“Something is taken off you, which hurts as you cross the threshold into this new world,” said singer/songwriter David Gray in a recent phone interview. “It doesn’t come for free.”
Gray was in Atlanta, Georgia, in the middle of a worldwide tour for his latest record, Mutineers, and was speaking of deconstructing his songwriting approach, of hollowing out the music to find some space. “It’s a painful opening-up process of your emotions and your creative thoughts,” he explained. “It’s scary but worth the effort and the pain.”
It’s curious to hear Gray speak of needing to open himself up since his willingness to splay himself emotionally is what made his breakthrough album, White Ladder, so beguiling. Still, there is something fresh and buoyant to Mutineers that is clearly the result of his current reckoning. Songs like “Birds of the High Artic,” “The Incredible,” and “Beautiful Agony” contain enticing musical nuances that reveal Gray’s shifting path. But the track “Gulls” may be the best illustration of where he is headed sonically. It’s dreamy, moody, hypnotic, visceral. “Where I stepped off with ‘Gulls’ — that’s where I want to continue,” he said.
I think Mutineers is one of your best albums. Do you feel its more dynamic than your other records? Obviously you believe in each thing you put out, but this one does seem to have something extra. It took a lot more to make it, and I pulled the music apart and put it back together again and the songwriting, too, in order to try and find something different, a new way to reach. I wanted new sonic vistas, basically. I was hungry for something that I hadn’t had before, and it’s not so easy trying to find something when you don’t know what it is.
So it took a while, and it was a harrowing process at times, but it was worth all the effort. And when it came together, when it crystalized and came good, the excitement is palpable in the music. There’s a sort of verve to the whole thing. It’s thoroughly energized as the songs crystalized. I cut them in the heat of the moment in the studio as they came together, and it has that freshness to it.
What made the process so harrowing? If you want something different to happen, you have to knock down the thing that you already know about. So the moment when you are suspended over a void with rubble all around you hoping something else is going to turn up, that’s the scary bit.
And then learning to trust the producer’s instinct of what needed to happen. I found it very difficult to relinquish control, but I needed someone else to find my way to something different. Old dogs find it harder to learn — not that it’s tricks I’m interested in.
You have to hollow the music out, you have to find some space. Space is delicious within a song that allows the lyric and the idea of the song to really breathe, and all the parts need to be pulling their weight within it. To find that, you have to clear out everything that’s not necessary and sort of strip it down to the essentials and start again. It was those moment’s that were very scary.
You had to do that 11 times, the number of songs on the record. It was quite a process. But as I say, there were great highs and great lows, and once we’d had a few successes — songs like “Last Summer” and “Beautiful Agony,” “Mutineers” — once they came together, I could suddenly see we’d found somewhere, and the whole thing began to make sense and how to approach things. The mental obstacle of doubt was removed, and I rushed in. The second half of making the record was a lot more straightforward once I had a few things under my belt.
It’s a beautiful record. There’s so much going on in the background without it flooding the actual melody or the song. I love the whispering background vocals on “Beautiful Agony.” The whisper vocal, yeah. I cut the vocal three times. The main vocal is recorded on a good mike and then a weird mike for the distorted vocal. And then on the same pair of mikes I then whispered the whole thing along with myself. It’s a great space for all that echo on everything, the slap back. It has a spook to it; it sort of spooked me into a whole new way. I didn’t really have the lyric. We started to get the sounds together, and the lyric was born almost out of the mood of the sound. I love that track.
There’s a lot of depth to this record musically. I’m looking to go further out there. That’s my future path. Where I stepped off with “Gulls,” that’s where I want to continue.
You like birds, I’ve got the sense. Are you a twitcher? A twitcher would be defined as someone who gets so overexcited by a rare bird in the vicinity that they start to physically twitch. I’d have to say no to that. I am an enthusiastic, amateur, and admirer of nature. I don’t have the expertise to declare myself even a proper sort of birdwatcher, but I’m a rank amateur but with boundless enthusiasm for the subject. If anything helps me switch off, it’s watching nature.
I didn’t have a pair of binoculars until about 10 years ago. When I bought my first pair, it sort of transformed, deepened, and accelerated my interest of what I was looking at. I find they are absolutely fascinating. Obviously it’s not for everybody, but for me, it enhances a walk, having my binoculars with me so I can look at things. It obliterates everything else in my mind, and I am lost to the world of the bird, or the creature that I’m looking at.
So I’m no longer shy about putting these natural references to the fore in my work. So god knows the next one’s going to be plump full of insects. [Laughs.]
Well I think it’s nice because birds are quite symbolic, the flying, the sky, the space, so I think they work nicely in those songs. The references work with the expansive music. I just happened to notice there were a few of them on the album. Yeah, there are. There are probably 20 songs in my back catalog that have got bird references.
I read in an interview you had with the Telegraph last year that you were bored with your sound. I’m not criticizing other records — each one I try and allow to be its own thing based on how I’m feeling at the time. I just felt that I’d come to the end of a whole palette of ideas and I needed to look for somewhere to start again.
Sometimes you have to perform a sort of creative traverse across the rock face; you can’t just keeping walking straight up the mountain. You come to an impasse, and you have to go across. And that’s where I’d got to. I didn’t want to be churning out the same kind of thing. I wanted to regenerate creatively but also personally I guess.
You can have a creative regeneration without being sort of reborn in a sense yourself. In the music, I wanted something that sounded uplifting and energized and joyous. I didn’t want some sort of middle-aged, jaded thing about how confusing life is.
I wanted it to be more spicy and piquant and engaging. I wanted it to be sort of enraptured; some kind of an epiphany is what I wanted to record. It took a little bit of doing to shake off the malaise of middle age and open myself up again. It’s a painful opening up process of your emotions and your creative thoughts and the whole thing. It’s scary but worth the effort and the pain.
I imagine that it’s given you a new recommitment or newfound excitement about your career. I’m almost on the verge of madness sometimes with the amount of ideas I’m having. I don’t really know where I’m at with it all. I don’t even know if you can call them songs; I’m sort of departing from my no-reference point. My compass isn’t working anymore. I don’t know exactly where I’m going I [may] just make a complete fool of myself [Laughs.] over the coming years. I hope not, but I feel incredibly excited about the world of possibilities.
On this record, I used the music that was latent in other people’s words or my own as a starting point. So there’s sort of a natural rhythm of a sentence, like the “Birds of the High Artic” began an entire song. So I was working backwards. It’s not the way I’d normally work.
Normally I’d write melody and then try and find a lyric in the traditional songwriting sense, and my brain is going “you are now writing a song.” Working backwards, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It disabled my sense of taste and really was hugely advantageous in terms of making advances into areas where I haven’t been before. I was working on instinct, sort of not thinking. I was being clever or imagining myself onstage doing this stuff. I was just trying to make it work.
So I realize the challenge of trying to do something, dropping yourself into the void like that is essential really. So I guess, strengthened by the successes I’ve had, I am now looking and questioning the entire map of how I write a song, what a song is. What I want is the music that’s already there. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all. You don’t have to go and look for it in some formulized “I’m writing a song now. What happened to me last year: I’m going to write about that.”
This is something different. I feel that the music is just there always. All I’ve got to do is allow myself to hear it. I was listening to Philip Glass, his new book Words Without Music, which is like a memoir, and his talking about the creative process. I was really intrigued by some of the things he said, which seemed to be implying a similar thing.
So, anyway, that’s where I’m at. I’m not saying I’m not going to write any pop songs anymore — I’ll take whatever comes to me and try and finish it — but I feel incredibly. As opposed to feeling at a dead end, which is what I felt like four years ago coming off the road, and having to start all over again, I now feel like there are so many branches in the road, so many paths less traveled that I am spoiled for choice, and it’s sort of mind-boggling. I want to go down all of them, all at the same time.
I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine that when you were feeling uninspired. That’s the wonderful thing about life.
You think you’re done, and then all of a sudden, a whole new window opens. It’s a painful process to get to that point. It’s not like you flip a switch and all the lights come on. You have to give something. Something is taken off you, which hurts as you cross the threshold into this new world. It doesn’t come for free.
[Handler cuts in: Hi guys, sorry to interrupt, but you have time for one or two more questions.]
I’m sorry; I’m just chatting away like we are old friends. I’d better get to some more practical questions then. [Laughs.]
So, your duet with LeAnn Rimes, the remix of the song “Snow in Vegas,” is wonderful. She adds a great dynamic and is a wonderful complement to the song and your voice. Yeah, she’s a great singer. She had tremendous success when she was very young. Her voice is just amazing, and her attitude singing is so positive and so free. It was a joy to sing it.
It wasn’t sort of one of these record-company, manufactured scenarios where “How can we add value to our brand by either a breakfast cereal or perhaps another singer.” I met her backstage. She was a fan of my music, and I really liked her, and we talked about the duets I’d done before on my previous records with Annie Lennox and Jolie Holland, and I said, “It’d be lovely to sing with you if ever the opportunity arose.”
And then when I met her the next time, we were talking about the album, and this time I said, “Someone said ‘Snow in Vegas’ would make a good duet.” And she queued it on her phone and sang along to the whole thing in harmony. And then volunteered to come out and sing it live that night, which she then did.
So I thought, “This girl means business.” We promptly organized some recording time and recorded it and rereleased the record with this version in addition. So I think she really adds something. And each time I’ve had the chance to sing it with her live — on the radio, on telly, and on stage it’s been absolutely great fun. She’ll be popping into the L.A. Hollywood Bowl, and hopefully Red Rocks, as well. It’s a lovely thing. It’s been really nice hanging with her and her whole team of people.
David Gray plays Wednesday, July 8, at the Santa Barbara Bowl with Amos Lee. See sbbowl.com.