David Gray

by Carl Wiser

On the significance of the word "Babylon," his theory of songs as active imagination, and the album by another artist that still blows his mind.

Twenty years before Billie Eilish pulled it off, David Gray made a landmark album in a home studio with a sampler and a dose of divine inspiration. White Ladder is filled with wondrous, mercurial tracks like "Babylon," "Please Forgive Me" and "Sail Away" - songs that Gray says came from deep within his soul. It came from necessity. Gray had been dropped by his label (EMI) and used what was left of his savings to finance the album. If it failed, he'd be back to scrubbing pots.

Gray is an Englishman, but his stronghold is Ireland. That's where his 1993 debut album made the biggest impact, and where he was welcomed even after his next two stiffed. He pressed 6,000 copies of White Ladder and distributed them there in November 1998. Response was ecstatic, earning Gray a record deal in the UK, where the album was released in 1999. In America, Dave Matthews signed Gray in 2000 and made White Ladder the first release on his new label, ATO.

It's only recently that Gray has delved into his own history to revisit White Ladder. In 2019, he launched a 20th anniversary tour where he played it from start to finish; on Valentine's Day 2020, he released a deluxe edition with 12 additional tracks culled from B-sides, demos and other corners of the archives.

When speaking with Gray about his songs, you have to get over the idea that there is any tangible inspiration for the lyrics; a song like "Babylon" can't be pinned to a specific relationship, but Gray can somehow articulate the feeling that's at the root of it. The one song on the album that was made in a proper studio on commission for a movie was "This Year's Love," which has nothing to do with the film itself but does evoke something quite profound.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You have said that inspiration happens maybe once or twice on an album, and on White Ladder you talked about how "Please Forgive Me" was one of those songs. Was there another song on that album that was similarly inspired?

David Gray: Well, there seemed to be sort of a gracious atmosphere that surrounded all the songs - we just seemed to know what to do. But "This Year's Love," it's funny to think of that one as a moment of inspiration, but it happened very quickly. I was rather circumspect about it because I was asked to write it and it was the first time I'd ever been commissioned to write a song. I was involved in a film of the same name, This Year's Love the film, and the director [David Kane] said, "Could you try and write the title track for us," and I just didn't know if that was the kind of thing I did. I wrote songs as the mood took me, about whatever came to mind. When I stood away and thought about it, I thought, I'm not in a position to be uptight about this. I need to try and take every opportunity. So I saw it as a challenge, and I thought, I'll do it and see whether anything good comes out of it. It might be a learning experience, or it might be a hive into nothing.

I took the words "this year's love" and started to play with them as a sort of melody, and then within an hour or so I'd written this song right then quickly, and made a quick recording of it - quite a primitive recording - and I sent off to the director, my manager and various interested people just to see what they thought. And to my enormous surprise, they came back saying they really liked it. I had no idea that it had any kind of power really - I was just following my instincts.

So, it wasn't inspiration in the traditional sense. Inspiration is when you're possessed by something, and when I wrote "Please Forgive Me," I was possessed with this overpowering feeling which was highly subjective, and yet I remained split in two parts, with one objective part looking down on this weird, almost out-of-body experience. The thing was so vivid in me, I just had to get it down. As it was happening, I was thinking, Jesus, this is great, don't blow it!

"This Year's Love" was the reverse of that. It was a slightly calculated kind of songwriting by numbers where I was using my instincts and skill, but working backward from an idea into music, and that disabled my sense of whether it was of value. And yet, what I wrote at that moment was just as lasting as what I did with the sort of divine spirit coursing through my veins.

So, they are two contrasting songs, both written very, very quickly, came from nowhere, but one was a suggestion by the director of a film and the other was the firing-pistol moment when "Please Forgive Me" landed. I knew I had never written anything quite like this - it had this expansive kind of power, this purity. You wish you could bottle it and use it in all your songs, but it doesn't turn up that often. Sometimes a song has been latent within you for what feels like centuries and suddenly it's coming out, and that's how that one felt.

Songfacts: When you're possessed by this overpowering feeling as if the words are coming from a different place, do you ever discern meaning from those words after you write them and figure out what you're actually saying to yourself?

Gray: Very frequently. There is a kind of regurgitation, if you like, that happens. You'll have a flow and then later you have the time to weigh up what exactly was born and where it came from. It's often a meaning that might subtly alter over time.

There is a sort of portentous quality to some lyrics - they seem to know the future. I guess everything is written inside us. It's a strange space, the songwriting dimension. In the "Please Forgive Me" instance it was overpowering. Those words were hitting me so hard as I was writing them, I had tears in my eyes at times. And yet, at the same time, the objective part of me was going, "Don't blow it! Stay on it!" You know, don't overdo it, don't overcook this. Don't throw things in just because you can. Don't over-flavor this particular broth, just use the sparest amount of vivacity to bring this thing into life. I had these two voices operating.

But yes, I frequently reflect on songs and ponder the words that were written and see into myself. They are very revealing things, even if they're not, strictly speaking, autobiographical. In one sense, how can they be anything but? Even if you're writing about something completely different - an imaginative thing.

Songs are an active imagination - they exist in the world of songwriting. And as autobiographical as you might want to believe that they are, there is something slightly other. These are ideas that I've been grappling with ever since I started, but now having had some 30-odd years of writing songs, it's something I can see with some sort of clarity. The weird paradox there.

Songfacts: What's an example of a song on White Ladder that revealed something to you?

Gray: "This Year's Love" was key. It revealed that the idea of artistic purity and integrity is a purely notional decision. It's something that you prescribe to music for your own reasons because you want to believe these things are important, but in fact, something of high value can arrive through commission. Half of the Renaissance art was commissioned by rather unscrupulous people or the church, take your pick. So, it's what happens during the creative moment and the honesty and the skill involved in negotiating the truth that you're trying to deliver. That's what is important.

So, "This Year's Love" was very revealing because it blew away a whole load of preconceived ideas that I accepted as having some truth to them. It blew those out of the water.

So, what other songs? Let me just think through this now...

"Babylon," I had to play it so much during the album promotion that it kind of killed it for a while - there was no feeling left, it was just a husk of a song in my mind. But it's returned to me over the years.

It's a rather mathematical song that employs devices, so it's kind of calculated in what it's doing, but there's a feeling in that chorus of "let go of your heart, let go of your head" that's striving. I'm trying to express something but I don't really know what it is, and as the years have gone by, in a way that's the central theme of the record: this act of surrender. "Surrender at all costs," if I may come up with a quote.

In Ireland, White Ladder is certified as the best-selling album of all time.
That's what the point of art is: No matter how frightening or indifferent the world is, you must reveal the most agonizingly, acutely personal doubts and feelings through the process. You must confront the things you're most afraid of. It's only then, through that recognition, that it gains true strength.

There's a solidarity when another musician reveals this act of revelation has connected deeply with them, but it's music itself that complicates the equation, because the glory of music in all its mysticism and how it works on our minds and our feelings - even without the lyrics - is something that is hard to equate. This is one of the difficulties with the poetic side of songwriting: You sometimes don't need to say that much at all.

The music, if it's right, will deliver the feeling, and on "Babylon" that sort of works - it's a nicely engineered thing. So over time, I've come to reflect on that song and realize there's something that resides in it that has a sort of confessional power, so I'm speaking to myself while addressing the listener.

The person who is singing the song - the fictional character I've created who is going through their weekend on Friday, Saturday, Sunday - is also me addressing myself. Then more broadly it's addressing anyone who is listening. What other way is there to live but to surrender? Do we really believe in reason? You've got to let go, there's something much bigger. So I've come to appreciate that it has a depth of feeling even though the slightly mathematical songwriting approach I took perhaps belies that.

The beauty is in the music of words themselves, the balance of sibilance and weight, and the onomatopoeic phrasing, the things that just ring, the words that just feel right in the lines, and "Babylon" really has that. The lyric dances over the melody, and it has this wonderful feeling of two things intertwining very, very naturally, like the tendrils of a vine creeping up a fence. It had this sense of entanglement and entwining that felt very lovely and very natural when I wrote it. But that song was written in stages - it didn't all deliver itself in one go. I had to unpick the puzzle of the chorus, which took quite some time.

Songfacts: In the context of the song, what is the significance of the word "Babylon"?

Gray: I'm always looking for slight ambiguities, so I wanted to frame this individual and his feelings in the modern Babylon: London. It's a London record, the whole of White Ladder is, and that's a London song. In the Victorian times, it was modern-day Babylon, and then you have Hollywood Babylon, you've got all kinds of things. The decadent world where man and his deceptions and advances and devices and vices have accelerated a world that is sort of a thing onto itself with its own laws.

So, I was lost within that, and that's why it's almost like a parenthesis around the whole song - the song exists within this place. So, rather than saying "London," I said "Babylon." It fitted basically, and often you have to say something because it just fits the song. And I was then panicked: What does Babylon even mean? I started looking it up in dictionaries and I even rang my father-in-law who was a very knowledgeable man, and he said, "London was called Babylon. Yes Dave, don't worry, that's true." And I said, "Right, I'm going to go with this."

It was just something I did instinctively because I absorbed that piece of information. I panicked a bit afterward thinking, am I making a fool of myself, talking rubbish. You've got all those dub songs as well that reference Babylon - reggae and dub, it's in there a lot - and for the kind of decadent times we live in, I guess that's what I was saying.

Songfacts: You have talked about how you can become very agitated when you're in songwriting mode. How you will go to sleep and can't stop thinking about the song you're working on. What is a track on White Ladder that gave you that kind of torment?

Gray: You're dragging me back to which songs tortured me. "Sail Away" was a bit like "Babylon" in that I toyed with it and I had to sort of engineer the chord sequence to deliver the end result, and that took some time. I guess I'd become preoccupied with these things, but it was to come up with a sonic solution. A lot of the lyric writing was done, it was now how best to present something that isn't just a cliché or just a lazy way of how would you do this song? Would you play the snare with brushes? Use a subtle bit of bass? It's like, "Nah, I'm falling asleep already. How can we do this in a bolder way and really wake people up to what it is?" It was those things that would preoccupy me.

The recording studio was in my house. It was in the room next to my bedroom, so if I was wakeful, I didn't have far to go, I just had to put the headphones on and mess about on the computer to see if I could come up with anything. I don't remember much lyrical torment, but there were certain songs that I couldn't quite get to work, like "Babylon," "Sail Away," "My Oh My," that went through so many incarnations. "My Oh My" in particular went through so many incarnations before I got it right.

So, I surrendered to the process. I had lots of songs - there was an album that came out after White Ladder called Lost Songs that were songs I'd finished that we didn't bother to go near because we realized we were making something that had its own set of rules. When something is already written, it's often a lot harder to adapt it to a new sonic regime than just start from nowhere and have trust in the void that something else will deliver itself into this new sonic world that we'd created. And that's exactly what happened - "We're Not Right," the title track "White Ladder" - these things just began to come out of the air and suddenly we had something that sounded really coherent and sort of electronic. So I didn't use all the songs I already had written - I left them to one side and I only engaged with the songs that seemed to work in this new world we were making.

Gray used a Roland MC-303 Groovebox, which came on the market in 1996, to create the beats and electronic sounds on White Ladder. Using an 8-track digital recorder, he mixed the Groovebox with an array of live instruments to create a distinct analog/digital hybrid sound that was a gateway to artists like Ed Sheeran and George Ezra. Unlike many home recordings, it was highly collaborative. Gray's musical partner Craig McClune supplied most of the drums and bass; his producer, Iestyn Polson, played a key role in the programming and construction.
Songfacts: When was the first time you heard something by another artist that was clearly inspired by White Ladder?

Gray: That's a difficult question. I don't know who has been inspired by it precisely. But I remember sitting down watching TV and there were a couple of adverts on where they had basically bastardized my songs and just changed them enough that you could get away with it - they were basically doing a sort of rip-off of my music to try and sell something. I couldn't be bothered to take them to court over it. So, I remember that.

There were a lot of artists that came through that might not have liked my album, but were working in a similar field, and there was suddenly a whole wave of people doing a similar thing.

Songfacts: What's the closest you've come to recapturing that feeling on another album?

Gray: The White Ladder feeling?

Songfacts: Yeah.

Gray: I don't think I ever will. I can't. You can only be back-against-the-wall at one point in your life - it was a do-or-die moment.

The power of that record is it was all or nothing. It was either going to be a miserable failure and the last record I made, or it would be something that made its way in the world and lit up the future.

It was a moment of surrender. All the negative feelings I was harboring, it was flipping those into positive. Rather than go that way of being bitter and cynical and "fuck the music business" and "fuck the press," it was like, "No, we're going to give them more. This time we're going to give them everything and we're going to make the best record we could ever make. Doesn't matter we've got no money, it doesn't matter we've got no equipment, we're going to do something that we're proud of." But more than that, it was the emotional aspect of it. It has this open-heartedness.

So, I can't place myself into a desperate situation like that again, because it was something much bigger than me what happened - it was more than the sum of its parts. It was not just me but Clune and Iestyn and everyone who was involved in making it. It was the first time I allowed other people into my music in a really substantial way without the fear that it was going to be diluted or somehow change for the worse. This idea that their investment would actually strengthen it and something much more interesting about it, that's what happened on White Ladder. It was a moment of revelation on numerous levels.

Since then I've been dealing with these sort of gravitational waves that have emitted from it, and I'm doing my best to serve them, but I don't think I could reproduce it or even try. I think if something wonderful happens, it will be for other reasons that I can't even see.

It's not like life isn't a desperate thing, and it doesn't take much to tilt your life into some extreme situation, so I might well find myself writing my record as if my life depended on it, but it's not something you can conjure from thin air when you've got a few quid in the bank.

Songfacts: What's the song by another artist that you've spent the most time deconstructing?

Gray: Hmm. Can I just say an album that I've spent the most time deconstructing?

Songfacts: Sure.

Gray: Which would be Astral Weeks by Van Morrison.

It was an acquired taste like olives, or blue cheese. I didn't know what to make of it on first listen, and somehow it hooked me in and I began to become obsessed with it really, and I realized it was like a stream-of-consciousness moment where there weren't any certainties. It was like quantum music-making. Everyone seemed to be on a slightly different page and yet, Van and his voice somehow pulled things together. So, there's this kind of rambling poetic thing, but it's an unresolved record if you like, an Alexander Calder-type mobile of images that they themselves have stored in the music. That's what that lyric and that bit says to me: I'm seeing this, I'm hearing that, I'm imagining this. I think everybody has that thing with it - a very unique relationship - so I unpicked that and listened to that at one point in my life a lot when I was about 20.

I don't think there are any records I've listened to more, and it still fascinates me. It's one of the most sustained moments of inspiration within the history of popular music.

February 18, 2020
Tour dates and information on how to get the album at davidgray.com
More interviews:
Chris Rea
Gilbert O'Sullivan
Joan Armatrading

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