David Gray: 'I feel like I'm singing from the heart again on this album'
Singer David Gray found global fame in the late Nineties, but had a hard time dealing with it. Sixteen years on he tells Andy Welch why he feels human again.
When David Gray released White Ladder in 1998, it became something of a slow-burning success – a slow-burning success that sold almost eight million copies and spawned the giant single Babylon.
It was the Sale, Greater Manchester-born musician's fourth album; sales for his first three had been almost non-existent.
The newly-released Mutineers, his 10th album, is a direct relation of White Ladder, but nevertheless finally sees Gray breaking free of the shackles of his breakout hit.
"There's a lot of baggage that comes with success," he begins. "Of course, I'm not complaining, but I made that album in my bedroom and didn't think anyone would be listening. Then, all of a sudden, it sold seven or eight million copies. What are you supposed to do after that?"
Add the fact that Gray's father died just after the album's release, and Ivy, his first child with wife Olivia, was born, and the picture becomes chaotic.
"It was a time of huge dislocation," he explains. "Everything was different, and I think anyone in that situation needs time to work out how to survive it."
The album that followed, A New Day At Midnight, was Gray trying to suss out the rest of his life, but it was widely criticised and didn't sell as well as hoped. It's little wonder he took a few years off afterwards, but the three albums that followed – Life In Slow Motion, Draw The Line and Foundling – saw him drifting, both further away from the music he wanted to make and from the fans who'd once bought his records in droves.
"I went from being a page, to a paragraph to a sentence, and I wasn't happy with my portrayal in the media," he says.
"Fame and success is a hall of mirrors and brings you into a very self-conscious world. I've been trying to let go of that for some time. With this new album, I've found sheer liberation where none of that is important anymore."
It's interesting, perhaps ironic, that the album on which Gray stops worrying about his former position as a bestselling artist could be the one that returns him there.
For Mutineers, he teamed up with Andy Barlow, one half of electronic duo Lamb, who helped put new wind in Gray's sails. There's no huge change in direction, or cliched return to form. In truth, Gray's recent albums have all been good enough, just a little hard-going.
The main difference between Mutineers and its predecessors is that it sounds like Gray is having fun. By his own admission, he's a very intense character and his focus doesn't shift from his music for a second.
"Andy reminded me making an album should be some creative flight of fancy to be seen as a treat. I'd forgotten that, and all I thought about was the responsibility. I was like some creative beast of burden."
He says the new approach has seen him come on leaps and bounds.
"It feels like a new world of possibility is opening up in front of me, and it's Andy that did that," he says. Much of the album's energy, he notes, is down to the fact that they didn't make demos of the songs before they recorded it. A lot of the time, when you hear Gray singing a line, it'll be only the first or second time he sang it.
"There's no doubt left in my mind, I feel like I'm singing straight from the heart again and I've got back to the source of my music."
Mutineers is out now on Good Soldier Songs