An Interview with David Gray – HuffPost 9.21.09

Mike RagognaDraw The Line seems like a return to the sound of your earlier recordings. Was that a conscious decision?

David Gray: I think it’s a degree of going backwards in order to go forwards. The music has been quite inward looking for a while with the last few records anyway. Suddenly, that’s changed, and rather than filming intimate interiors of my own emotional landscape, I suddenly kicked the door down and I’m like a roving reporter sort of taking snapshots of anything and everything I can find. That’s what’s happening through the lens of the songs. That’s how I started, trying to be more ambitious, trying to sing the world almost. Sort of paint a picture of a panorama. In spirit, it is like I’ve gone back, and I’ve also gone back to the style of taking a record where you play live, where there’s no click track bulls**t going on. It’s just the band playing in the room, and if possible, singing to the track as well. More than half the record was done live with the vocals and the whole thing. It’s got a real human element to it–it’s more real. The production is stripped down, but of course, there is the odd track where it’s absolutely produced, like full-steam ahead.

MR: You can feel the naturalness, like on the song “Breathe.” The twelfth-note intro sounds so precise even without mechanical help.

DG: And there’s no click on that.

MR: You start “Nemesis” as a breakup song, but then it goes into a list of Graysiologies that expand on the concept before it concludes. Were you keeping track of where you were going with the song as you wrote it?

DG: [Laughs] Yes, it was like a sack of images I found buried in the back garden and I managed to find the one silver thread that would tie them all together for the last line of the song to make sense of the whole thing. It’s got something special, that song.

MR: As a songwriter, what excited you about creating the material for Draw The Line?

DG: I love to catch songs very fresh, like when they’re just being born. The act of becoming is more interesting than having become something. It’s like catching that moment when it’s instinctively taking shape for the first time. You punch out the lyrics and fight your way through it. I love those moments, I treasure them. So I was in my own studio as much as I could be in it, with the band around as much as I needed them, and I was able to push on and on and on to get more and more and more of this incredibly fresh material. Writing completely new songs in the studio was necessary to capture what was in the air, this magic, and we captured it again and again. So there’s a real freshness to a lot of the recording. The overall story of making this record was the pushing for these magic moments.

MR: What kind of inspiration came from the recording process itself?

DG: There was a lot happening, there was a new chemistry among the band, so there wasn’t a sense of repeating myself. It was like something new. “Draw the Line” itself was that sort of moment when the whole new identity for the music was forged. The song came out of a jam when we were trying to record “Breathe” and we weren’t getting anywhere. That song was from the bass playing, then the guitar, and the drummer started hitting, and I thought, “This is good, let’s record this!” So I took it home that night and just started to write lyrics, wrote it all night, and got in there in the morning a bit ragged. I said, “Forget about everything we were supposed to be doing, we’ll just do this one,” and we managed to catch it before my head exploded. When I heard it back through the speakers, I said, “This is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for, this is why I changed everything…changed the band, changed the whole thing.” It was so the new thing could happen.

MR: It seems you were extremely energized by what was going on creatively both inside the studio and inside yourself.

DG: It’s only when you’re 100% awake and present and in the moment, firing on all cylinders and loving it do you really know what you’ve been missing. There’s a sort of passion, a directness and energy about this music that I’ve been looking for, well, for a while.

MR: Normally, what’s your writing process like?

DG: It’s first the music, and then the words. After I write the music, I try to find the words that fit the feeling of the music and then write the lyrics from there. I’ll find a key phrase or way into the lyrics. Or sometimes I write the music and it’s not completed until I find the right lyrics to go with it. Just occasionally, I write the lyrics, then put music to the lyrics, but not very often. I’ve done it less than five times so far.

MR: Do you feel there was a similar magic in making Draw The Line as there was on White Ladder?

DG: There was something special going on in the air this time. It’s what you want every time you try to make a record but it doesn’t always work out that way. But this time around, there was something going on.

MR: Years have passed since “Babylon” was a hit. How do you feel about it these days?

DG: It’s really come back to life. It’s very different at the moment than the template that I started out with. I was having to perform it so many times, I lost contact with that song, and it was only when I started to play it in a different way at acoustic dates that I got it back. I started to play it gently, very, very gently on acoustic guitar and that’s it. On acoustic guitar, I found a new way to sing it, I put the emotion back in there. So the song is very much alive and kicking at the moment.

MR: Did you first become popular internationally with your single “Shine”?

DG: My first song on my first album was “Shine,” it was my second single, and it created a cult following in Ireland where the video got played a lot by a certain video jockey on a certain music channel. That’s where I got some action with “Shine,” it didn’t really register anywhere else. But it’s always been a bit of a flagship song for me. White Ladder is what broke me internationally. It was a big breakthrough with “Babylon” everywhere.

MR: How did you record White Ladder?

DG: We made it all in my house with very little equipment. It was mainly myself, the drummer and the engineer who was the producer, engineer, and sound wizard who came in with all those electronic noises and made them sound convincing. So we pretty much did it ourselves.

MR: Why did you record Draw The Line in a studio as opposed to your home?

DG: Five years ago, I bought a big recording studio off Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. It was called The Church and it’s a big place, like 5000 feet. That’s where I made Life In Slow Motion and where I recorded this record.

MR: There’s another Eurythmics connection, Annie Lennox performs a duet with you on “Full Steam.” What’s the story behind that?

DG: I wrote a duet and then we had to find someone to sing it with me. I had this vision of the song being a kind of Righteous Brothers song. I was originally thinking along the lines of another man–I thought maybe Chris Isaak or Michael Stipe or someone who could play the other lines well. Then my manager suggested Annie. We basically sent the tracks to a few people and she got right back to us and said, “Yeah, I want to do this, I think it’s great.” So we got her in the studio and she didn’t just turn up and sing it, she put her heart and soul into it. Now that she’s sung it, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. I think the song would have sunk under its own weight had there been another wordy voice singing next to me. She makes the sentiments of the song lighter somehow.

MR: You saved that big finale to the end, with an orchestral sendoff for the project.

DG: That’s a huge orchestra at Abbey Road Studio. We’ve had to upgrade our own sound banks to try and replicate it live.

MR: Do you have any advice for young artists just starting out?

DG: Understatement is always the key, and whispering is louder than screaming. Don’t forget, you can turn the fader up, you don’t have to sing louder. Let the PA or mixing desk do the work. It took me a while to figure that one out. The softer you can hit the song and really make it connect, the better it will sound.

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