He was born and raised in the UK, but his most fervid support comes from Ireland, where according to the Irish Recorded Music Association, his album White Ladder is the best-selling album in history.
Gray got a big break in 1993 when he appeared on Later With Jools Holland, performing "Birds Without Wings" before his first album was released. In a sign of his aversion to genre classification, he shook his head when Holland said he was in the "folk idiom."
Gray's music has always been impassioned, but in places on his first three albums there was a palpable anger that came through. "When I began recording, I was hammering my guitar, hammering my vocals," he told AOL.
He's been married to his wife, Olivia, since 1993. Many of his songs are about the travails of love, but they're not specifically about him. He's explained that he's a "vicarious" songwriter, often channeling the experiences of others.
The album that changed his life is Astral Weeks
by Van Morrison. "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," he said in a Songfacts interview
. "I realized it was like a stream-of-consciousness moment where there weren't any certainties. It was like quantum music-making."
He was signed to EMI in the mid-'90s but released just one album on the label: Sell, Sell, Sell in 1996. At their behest, he recorded much of it at Pyramid Sound Studios in Ithaca, New York, which according to Gray was a disaster. The album flopped and Gray left the label, going independent for his next album, the seminal White Ladder.
White Ladder, recorded in 1998 on the cheap in Gray's home studio, benefited from advances in technology. He used an 8-track digital recorder and a Groovebox, a device introduced by Roland in 1996 that could create beats and generate the sounds of string instruments.
Gray spent a year promoting White Ladder
in Europe, then another year promoting it in America. The grind and repetition took a tool and depleted his energy for the songs. It was years before he would discuss the album again, and one track, "Babylon
," he had to stop playing for a while for the sake of his mental health.