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I recall in the late ’80s reading a Rolling Stone review of Richard Thompson’s Amnesia that began “Ho-hum, another first-rate Richard Thompson album.” The uniform excellence of Thompson’s work, particularly in that period, could indeed lull one into complacency, to the point where that excellence could easily be taken for granted.
I thought something similar in 2005, about the work of another UK singer/songwriter, David Gray. That year, he released Life in Slow Motion, a devastatingly gorgeous collection of songs that extended a winning streak begun with White Ladder, his breakout record of six years previous (you remember “Babylon,” don’t you?), and continued through 2002’s New Day at Midnight. Each of them set Gray’s reedy, plaintive voice against a musical backdrop that melded acoustic instrumentation with electronic flourishes, in the service of deeply personal, deeply resonant songs. Combined with a compilation of the best early tracks from his decade-plus career (Lost Songs, 2001), these exceptional discs alluded to a talent whose excellence we could take for granted.
Four years have passed since Life in Slow Motion, and, if anything, Gray’s new record, Draw the Line, raises the bar even higher. Sporting a new band with a fuller, richer sound than he’s managed previously (as well as guest turns from Jolie Holland and Annie Lennox), Gray has written a record that easily stands with his best work, perhaps even surpasses it. You get the feeling he knows it, too—he’s put on a full-court promotional press in advance of the record’s release (September 22), including a ton of interviews (a metric ton, actually—he’s British, after all), showcase gigs, and an appearance on Letterman, and will be returning to the U.S. this fall for a more extensive tour.
Gray was doing promo work in London when I spoke with him on the phone, about two and a half weeks before Draw the Line’s release.
Congratulations on the new record—it’s really quite something.
Thank you very much.
Why did it take four years to follow up Life in Slow Motion?
Well, it was three years, really, insomuch as I was on the road for a year or so after Slow Motion came out. That took a while. And then I consciously wanted to step away from touring for a while, for sure. I got to the point when you have young kids and you’ve been doing it so naturally, you get a bit jaded and it sort of tears you in half. If you’re feeling anything less than super-positive about traveling around the world doing shows, then you should think twice, because it’s the best job in the world and to be wearing anything less than a smile is wrong.
I also needed to make some changes, and that just takes time. So I spent a long time making the record, finding a new band, and we were interrupted for six months by the Greatest Hits which came out, and we toured a bit on that. All these things have an effect.
Then once the record was finished, the world entered its financial crisis, when the old Wizard of Oz factor came up and someone realized it was all just a little man behind the curtain [laughs], making stuff up. Everything seemed to go into a state of paralysis for a while and that was when we were trying to get a new deal sorted out. It’s just taken a lot longer. The record could really have come out in the spring, but as it is, it’s coming out now, in September. I think it’s better that it comes out properly; the whole thing needs to be done right, so it’s better to wait.
I wasn’t in a hurry—that’s one thing, and also I was having a ball making the record. We recorded a huge swathe of material, of which Draw the Line is the first release.
Oh, wow. How many songs?
Well, we probably recorded and finished around 35.
Oh my God.
I’m not saying there’s another three albums to come out, or whatever, but there probably will be another record somewhere else down the line. We’ll have to see.
That’s awesome. Talk a little bit about your new band. What are they bringing to the table that makes them the right personnel for your music now?
It was a big decision to end the era that had been running since White Ladder and before. I felt that the sort of creative spark was on the wane so I needed a new challenge. I don’t know. You pick people because you sense something in them that you think is compatible, or there’s a hunger there. I don’t really like “musos,” people who have a great facility to play music but don’t seem to know why. It’s something leaner and slightly more gnarled that I’m looking for—the misfits. Someone who puts their soul into it and it looks like it hurts when it doesn’t go right. You look for people who have a kind of hunger about them. It’s the sound, what they do. They have to light you up with their playing. That’s what I was looking for.
There’s a line by Tom Waits, “You never hear the melody until you needed the song.” I think it’s true of people and singers as well—when you really need somebody, they turn up. We did some auditions and the drummer, Keith Pryor, was the first really big discovery. His sound and his whole angle really lights up the record. That was a giant thing, getting him. I kept the same bass player from before, and I got the guitarist who played on my first record, Neill [MacColl]. But it just worked, straight away.
“Draw the Line” and “Fugitive,” the first two songs on the record, were also the first things that really came together. And when I heard this sound, which had so much more attitude and presence and sounded so driving, I just realized this is it—this is what I’ve been waiting for. You get rid of one thing to replace it with you don’t know what, but as soon as I heard that—man, I just felt so alive.
It also provided a vehicle for me to say so many different things—a different voice and a different angle in my writing completely that I had not been able to find an outlet for, for years. Suddenly, I felt free; I felt completely liberated by this new sound. There’s so much space in the music to sing into. I just go so much off my chest. It’s great when you get something off you chest that’s been on your mind for a while, but this was like getting a hundred things off your chest all at once. It was fantastic. So as a writer, I’ve never enjoyed making a record as much as this one.
I love the opening line of “Jackdaw”: “I’m like a jackdaw / Cawing at your back door / Scratching at your windowpane.” I have to ask you, from a creative aspect, where did that come from? Did the image actually occur to you? Was it the sound of the words? Did you dare yourself to write a song called “Jackdaw?”
It’s a little crow that always would fly around down in Wales on the coast where I was brought up. A friendly looking little crow. I’m always using nature references; I’m a huge nature person. That line just popped out. The driving riff on the piano, the uplift of it, the emotion of it, and then this line and melody that came flying out in that song—it was just born in a very easy way.
I don’t know where these things come from. The weirdest thing, this sort of synchronicity almost, was when I looked up the word jackdaw , just out of curiosity, in the dictionary, and it said, “amorous bird.” [laughs] I had no idea it was renown for mating for life; all these things—it was famous for being very amorous with its partner. It was perfect. That song takes me to Wales—it takes me home when I sing that song. That’s where I am when I’m singing that one—my soul is back in Wales.
Jolie Holland was a really inspired choice to use in “Kathleen,” but I understand she wasn’t your first choice. Who was?
When I wrote that song, I sang the backing vocals, and I said, “Gee, this thing is so country. I should forget ‘Kathleen’—this sounds like ‘Jolene.’ It’s got to be Dolly Parton. So I rushed home and wrote her this email, telling her how much I loved her, etc., and would she ever consider singing on my record. I sent it into the office and said, “Listen, what do you think of this?” Without knowing that I didn’t want them to, they sent it straight away.
Next morning, I ran out and said, “Don’t send that fucking letter—it’s embarrassing; it’s far too sycophantic. I’ve written a new one.” And they said, “It’s too late; we sent it last night. But it’s all right—we’ve already heard back. Dolly’s busy for the next five years.” So she never got anywhere near the music. But anyway, skip Dolly—I got Jolie, which was even better; I changed a few letters, and the outcome was even better.
Did you get on Dolly’s calendar for 2014?
[Laughs] I can’t think that far ahead. I don’t think Dolly can, either. She’ll probably have retired by then.
I read a comment from you about how Annie Lennox’s presence on “Full Steam” brought energy to your sessions. Can you explain that? What did she bring to your music?
She just has this terrific zest—when Annie sings something, she sings it like she means it, but it just sounds like so much fun. In the way that Freddie Mercury could sing anything, even a very emotional line, and made it fun. She makes “bullied, suckered, pimped and patronized” sound like a good idea—it’s like, “Yeah, I’ll have some of that.” She just lifted the song; her pop sensibility lifted the whole thing.
I think my vision for it was another man singing in a Righteous Brothers style. That was my first take on the whole thing. Now I think it would have really sunk under its own weight with some other words and another singer. It could have probably got far too stuck into the deep meaning, where now you don’t notice almost what the lyrics are saying until the second or third listen. She just carries through the song beautifully. She gave us the chorus. She just lifted everything up. She someone with just amazing energy, an amazing voice; she’s totally undiminished. And she just worked like a trooper; she wouldn’t stop until she was completely happy. We did marathon sessions on it.
Without trying very hard, I found 20 or so instances of your music being used in television or film. Can you talk about the importance of those media in getting your music out to the public?
Well to be totally honest, I don’t know what it is. Does it make a big difference? I think it can be. Let’s say there’s a heart-stopping moment on an episode of E.R. Someone’s laid out on the operating table, dead, and they choose to play the entire full-length version of “Life in Slow Motion.” Yeah—that could do some good. There’s not going to be a dry eye in the house. If I can aid human suffering in that way—[laughs].
In the general sort of “throw a bit in here or a bit in there,” I don’t know. I don’t know how much of a connection it makes. It’s something that I wouldn’t say troubles me, but you don’t want to just throw your music around like confetti. You feel that holding it back might have more effect. It’s funny, with the film thing, you get asked to do it all the time, and most of the time it doesn’t happen. Film is what it is. To be honest, I don’t know exactly where it’s at; I don’t know that it makes much of a difference.
People would have you believe that certain programs like Grey’s Anatomy are like the holy grail—you get a bit of a track on there and your life will be made. But I’ve never found any of that to be true. Maybe it will help, but I’m not quite sure to what extent. I think it does, because the perfect marriage of the perfect music at the perfect moment on a well-made program, it does seem to do something. Most of the time, that doesn’t quite happen.
On a more serious note, last year, you spoke out about the use of your music and others’ music by US forces in Guantanamo interrogations. I remember that story being told on the news here with a kind of chuckle; you rightly pointed out the shamefulness of it. Can you comment on that?
I’ve nothing to add, really, to what I said at the time. It’s always treated as a bit of novelty or joke: “Isn’t it funny that they thought the people used this song?” As if the joke is on the fucking artist, rather than our own people have dropped to a level lower than the people they’re torturing. This whole issue goes on and on and on. It wasn’t just used in Guantanamo; it was used in all these different camps.
The issue of rendition, the issue of torture, the abuse of human rights and the total lack of availability of legal advice, et cetera, et cetera, is unacceptable. But yeah, the media choose to treat this story as a novelty story, which is worked for amusing angles.
What always makes me laugh is when these heavy rock bands kind of go, “We’re damn proud to have our music used to torture people!” [laughs] There’s always two sides to every argument, aren’t there? I’m firmly in the “Please don’t torture people with my music” camp. [laughs]
I have one last question for you—we’re going to have to cut off in a second. You’re releasing Draw the Line at a time when the record industry is, by all indications, in dire straits. How will you define the success of this record?
I think we’re about to find out. Anything less than total success will be a disappointment with this record and me. What that now means, if you want to play the numbers game, you’re going to be disappointed. You’ll sense it in people—in your ticket sales, in the way the audience reacts to the music. Does it build? Does it feel like your star is in the ascendant, and it’s really out there, connecting with people? These are the ways will gauge it. At the concerts, watching the ticket sales, watching the thing grow—that’s the only way I know how. Numbers-wise, we’re not going to hit the heights we once hit, simple as that.
Again, I thank you so much for your time. This is a wonderful album, and I wish you the best of luck with it.
Thank you Robert. Cheers!