A fugitive from life hiding in a bubble
David Gray is not one to rest on his laurels; 12 million album sales, the best selling album in Ireland ever with ‘White Ladder’, a BAFTA nomination for his soundtrack work on Amma Assante’s 2004 film ‘A Way Of Life’. Two Ivor Novellos, a Q award, two Brit nominations, and a Grammy nomination.
Those laurels, in fact, might not be an actual pain in the arse, but they certainly make him fidget.
“I didn’t have a masterplan but I knew that I was gonna make some wholesale changes at the end of making ‘Life In Slow Motion’,” the singer-songwriter says of his 2005, No.1 (seventh) studio album.
“I’d had a really good run, I’d built a band with some great people. But the creative spark that had been there, that [1998’s] ‘White Ladder’ was born out of, was sort of gone. I just felt there was a need for some new energy and a new impetus to the whole thing. I was hungry.”
“I wrote ‘Draw The Line’ in June 2007,” he recalls of the song that gives his new album its title and the song, which lit the touch paper for the rest of the album.
Over the next two years Gray kept up that standard. New songs galore ‘lurched’ from his fingers, featuring guest vocal turns from Jolie Holland and Annie Lennox. ‘Draw The Line’ is the sound of an artist turning his lens, his camera, his vision outwards, providing an extrospective take on the world.
“I’d been very introspective for whatever reason,” he admits. “Partly success, partly things that happened in my life around the time of ‘White Ladder’. I guess as a singer-songwriter you’re gonna have a little bit of that anyway in your makeup. My previous records were inward most of the time. But suddenly with the song ‘Draw The Line’ I’d kicked the front door down and I was outside. The world was my oyster: that’s what I felt as a writer.”
Pitching up in his studio of The Church, Gray set to work on his self- produced record, with esteemed assistance from his band. ‘Stella The Artist’ was an early favourite, a punchy song with an almost Glitter Band-ish intro.
“It’s fun basically,” says Gray. “It just became this wall of sound. And the lyrics are pretty much the first things that came into my head. It’s me singing to the muse. ‘Stella’ is the giver of wherever all this stuff comes from.”
She was prolific that week. Gray wrote three other songs in a matter of days. One of them, ‘Fugitive’, would become the album’s lead single. It’s built around nape-prickling piano and electric guitar, and soaring contribution from a gospel choir.
“I’ve been a fugitive from life, I’ve been hiding in my bubble. And I had this image of Saddam Hussein being pulled out a hole in the ground. That’s where the “mud streaked fugitive” line came from. It’s about hiding from life, from yourself. It’s saying: don’t forsake it all because there’s something keeping you upright and keeping you walking down the street. And that force was coming flying out of me.”
The songs kept flowing and for ‘Kathleen’ he had plans of a collaboration. American singer-songwriter Jolie Holland had supported him in the US, and he realized she was the perfect backing vocalist for what he had in mind. “On the tree of American music she is a rare thing these days,” he enthuses. “Utterly authentic, a natural, she sounds like she could have been singing in the 1930s with Blind Willie McTell. She’s got the blues in her blood.”
For the album’s epic finale, ‘Full Steam Ahead’, Gray also had big vocal ideas. Initially he thought the ‘Righteous Brothers-style’ song needed another male vocal. Chris Isaak was top of his list.
“It’s a song with quite dark sentiments. I see it as a broad political thing, I think of the line from TS Eliot, ‘a patient etherised upon a table’, that’s the state we’re in as a collective mass. We’re just sedated, talking shit. We’re so disconnected from the guts of life most of the time. But it would have sunk under its own worthy weight with another male singer singing with me,” he laughs. “When I was demoing it with my own voice it was like two bullocks braying in a field – too testosterone!”
Enter Annie Lennox. “She has the presence and that little bit of bite. She’s got enough attitude that she could carry the lines off with some real presence. She’s got a tough voice. But when she came in not only did she bring that but she brought this joyous, pop energy – she lifted the song and gave us the chorus we were asking for.” ‘Draw The Line’ is the warm, fresh, organic sound of David Gray in a new, revitalised light. He had all the success in the world, and more, but he was hungry for more – not more success, but more feeling. More heart. More soul. More songs. More life. The formula had become a stale and worn one.
“Hunger is a very accurate appraisal for how I feel,” he says. “I got to say things as a writer that I’ve obviously been dying to say for years. Songs like ‘Nemesis’, ‘First Chance’ and ‘Draw The Line’ were so liberating. Images and ideas just flowing out and a bit of humour as well, and a bit of caustic soda ground in there too. A bit of spice to the whole thing. The camera was suddenly panning everywhere. It was just a wonderful feeling. I just feel very, very alive. That’s the feeling that’s in ‘Draw The Line’.”
"This Years Love"
"Draw The Line"
"Stella The Artist"