There’s hardly a musician who wouldn’t love to have the success David Gray enjoyed with his 1998 multiplatinum album White Ladder and its breakthrough hit, “Babylon.” After languishing in obscurity for his first three albums, the self-financed release became an international sensation characterized by a mix of acoustic folk and electronic elements. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience the Englishman wouldn’t trade for anything.
“It’s like the world comes up and kisses you. It was an incredible and overpowering thing,” Gray recalls. “When the whole thing began to unfold, it was wondrous. It was like a fairy tale. I wasn’t fated by the press to be important. It just happened because it connected with people and people’s hearts, across the board, and it became unstoppable.”
But success of that magnitude presents its own difficulties. It’s like passing through a crucible: it’s almost impossible to come out of it unchanged. From that moment forward, it’s no longer a question of “making it” but a matter of how you survive and endure.
“With this ubiquity comes other issues. It’s like you’ve become lame by nature of the fact that you’ve been overexposed, and then you’re in for a slating, basically,” Gray acknowledges with a rueful chuckle.
It’s just one of the things that made his 2002 follow-up A New Day at Midnight such a difficult album to make. Add to that the time on the road supporting White Ladder, whose success was such a slow-build that Gray spent the following three years traveling the world. When he finally returned home, he felt like a different person, or, perhaps more precisely, he wasn’t sure who he was or what he should be doing.
“One of the side effects of this success is you have less and less time to think and ponder and write and start to sow the seeds of your next record. I was just being sort of quite vaporized with other people’s crazy energy every day, and I was working my nuts off,” he says. “It was like we were trying to get back to the un-self-conscious simple wonderment we had when making White Ladder, but it was so hard to get there because, at this point, the entire world had changed and you can’t work out whether you’re actually in denial or trying to get back to the good place you were in. I couldn’t tell whether to go forward or back. Eventually, it’s obvious. You have to move forward and change things. But that moment was very difficult.”
Indeed, change is something Gray’s learned to embrace. By the time of 2005’s Life in Slow Motion, he’d pruned away the distinctive electronic accompaniment that first helped garner him attention. In many ways it was a transitional album, followed by a four-year break that allowed Gray to get his bearings.
On top of the change in his commercial fortunes, there was great tumult in his personal life. During that time he lost his father, as well as his grandfather, and he had his first child.
“I was overwhelmed. It’s a record that I made without a proper sense of equilibrium,” Gray says. “I sort of turned inward for a little while, but I came out of that phase and pushed out into music in a big way. The last couple records I think I really achieved something for myself at least that I’ve been yearning to do. I satisfied a creative desire.”
He added a full-band for 2009’s Draw the Line, producing a heartier, more rocking (a relative term in this case) album. Though he was happy with it, he’s even more enthusiastic about last year’s more understated Foundling, which has found a second life on stage.
“[Draw the Line] was a rock show. But to do this Foundling record, which is much, much quieter, I wanted the sound of real instruments, real piano, not keyboard, real double bass, cello, harmonium, real acoustic guitar, and mandolins miked up. To have that, you have to take volume way down from a rock show,” Gray explains.
But he wasn’t finished. After the first circuit supporting the album, he took the band back into the workshop and remodeled the whole sound, top to bottom. The stage set-up also became much tighter, allowing better communication to abet more improvisation.
“We worked our socks off to put it together, and it was such a pleasure it didn’t feel like work,” Gray says. “I’m taking a look back across my entire catalog with this. The level of improvisation is massive. It’s like turning yourself inside-out as an artist on stage. The act of making music before you quite know what you’re supposed to be doing is wonderful. When things are crystallizing live on stage for the first time — that’s one of the most special feelings.”
It’s been a bit like rediscovering himself.
“We’ve taken a lot of chances and bitten off far more than we can chew,” he says. “It’s new terrain, a sense of freedom. That’s what you want. It’s been a liberating experience.”