IT HAS been, as Vinnie Jones said at the end of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, emotional.
It has been tense, also, and if there’s any pop star (although calling him a pop star is stretching it a bit) that can sculpt tension out of what for most of us would be ordinary, average situations it is David Gray.
Twenty years following the release of his first pair of albums, 1993’s A Century Ends and 1994’s Flesh — two records that fizzed and sparked like a fuse box before it cracked apart, and which Irish audiences lapped up as Gray quickly became an adopted son — comes a different kind of David Gray with a different kind of album.
Mutineers — his latest album — arrives at a time when the world and its sainted aunt had become just a bit tired of Gray. After the huge international success of 1999’s White Ladder, it seemed as if Gray’s creativity — if not his head, mind and body — was being hung, drawn and quartered.
Subsequent studio albums simply couldn’t hold a candle to White Ladder, which was to couples in love as IKEA was to interior décor: a perfect, contemporary fit. And so you had records such as A New Day at Midnight (2002) and Life in Slow Motion (2005) advancing Gray’s commercial profile while the man himself was shrinking back into a kind of reclusiveness that wasn’t good for anyone. Time to hoover the floors, declutter the attic, call in the removal vans.
When he’s planning a new album in his head — irrespective of how well the previous one did — does he feel the need to sweep clean each time?
“No, not really,” says Gray, who is sitting in an upstairs room at the Workman’s Club music venue in Dublin. He doesn’t appear to be relaxing, which isn’t very surprising given his tendency for clarity of speech and tautness of attitude.
“The way any album is received by the public has an effect. I don’t think any of my last few records has gone badly, so I don’t feel like I have to put any of them behind me. It doesn’t work like that for me; it’s more the creative instinct of what I feel I want to do next.
"Albums are a cycle, anyway — you write them, make them, master them, get a record company to put them out, promote them, and then tour them for about a year. That’s a hefty chunk of time and commitment.”
He says that the success of White Ladder — a lovely little album, released on his own label, which struck a chord with millions of listeners, thereby catapulting Gray into millionaire status and towards a level of commercial ubiquity from which there was no turning back — wasn’t exactly a numbing experience, but more a dislocating one.
Gray ponders on the positives: the way he tells it, the world at large kissed him full on the mouth, so who in their right minds would not have wanted that to happen? Such mainstream success, however, gave him a bunch of things that were difficult to deal with. The inference from certain quarters, he suggests, is that if an artist is incredibly successful then their creativity simply can’t have any depth. This, states Gray, is not necessarily correct.
Cue getting ready for Mutineers and finding an empathetic producer in the form of soft-spoken but steely Andy Barlow (formerly of alt.rock band, Lamb). “It took a while to find someone like him,” remarks Gray. “I had several false starts trying to make Mutineers. It was partly self-produced, and then with the band, but those attempts didn’t really work. When Andy came along, we clicked pretty much straight away.”
It wasn’t plain sailing, reveals Gray; initially, neither of the participants had any patience nor, indeed, liking for each other’s working methods. “I thought it was madness,” recalls Gray with a shake of his head.
“I was at the end of my tether some of the days. I mean, seriously — I had a stack of songs that I knew were good, and yet we’re working on something that didn’t have a chorus, any lyrics… Andy simplified them, he stripped them… I wasn’t sure what to do, whether I’d made the right decision. It was an immense challenge — he completely cut the floor out from under me, left me with absolutely nothing sometimes. Yet he was right, because the moment of discovery, the point when you knew a song worked, was profound. That kind of creative spontaneity is priceless.”
It sounds fraught by anyone’s standards — did a time arrive when Gray felt he had had enough? “There were moments,” he concedes, “but I was wrong. It’s panic, isn’t it? We had massive confrontations, all kinds of heaviness. It was a real emotional ordeal. I don’t normally go for the tortured artist nonsense, but it was the whole package: tears, fights, thrown furniture, kicked doors, people storming out. It was intense, but he stood in front of the artillery.”
He clearly likes to be in full control — what was it like to have to defer to someone else’s opinion? “Traumatic at times! The lack of control was what I found difficult most of all. There are certain parameters that are necessary in order to do what I do, and some of those were taken away.
"But I could see something new emerging, spectacularly so at times, and that’s what encouraged me. I consoled myself with that; progress wasn’t quick enough for me, though, and that was one of my biggest issues. The tyranny of time… But I had to deal with it, because I wanted what Andy had — he put everything he had into the record, and it was exhilarating for me.”
With the new album out, and much of the British and Irish promotional duties done and dusted, it’s now time to plan ahead. Does David Gray prefer to know what he’ll be doing for the next 18 months, or does he like a certain level of unpredictability?
“I don’t think I like one thing over the other,” he remarks. “What I prefer is feeling alive, and that’s far more conducive to living in the present. I feel free of the shackles of the past — completely. And in a weird way, because of that, more connected to it. Success and what has happened to me always threatens to suck you back towards it, and when you’re trying to move forward suddenly that feels like a threat. But I know that chapter of my life is over.”
He says he feels very “present” in the music, and very “alive” on stage. “It’s like I have a religious zeal about what I’m doing. I’m hoping that’s infectious, and that the wheels will start to spin again. I’m sure I’ll do all right — it’s not like the album won’t get anywhere, but it’s more about what level are we going to be dealing with? You don’t know what breaks you might get; it’s complicated, but I like this feeling of living in the present.
“It’s real, it’s genuine, and not something to be taken for granted. The confidence I feel is borne of the authority that the music has over my band and me. We can feel it, and we can see it effecting audiences.”
Mutineers is out now on Good Soldier Songs