'I'm up for adventure musically... following my instincts, forgetting rules' - David Gray
Back with his first new record in four years, David Gray's creative fires are burning as brightly as ever - and yet he believes his 11th album has brought him closest to the sound of his 1998 record 'White Ladder', the bestselling album in Irish history
It has been a bad few weeks when one thinks of musicians that have died far too soon. The passing of The Monkees' Peter Tork and The Prodigy's Keith Flint caused great sadness for admirers of both men and on the day that Review catches up with David Gray, he is reeling from the death of another artistic great - Talk Talk's Mark Hollis.
"I was a huge fan," Gray says. "The extraordinarily thing about him is that he stepped away from music in the way that he did [Hollis effectively retired from releasing new material and touring 20 years ago while still in his 40s]. I don't know anybody else who made music of such intensity who suddenly closed the door.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
"To be honest, I'd had an absolutely shocking day - one in which every f***ing thing goes wrong from start to finish, to the point that you open an email with really bad news and you wonder why you opened it, and then someone called and said, 'Mark Hollis has died'… He knew how much Talk Talk were loved. He could have done a Kate Bush-like run of 29 dates at the Hammersmith Apollo. But he didn't."
Gray is back with his first album in four years, Gold in a Brass Age, and he says he could never imagine quitting the industry à la Hollis. But he say he makes sure to take time away from the record-tour-record treadmill.
"In recent years, I've made sure to step away. And that's very much become part of my life - plus, it makes the creative process much easier.
"My life is a string of obligations - to my family, to my business, to my fans, to the muse. I wasn't really honouring the aspect that I need as a person just to 'be'. And I'm much happier for having made those choices. You have to be brave and know that fallow periods are utterly essential - you need to absorb, to let things percolate from the ground up. That's how it works. I mean, my creative fires are burning as brightly as ever, but I'm making a big effort to make a space... even to get out and walk in nature for a few days."
The new album is easily his most experimental. There's a lot of electronica and found sounds, and conventional songcraft has been turned on its head.
"I had a sense of where I wanted to go," he says, "but it wasn't very clearly defined - a hand-drawn map based on rumour and speculation. It's hard to describe, but I suppose I wanted to revoice the music, to cut it up a bit."
He tried out several young producers and settled on one, Ben de Vries (son of the distinguished composer Marius de Vries).
"We hit it off from the start. I'm not very good with computers and Ben was the man… I could just point which way I wanted to go."
Gray says their creative union reached its peak on one of the album's standouts, 'Mallory', which was named after the Everest explorer.
"For that song, I wanted to build the mountain of vocals, almost like vertigo. Ben would be 'Yeah! Let's do it' no matter how stupid my request was. He was very uninhibited and that worked a treat in studio.
"Sometimes young people are intimidated by me - not by anything I'm doing - but by showing their hand in case they feel they are doing something wrong. But music shouldn't be like that. Trial and error should be fundamental."
Gray turned 50 last summer and says he is in one of the happiest places, creatively, that he's ever been in.
"A great weight has fallen off me over the past few years - I don't know why. I'm up for adventure musically, following my instinct and forgetting about rules. It may well be that in five years, I need to just play acoustic guitar, but at the moment I'm really enjoying this new space I'm in - and the world of possibility that opens up to me in the studio."
This album has been in the can for over a year. He has also made another album, which he will have de Vries produce with him, and it's likely to see the light of day next year. "That's very different. It was more about a group of people playing live and trying to record that."
Gray says nature - always an inspiration for him - has greatly informed Gold in a Brass Age, especially on album opener, 'The Sapling'.
"That song was written after a succession of musings on a fallen tree that had been cut down in Hampstead Heath. I'd been looking at the rings and I'd just been watching a drop of rain hit the pond and watching the concentric circles it made, and then looking at the concentric circles within the tree. In a way, the drop of the acorn was the same as the drop of water - one happened in several centuries and the other happened in several seconds.
"The natural world hits you with all its force. It renews me and feeds into my work and I think you appreciate the wonder of it all the more, the longer you spend on the planet - that notion of decay and renewal. You watch your kids grow up and you lose your parents."
He is keen to point out that the album isn't nearly as melancholic as such a description might suggest. "I think it's a celebratory record," he says. "There's an uplift to it."
He's not wrong. It's his 11th album and although it might not seem apparent on early listens, he says Gold in a Brass Age connects him back to White Ladder. "That album was quite a leap from Sell Sell Sell [its predecessor] and there were all those electronic elements too."
White Ladder, released in 1998, is the bestselling album in Irish chart history and when one considers that album sales - physical, or otherwise - are but a fraction of what they were then, it's likely to enjoy that position at the summit for a very long time to come.
"The way it connected in Ireland is unfathomably majestic to me. It was on my own label. It was an independent record. It's pretty amazing. It was the breath of Ireland that filled the sails that pushed us - the album and I - out to America and everywhere else." He's had more than 20 years to think about the impact of White Ladder, not least on his own career. "I cherish the album," he says.
"Everything fell into place. Little did we know when we were making it, what it would mean to people. But we put our heart into every hi-hat [cymbals] and guitar part - it was a bit like a hand-woven tapestry that ends up being printed seven million times.
"But, if I'm honest, for a while I was imprisoned by the ubiquity of it and the apparent impression it had made in the media - as if I was suddenly responsible for ushering in this era of singer-songwriters."
He says that thanks to incorporating so many electronic elements into his new live show, he can be closer than ever to replicating the electronically tinged songs from White Ladder as they sounded in the original recording. "It's been great to take 'Babylon' and 'Sail Away' and 'Please Forgive Me' on the way they were on the record," he says. "For so long, I've been deviating from the original sounds when I've been going on the road."
What would the young man starting out from the cover of his 1993 debut album, A Century Ends, think of the way his career has gone? He chuckles at the thought.
"It does seem like a world away. I wasn't thinking I wanted world domination. I didn't know what the Point Depot was. I wanted to connect with people. I'd no knowledge of how the record industry is. But it's still agony to put new music out - you put stuff out into the world's indifferent gaze and it can get trampled underfoot.
"I've had lots of very difficult times - and phenomenal success, too - but I've managed to keep going because of the fans who follow me and haven't left me and because I still believe in this.
"I'm not making music to a [BBC] Radio 2 template - it's music that I want to make."
'Gold in a Brass Age' is out now. David Gray plays Castlebar's Theatre Royal on April 4, the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on April 5 and 6 and Live at the Marquee, Cork, on July 7