” would make for a haunting piano ballad, and with just a guitar, lead single “The Sapling” would still prove a compelling piece of gospel music. The appeal of Gold in a Brass Age is its patchwork-like songwriting, its ability to mine little musical details to create colorful sonic canvases.

I spoke with Gray over the phone on the day he had a gig scheduled at the Liverpool Philharmonic in his native England. Fresh off a few nights of touring, Gray sounds enlivened by his new music, and the chance to bring it to audiences around the world.

The Gold in a Brass Age tour just kicked off. How have things been going so far?

It’s been tremendous so far, absolutely amazing. No complaints whatsoever… the gigs have all been top-notch! The combination of the new stuff with the re-sculpted old stuff seems to be working.

When you say “re-sculpting”, do you mean you’re playing your older material in the style of the Gold in a Brass Age?

Because the new material is quite electronic, we’ve had to bring that technology with us, which has enabled me to reinstate the electronic elements of some of the older songs—the obvious things being songs from White Ladder and A New Day at Midnight. We’ve got the samples, the drum machines, and so on. That’s quite a powerful tool when you unleash it. So when we play “Please Forgive Me”, or “Babylon”, or “Sail Away”, what the audience gets is something quite like what they used to sound like. I haven’t really been performing those songs in that way.

When you’re writing songs, do you tend to start with electronic or acoustic instrumentation? Or have the two melded together by now?

It varies. These days, I’m looking for any new way to come back into music from a different angle. It could be that I begin with a synth part, or by making up a vocabulary of drum sounds based entirely on me slapping my hands against furniture. You begin with something like that, which becomes a rhythm, and then you sense there’s a kind of chordal element, and you work back into the chords from there. Then you try and find a vocal to go over the top.

It could be that it works like that. Or it could be that the drummer’s there [in the studio], and I hear him playing something, and then I record it, play it back to him, and he plays something over the top.

Or I could take a single line of lyric – or even just a written line that has no melody – and try to find a melody or chord sequence. I’d then sing that to my producer, who would put a sort of electronic placeholder in, which sometimes remains until the end. There’s lots of different ways.

One thing we were careful to do is not voice the songs in obvious ways – as in, just vocals with a strummed acoustic guitar or piano, something like that. We disfigured the instruments to create a new instrument, almost like a Cubist version of a guitar – you can hear that on a couple of tracks where things get really chopped up. When you break things apart like that, it becomes part of the aesthetic. What we’re really presenting is a collage, and because of how we’ve structured it you can accept it for what it is. If you’re listening to a tricky bit of guitar playing on its own, your ear is left wondering what’s going on. But if you make this “Cubist” approach part of the way you build a record from the ground up, your ear accepts it more readily.

I don’t know what it is you’re looking for when you’re making a song or a record. You’re trying to find something that rings true, and you can’t always come hard at the truth. Sometimes you’ve got to traverse, you’ve gotta take other ways in. You can’t keep taking the same path.

In listening to the record, it was indeed difficult to figure out what could have been the starting point for the songs because of their lattice-like structure. Were you starting with a collection of music or lyrics that you had been sitting on? What was the initial path you found?

I did have some ideas pre-prepared, but the moment when the record gathered momentum and began to gain its identity was when I found the right producer. I’m working with Ben de Vries. He comes ’round, and at first, we just tried jamming on a couple of things. Then I introduced a couple of preexisting ideas, most of which were unfinished. One was “Watching the Waves.”

We’d already been listening to a few pieces of music so we both could understand what I might be looking for, approximately. We set about trying to voice that piece of music in such a way that we’d avoid the clichés that were waiting for us. After three days’ work, we basically had the finished thing; we’d completed our first piece of music. But it wasn’t just that; what I realized is that this is what I had been looking for. This guy can articulate these ideas in a really beautiful and surprising way, a zestful way. You don’t want any kind of labored production; you want something that feels natural.

With that in mind, I set almost all my other ideas to one side, and we embarked on a mad rush, a restarting from virtually nothing. There’s something about begetting an idea in the studio with co-conspirators: I feel disinhibited enough to do that now, to start with nothing and feel my way into the song. So I might start with a couple of lines written in my notebook. We’ll begin from there and I’ll feel out some chords and a sense of rhythm, and try to impress that rhythm upon the words. We’ll take that small thing, that little acorn, and grow it out into something.

When [“Watching the Waves”] opened like that, the process is much more magical, much easier for another creative person to get involved. We have to sculpt the space; good music is all about creating space: the space for the sound, the melody, the lyrics, the big payoff. It’s harder to bring others in if the song is “set.” It’s like working with steel.

I chose to write these songs by starting with nothing, and I became confident that I could make something on top of it or with it. In the end, it was a very spontaneous process; most of what you hear, with a couple of exceptions, was born in the studio at very rapid speed. Then we spend an awfully long time making sophisticated decisions about how to present the idea.

How would you describe Ben’s approach to the music?

We gelled virtually instantly. It was a perfect thing. It was the right person at the right time. So there wasn’t a cross word between us; it was a very joyful, exploratory process of just looking for sounds and developing music. There was no sense of ego in either of us, with regard to “what belonged to him” or “what belonged to me.” [The record] was just great fun to make – I wouldn’t say “effortless”, but once I realized I could get on the terrain I’d been yearning to find, I just threw everything into it.

For Ben, as a young producer who’s not that experienced, it’s quite a daunting thing to work with somebody who’s been around the block a lot of times. I don’t mince my words. But he was totally unfazed by the intensity of the whole thing, and really gave everything he had to the process. He has a very gentle way of finding ways both in and out of problems, either with production or with songwriting. There was always a light, airy quality in the studio when we were working, which comes through on the record. There’s a serious side to the music, yes, but there is a celebratory – I wouldn’t call it an undertone – sense of joy throughout.

Now that you’ve made two consecutive records with unique producers in each case, how does that experience stack up with the times you’ve produced your own music?

I think I need that other person. I’m not a technical or computer person. I need someone who can turn the dials and make sense of my ideas. My ham-fisted attempts at recording are quite predictable. I wanted someone who could take me somewhere else and make it sound convincing. I definitely need that other person, and I think I’ve found that other person; there’s a lot of creative riches in this particular vein to be had in the coming years.

The next thing we do together, the next full project, is going to be a very ambitious thing. I sensed during the making of this record how much further we would be able to go, knowing what we now know. Having this kind of connection is vital.

It took me awhile in my career to learn how to work with a producer, and how to let other people’s ideas in without the sense that they’re dissolving or diluting the essence of what I’m trying to say. Once I got past that point, which was pretty much with White Ladder, I’ve always looked at these relationships as key. When you can’t find the exact right person to interpret your ideas, at the right time, you make the best of it. But this [partnership with Ben] feels like a long-term partnership.

Gold in a Brass Age features some of your most elliptic and poetic lyrics to date. Did Ben or any of your other collaborators on this record influence the writing of the lyrics at all?

No, that’s my game. The lyrics are my game, the melodies are my game. If I give people songwriting credits, it’s because the sounds they created or the parts they offered enabled the song to come to life. The actual writing of the melody, the shaping of the tune, and the order and flow of the words are basically mine – that’s where I command the thing. To get the lyrics across is paramount to me.

This time around, I shied away from approaching subjects in a direct way by mirroring the exploratory sonic approach we took. This has been going on for many years in my music, but with this record I’m moving more and more away from narrative and into something that’s like hanging images as if they’re dangling from a mobile, hanging images into the sound until they create a story of their own. At least, that’s what I’m hoping I’m doing. There’s such color in words, and this record was very satisfying to make in that way.

The problem with narrative is that if you sit down to write a song, it’s sometimes paralyzing to think, “What’s this one going to be about?” “Why should it be valid?” “Why is it any good?” “What is it about my life right now that is so interesting?” If you’re a middle-aged man sitting in a house in North London, you can find a thousand reasons why some fuck-all thing is going on, why anyone should be paying any attention to it.

What I find is that by picking out these abstracted, oblique lines, what ties them together, in the end, is that they share the same emotional core. I made these choices at a certain time, which become telling, and therefore tell their own story, albeit in a less obvious way.

Were you drawing from any literary influences throughout that process? I’m thinking of how you spun a song out of a Herman de Conick poem at the end of Mutineers on the track “Gulls”.

I love that track; it’s one of my proudest achievements. It had a sense of where I could get to and was a sort of signifier of what was possible in my songwriting.

Yes, I’m constantly… I wouldn’t say “plundering” literary sources, but I just make notes all the time. They could even be from a review of a football match – just any phrase that catches my eye, I make a note and stash it on my phone, in the notes. Sometimes a phrase will catch my ear and engender a whole chain of thought which I write underneath that phrase.

I go through my phone every year; I’ll filter down these ideas and put them in a notebook, and start to put one thing next to another. I sometimes do sit down and just write a song in the traditional way, but mostly I’m working from these scraps, these fragments. I read a lot: works of literature, poetry, psychoanalysis, mountain climbing… all kinds of shit! From these, I find a treasure trove of ideas. I’m very much of the mind that everything intersects. Every discipline, every divergent principle… it’s like mixing paint, everything comes together somehow, it’s all a circle. I find rich pickings in all these books I read, and after constantly making notes one idea will resonate and start to form a song. That’s sort of how “The Sapling” came to be, although that came more from my own volition rather than a book.

So that’s my system. I could view it – if I wanted to be harshly critical – as an “avoidance strategy” to avoid saying anything directly. But what I have confidence in is that by presenting it in a zealous way, in the right sonic context, all the editorial decisions and musicality of each word tells the story in the end. When I stand back from this record, I think it’s a pretty accurate document of my heart and soul over that period of my life, whether I’ve described it in narrative terms or not.

Your “avoidance strategy” reminds me of a piece of writing advice given by Sir David Hare, who said that style “is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.”

Precisely. Is there anything duller than a middle-aged man crowing on in a heartfelt kind of way, about middle-aged issues? My fascination is with life, the wellspring of creative thought, with all the connections that lie there, the miracles that the everyday enshrines. That can come out in many ways, but I choose to take a fragmented, kind of kaleidoscopic way of looking at and describing it.

The records that have the deepest holds on my imagination – not saying that they’re my favorite records above anything else – are records like Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk or Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, where the rambling, creative poetic spirit seems free in a different element. It’s like all the rules are broken. This slightly dismembered, fragmented music, almost like musical undergrowth, seems truest to me in capturing the everyday experience. It’s a Joycean style of one long stream of consciousness. Shoot me if I’m being too pretentious, but those are the things I’m yearning for the most. It’s about figuring out how little you need to say something. “Musical undergrowth” is the best way I can think to describe it.

It’s very difficult to find enigmatic music if you haven’t ended up in an enigmatic place yourself. Affectation won’t do; music has to come from the gut.

How does the title Gold in a Brass Age fit into this vision you had for the record?

It’s from a Raymond Carver story. I knew I had borrowed it from him, but I wasn’t quite sure from where. I made a note of it and then it got buried, I’d forgotten about it.

The writing process for that track [“Gold in a Brass Age”] came off the back of working on a completely different piece of music. Ben started to loop a track of my guitar, into the little loop you hear at the beginning. I was instantly charmed. I told Ben, “Forget that other song. Let’s start with this.” From there, I put in a chord sequence and began singing, and that song came out. The whole thing splurged in a couple of hours, and suddenly we had the song. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I knew this was important. Ben turned to me and said, “What should I save this as?” And I just said, “Gold in a Brass Age.”

I just immediately thought of those words, of the sort of bright, trumpet blast of the sentence itself. I eventually found the quotation deep in a Carver story called “Blackbird Pie.” It’s about a man whose wife is leaving him. She’s put a letter under his study door, and he believes everything she says but doesn’t believe it’s in her handwriting. It’s this Kafkaesque, darkly humorous thing. He goes downstairs and she’s got her bags packed, and they walk out into the garden. The house is surrounded by fog, and someone’s horses have broken out of a nearby field and are eating the couple’s lawn. So now they’re in the fog, surrounded by horses – it’s very Raymond Carver. They stepped into a poem.

Then the police and the owner of the horses turn up. The policemen hear that she’s leaving the man, and the man says, “Hey, there’s no trouble here,” suddenly he becomes the bad guy. As he walks away to take his wife to the train station, and the other guy’s got his horses back in the car, he toots the horn. The narrator then says, “Tooted. He actually tooted. Words like ‘tooted’ are gold in a brass age.”

As he headed for the road, he tooted his horn. Tooted. Historians should use more words like “tooted” or “beeped” or “blasted”—especially at serious moments such as after a massacre or when an awful occurrence has cast a pall on the future of an entire nation. That’s when a word like “tooted” is necessary, is gold in a brass age. — from Raymond Carver’s “Blackbird Pie”

This is definitely a brass age, that’s for sure.

I was wondering about that. In such divisive political times such as these, was there a particular contemporary resonance in the “brass age” of the album title?

This is not a political piece of music in any overt way. The negatives that dominate the landscape of politics, this sort of infantilized world of infotainment… the oxygen on which these fires feed derives from the negative attention they’re given. So I’m reluctant to be drawn into direct combat with something that’s basically about meaninglessness. I think dumbing down issues to the point where they become meaningless is one of the big problems our society has. Turning complex things into binary choices, wanting everything to have a cure… you can take pills for so many things now when it’s, in fact, the entire workings of your mind, body, and soul, your entire family history that’s coming to the surface through some shadowy chute. You need to come to terms with. That’s what’s fucking you up. You can’t take a pill to make it go away.

Everything’s been dumbed down because we don’t have the time to discuss things properly, and this is where we’ve ended up. There are fucking lunatics ruining everything. But maybe it was always going to end up here. Who’s to say? There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into the universe, and it seems a shame that it might conclude in this matter.

Are you thinking specifically about London at all? I was struck by the inclusion of the London skyline in the moth’s wings on the cover of the album.

This is a very London record, a bit like White Ladder was. It has this cheeky, destructive, creative sense to it, that it’s knocking things down in order to build again. The speed with which London destroys itself in front of your eyes only to be rebuilt is quite breathtaking if you sit in its view for a while.

There is a community, a warm heart still beating in the city somewhere. My producer lives right in the center of town – he couldn’t be more central – and I just feel the music has this London flavor. It’s a very urban record, a very London record; I don’t think it could have been made anywhere else. If we’d been sitting in the countryside it wouldn’t have been the same.