The Manchester-born singer has always had a deep connection with Ireland and his new album was inspired by the solitude and beauty of the famous Kerry islands
David Gray apologises in advance of our Zoom interview getting underway. “If at some point I seem to have Tourette’s, don’t worry,” he says.
The reason why he may start effing and blinding all of a sudden is to do with his two dogs, who seem to be in excitable mood and are in the same book-lined room as him in his Hampstead, London home.
The warning turns out not to be necessary. The dogs — Frank, a Brussels griffon, and Molly, a border terrier — are every bit as quiet as Gray is animated. He is about to release his 12th album — the beautiful and slow-burning Skellig — and he’s immensely proud of it.
It may not be as commercial as the songs that made him a household name at the end of the 1990s, but for those who have been with him on the long road, it’s one of his most artistically accomplished offerings.
As the title suggests, Ireland plays a big part on the album. There’s a song called Dun Laoghaire, too, and several of the musicians who joined him in a small Inverness studio pre-Covid are Irish, including David Kitt. Memory of those recording sessions is bitter-sweet.
“It’s only when you’re cooped up in this situation that we all find ourselves in that you see how lucky you were to be able to do all the stuff you took for granted,” he says. “We went up to Edwyn Collins’s studio and had a great old time.”
Ever the professional, though, he banned mobile phones during sessions — this was work, albeit of the more heart-warming variety.
Skellig, of course, is a reference to Skellig Michael, the much-mythologised pyramid-shaped island off the coast of Kerry that recently found global fame thanks to its use in one of the Star Wars films. Gray has not yet set foot upon the island — a home for hermit monks for centuries — but he intends to, one day.
“When all this [the pandemic] is over,” he says, “I’d hope to be able to go there, but I know it’s not the easiest place to get to.
“Hearing about Skellig just fired my imagination,” he adds. “I was fascinated by the idea of these people — monks — wanting to get closer to God, so they went to live somewhere really beautiful, but really inhospitable. And today, with so much noise and bustle, that idea of trying to find peace somewhere really appealed to me.”
It was the esteemed DJ, Donal Dineen, who first told him about the island. Gray started working on the song a decade ago, tinkering with it over the years until he got it just right.
It’s a similar story with Dun Laoghaire — a song that’s partly inspired by the Great Recession of the late 2000s. “Dun Laoghaire is somewhere we’d travel into a lot — that ferry from Holyhead once things really started to take off in Ireland.”
Dineen, incidentally, plays a big part in the David Gray story. At the time, he was presenter of RTÉ’s then popular indie music TV show, No Disco. Dineen was a formidable champion of Gray’s music, from even before the White Ladder days.
“I’d been trying really hard for so long to connect with audiences, and then suddenly it happened in Ireland,” Gray says. “I remember that first time playing Whelan’s — it was packed. I thought, ‘They must be here for someone else’.”
Soon, though, the Manchester-born, Wales-raised singer came to realise that Ireland had taken him under its wing, nowhere more so than Cork. To this day, Gray says he has a special affinity with Leesiders.
White Ladder changed everything. It was released in 1998 and went on to be the best-selling album in Irish chart history. An estimated 300,000 copies were sold in this country alone — something U2, even, couldn’t manage in their own back yard with The Joshua Tree.
Gray says he has often pondered why it became so huge here, and he reckons a combination of honest, relatable songs with mass appeal played a big part.
“It was an album that I put every part of me into,” he says. “And the people who helped make it with me did the same.
"You know, I love John Martyn’s Solid Air, but there are parts in it I skip over. I want to hear the same five or six songs over and over again. When I was making White Ladder, I wanted to have 10 songs that were direct and not ashamed to be.”
Last year, RTÉ screened a documentary on White Ladder, with Gray’s full co-operation. It was directed by Donal Scannell — one of the best known people in the Irish music industry — and featured appearances from Gray’s wife Olivia and mother Kay, as well as several people fundamental to the singer’s early success.
“It really brought me back to that time,” he says. “And it was something I showed to my kids [Ivy, 17 and Florence, 14] — they could get a sense of what that amazing and strange period of my life had been like. We had so much fun along the way, but it was also really fascinating to look back to see how White Ladder started to take off in Ireland.”
White Ladder’s extraordinary performance in Ireland was, Gray says, an organic, word-of-mouth success story, rather than a campaign that had been cooked up by a record company. It went on to sell eight million copies globally, by far his most popular album.
“It was really thrilling at first. It was like, Jesus Christ, we’re selling out rooms in America and Australia and England, and it was a case of, ‘This is happening!’ And you can’t believe it after all the shit you’ve had to put up with over the previous 10 years.
“But then it becomes kind of ubiquitous — you end up fighting that sort of caricature, that myth that’s created around you. But it’s an invisible foe. It’s only time and effort and honesty that gets you through and you come out the other side and you can accept what happened.”
Gray has been up front in the past about how, at times, White Ladder felt like a millstone. But he says those feelings are long gone.
“I’m very happy with everything I’m doing and with the sort of creative freedom I’ve had and continue to have. Of course I’ll take the commercial hit — you always hope it’s going to connect in a beautiful way, but you’re just not in control of that game and it’s harder than ever, it seems, to get your foot in the door.”
White Ladder’s follow-up, A New Day At Midnight, topped the chart here and in the UK, but subsequent releases didn’t quite hit the zeitgeist, even if the songs were undimmed in quality.
“You can never second-guess what’s going to appeal to a lot of people,” he says, “although there are times when you make an album and you just know that it won’t be played on the radio so much. But I’m perfectly okay with that — you have to go with your heart, and that was certainly the case with Skellig.”
Like every working musician, Gray has had to adjust to a life not spent on the road. He says he is dearly missing the business of being on stage.
“There are times where it really gets to you, because it’s the life-blood of the musician, that connection with the audience.”
A major tour built around White Ladder 20 years on — in some territories, the album was only released in 2000 — had to be postponed last year. There are plans to play Australia and New Zealand towards 2021’s end, but Gray isn’t counting his chickens just yet.
“None of us know when we’ll be able to get back doing this,” he says. “It’s a waiting game and, I’ll tell you this much, it will feel very special when we eventually get to play in front of an audience again.”
Skellig is released on February 19