David Gray matters

Liz Nicholls

Twenty years on since his masterpiece White Ladder, Liz Nicholls chats to musician David Gray

Q. Hello! Does it feel like 20 years since White Ladder was released? “It does feel like 20 years – it’s not gone by in the blink of an eye. There’s been a lot going on, a lot to negotiate in these intervening years. It feels good to be at this moment now. I was a bit ambivalent about the idea of a tour when it was first hoisted up the flagpole. But I think years went by and then I thought maybe this is the time to do it because people get sick, things change and then suddenly things aren’t possible in the way they used to be. None of us are getting any younger, so this is the time to give it the full celebration. Then I’ll move on to creative pastures new.”

Q. I’ve been reading that White Ladder came from a dark place… “I think the press use the word ‘dark’ a little too liberally… I mean, let’s face it, I was living in north London. I wasn’t in Bosnia. Or Syria. I was eating croissants from the local patisserie… such was the darkness that was engulfing me! I think things hadn’t worked out [with sales] and that was a hard pill to swallow. I was in a place that, after three albums, I thought ‘is this it?’ When that happens to a musician over a course of many years, it gets worse & harder. A real sense of futility permeates everything you’re doing. Apart from in Ireland, importantly [where David’s music started selling first]. That kept me going; the fact that I had a real connection over there and a fan base kept me believing something could still happen. But I did think, ‘I can’t go on like this, I think I have to change paths’. Then I thought, ‘well, maybe I can make a better record’. You can blame the world, you can blame the journalists, you can blame the record company but I thought: ‘can I make a better record?’ And the answer was yes.”

Q. Did going lo-fi help? “We took the record production in-house with what money was left. We bought a few bits of gear. We got back to making music in my spare room. And that was the best sense of freedom and intimacy. The freedom to explore and discover and get more hands-on with the recording process was the beginning of making this album. A very limited palette of options ended up  one of the strengthening factors in the sonic world we created. We pooled all our creativity. There’s a brightness to the record, even though a sort of melancholy creeps in here and there. It’s the negative charge flipping into positive. It was a ‘do or die’ moment – how do you face the world after it’s shunned you or been indifferent? You open your heart even wider and you go again. That’s the answer. Openness hurts, as Rumi once said. That’s the approach and it’s just incredibly open, melodically unfearful. [White Ladder] is a record that’s happy being exactly what it is. We made the record and we were proud of it when we finished. We’d taken such pains over every tiny bit. It would have been preposterous to imagine the success that was going to come.”

Q. What’s your first memory of music? “Two things. It would be my dad playing records when I went to bed. The smell of fag smoke, cigar smoke, wine, beer and then The Beatles or Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road. Particularly Cat Stevens’ Hard Headed Woman, Wild World. Those songs really take me back. Rod Stewart, Atlantic Crossing. That was the early ’70s soundscape I remember and also all the beautiful TV music. Bagpuss. Hector’s Garden. All those sounds were very entrancing.”

Q. What format do you listen to music on? “Well I’ve succumbed to the algorithmic world of Spotify, and for some things YouTube. I might occasionally play a record… three months later you come back and the turntable’s still going round and round. Sometimes a CD. Some songs don’t exist as streaming music. I’ve got some records you can’t listen to any other way. It’s a bit like DVDs. I’m still watching a lot of films on DVD…”

Q. Any talented up-and-coming singer-songwriters worth your time and a leg-up? “I don’t think they need a leg-up from me but I will mention a couple of people I’m enjoying. One would be Big Thief; a group of musicians from America . And a Bristol collective called This Is The Kit [alias of Kate Stables]. They’ve grabbed my ears in recent years. I could go on but I’ll just meander out into obscurity. Word of mouth is still the most potent means of discovery. If Spotify or Apple recommend I listen to something, 99 times out of 100 I will refuse. That’s the kind of stick-in-the-mud that I am. I’d rather sit on my own at the bus stop with the rain lashing down on my face listening to nothing than listen to their recommendations based on everything I’ve already listened to. One problem with the predictive thing is that if your kids are listening through the same service, it suggests you listen to all the stuff that they listen to, which at the moment is a heavily urban kind of vibe. Not my chosen mood of reflection.”

Q. Mind you, I sometimes discover rare delights from my daughter’s choices before they go mainstream, such as Billie Eilish… “Billie Eilish is one of those rare successes; there’s real talent there. The record production as well. She gets all the plaudits but really her brother [Finneas] is a big talent sculpting the whole thing. It’s really nicely done so hats off to them.”

Q. Do you have a favourite book? “Well, I’ve got lots. Moby Dick by Herman Melville would have to be one of my favourites, an enduring favourite which I’ve read several times. You could do a lot worse.”

Q. What about your favourite film? “You’ve switched tack… you’re not going to ask my favourite colour next, are you?! Well, as it happens I was rather disappointed by Parasite, which got a huge amount of publicity with its bizarre Oscar-winning run. But that’s because I’d enjoyed their previous film Burning more – it’s a really good watch. It’s a dreamlike, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. You never know what’s real or what’s imagined; it’s set on the border with North Korea. I loved that film and it should be the one everyone’s watching. It’s more fully realised and poetic than Parasite managed to be.”

Q. White Ladder means a lot to me and was the soundtrack to a poignant breakup in my life 20 years ago! Have you had any weird fan mail or comments from your fans? “Course I have… but whether I’d want to draw attention to how weird, or how… suggestive, would not be healthy for people to hear! I’ve had some very odd things. Generally the things I get to read or that are sent are very touching, moving. People’s lives, deaths, disaster, triumph, childbirth, illness, madness. It’s all bound into the album & what it meant to people at that certain time in their lives. I came out of a pub earlier this year and this guy was hanging on to a Rottweiler which was dragging him down the street, with his dodgy mate, in the rain. One eye slightly off to one side. The kind of person you step out of the way of. And as I was stepping out of his way he grabbed me and [adopts husky, menacing shout] ‘David Gray mate! Yeah your record saved me; I got off heroin.’ Suddenly I was having this very intense conversation with him about how his friends were dying and as he got into his recovery process he discovered the record. Something about it helped him strengthen his resolve. Well, as he puts it, it made him feel ‘there was something bright out there he could grab hold of’. You hear mad stuff like this and it’s quite hard to process.”

• David Gray’s White Ladder has just been re-released in a deluxe edition as well as on CD, digitally and on vinyl. For this and updates on the tour, which was set to include Blenheim Palace, visit www.davidgray.co.uk

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