David Gray: My daughters aren't my biggest fans
The singer-songwriter talks to John Meagher about success, new beginnings, birds and fatherhood
David Gray has sold millions of albums and plays to packed houses around the world, but there are two people close to him who remain unconvinced about his music: daughters Ivy (11) and Florence (8).
"They're into pop, as is normal for kids of their age," he says. "People like David Guetta. And when they listen to my music they say 'Why can't you lighten up, Dad?' They think the songs are dreary – and I suppose in comparison to the upbeat stuff they listen to, they have a point."
Ivy and Florence Gray are unlikely to change their opinion when they hear their father's latest album, Mutineers, which is infused with a significant dollop of melancholia. It is the work of a man who has lived a life in full and is very much an antidote to the sort of throwaway material that pockmarks the charts.
"I think it's an album that marks a new beginning for me," Gray says, over coffee in a Dublin hotel. "I came to the studio with more than 40 songs written, many of them virtually complete, but [producer] Andy Barlow was more interested in the sketchier stuff I had. He thought we could take those into territory that wasn't typically David Gray."
It soon becomes obvious that the 45-year-old's muse was invigorated by the time spent working with Barlow, who used to be a member of the comparatively obscure British band, Lamb.
"It was a collaboration in the true sense of the word, not just a normal musician-producer relationship, and it took me out of my comfort zone," he says. "I had begun to get very tired by the sound of my own voice and the kind of subjects I was singing about. With Andy, I found a new way of songwriting – words came first, then sounds, then melody. I normally work the other way around."
Mutineers is the Mancunian's 10th album and its robust songcraft ensures that it's amongst the most compelling work of his career to date.
David Gray, of course, enjoys a special place in the hearts of Irish music aficionados. His fourth album, 1998's White Ladder, remains the best-selling in Irish chart history, with more than 350,000 sold here, buoyed undoubtedly by the appeal of singles 'This Year's Love' and 'Babylon'.
"It is incredible, isn't it?" he says. There's wonder in his voice, not braggadocio. "It was an album that was honest and emotional and that really appealed to people at the time. It was me saying 'This is who I am'. I put the music out there and it took on a life of its own.
"When I was making it in my bedroom, I thought I was on to something but I had no idea what a big deal it would become, although I began to have an inkling of it when I played the songs live for the first time. I could see straight away that they resonated with people."
Gray's previous album, Sell Sell Sell, had failed to live up to its title and he was promptly dropped by record giant EMI. "It wasn't a great time," he says. "It was a case of picking yourself up and starting again, which is far easier said than done. I had had a special rapport with Irish audiences in the years before White Ladder, so I focused much of my energies on Ireland and Irish shows around the time the album came out and you guys just got it before anyone else did."
The rest of the world soon caught up and White Ladder went on to shift seven million copies globally – making the hitherto unknown Gray very famous and very rich. The large Tag Heuer watch he sports on his wrist is not to the sort of accessory one would associate with the average singer-songwriter. Nor do most troubadours live in a mansion in a fashionable part of London with a second home in the Norfolk countryside.
"I don't think you can ever be prepared for that scale of success," he says. "When you're starting out, you want your music to be heard by as many people as possible but when that dream becomes reality you're pulled this way and that and there are moments where you feel overwhelmed by everything. It took me quite a while to get my head around it and manage the sort of expectation that came when I was making its follow up."
The next album, A New Day At Midnight, arrived four years later in 2002 and was informed both by the death of his father and birth of Ivy. It sold well, but as with all of his albums since then, it hasn't come close to far-reaching success of White Ladder. "The more I think of it, the more I reckon that was a one-off," he says. "Especially as people just don't buy music in anything like the numbers they used to. The game is changing so fast that it's hard to keep up."
One gets the impression he is not too bothered by the prospect of dwindling sales, however. "I'm proud of my recent albums, but I didn't want to repeat myself," he says. "You have to consciously decide that you don't want to do the same thing over and over so this album feels like a whole new chapter for me."
Gray does not deliver ready-made sound bites. A conversation with him is likely to veer into the most unexpected territory. Not every well-seasoned songsmith offers lengthy views on ornithology or arcane poetry, subjects that inspired some of the songs on Mutineers.
"I've always been obsessed by birds," he muses. "Their beauty, freedom and ability to fly has thrilled me from my youth. As for poetry, well I get a lot of poetry books as gifts."
If he is an intense, earnest figure on stage, he's not that different off it. He ties himself in knots trying to explain the inspiration for his songs and often resorts to humming or half-singing in order to get his point across. He admits that he can have trouble convincing others of his vision for his music.
"I'm probably not the easiest person to work with," he says, with a grin. "I know what I want to achieve and I'll argue my case. But that's not to say I'm bull-headed and can't listen to others."
MUTINEERS IS OUT ON JUNE 27. DAVID GRAY PLAYS THREE IRISH FESTIVALS THIS SUMMER: WESTPORT, JUNE 28; DAYTRIPPER (WATERFORD CITY), JULY 5; AND GROOVE (BRAY, CO WICKLOW), JULY 6.