David Gray: At those early gigs in Ireland, the power in those songs gave us an invisible force field
Ahead of a tour to mark 20 years since his album White Ladder changed his life, David Gray talks to Hilary A White about watching Love Island with his daughters, birdwatching and his popularity on this side of the Irish Sea
David Gray is having difficulty keeping all the plates spinning, the finishing of his new house coinciding with the announcement of an arena tour to mark the two decades since the unassuming singer-songwriter emerged from his flat with White Ladder and everything changed.
"I'm dashing about like a lunatic," he says of this day, but this line could have been uttered any time in the past 20 years.
Stress is something the 51-year-old must manage, depicting himself as a "scurrying idiot" dashing between music, label and a "chaotic" family life in North London.
"I'm surprised (wife) Olivia hasn't punched my lights out more than once," he laughs. "I get so twisted out of shape. I take everything so personally."
He misses the simplicity of those early years, singing for his supper and loading CDs into boxes to distribute himself. "That's an interesting word - 'simplicity'," he ponders.
"I do miss it. But you can't go back. Life did feel a lot more simple. Throw in a few children, a couple of houses and a couple of dogs, a record label and all the stuff you've already created, which in itself generates a whole wealth of things you need to attend to, and life becomes very, very cluttered."
Genetics plays a role, he feels, recalling his dad as someone who also "dashed about trying to live three lives when most people would be happy with one."
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For Gray, this disposition led to an addiction to music because he could let go of everything else ("I'm compelled to return to it again and again. The wolf comes and blows your straw house down, you build another one.")
Birdwatching is something else that soothes him.
He goes into precise detail about encounters with peregrines, hobbies and barn owls and is giddy at the prospect of his new home being near a nature reserve in East Anglia, a note of gratitude in his voice for how this allows him to escape.
Maybe it's something to do with being able to finally sit still for a moment. Born in Cheshire before moving to Manchester and then finally to the Welsh fishing village of Solva (where his parents ran a clothes shop), he was constantly moving. There were dreams of being a footballer for Manchester United, but music and creativity rang loudest as the time came for him to enrol in art college in north Wales and then Liverpool.
Gray left pub band The Prawns to go solo, releasing debut A Century Ends in 1993 (the year he wed Olivia). Follow-ups Flesh (1994) and Sell, Sell, Sell (1996) won over critics but few others, and he was dropped by EMI.
In 1997, his cult popularity in Ireland caught the eye of Mary Black, who drafted him in to contribute five tracks for her album Shine. The following year, he put out White Ladder on his own bedroom label, a last roll of the dice.
Anniversaries in music are now rife as heritage acts look to top up their pension by appealing to a moneyed nostalgia market. But marking 20 years of the multi-million-selling White Ladder is different. A springtime tour and album reissue is something of a jubilee celebration for a record that is not only unequalled in this country sales-wise, but one that had just as profound an effect on the musical landscape as it did on the life of its creator.
Gray today refers to it as a "fairytale story", one of a struggling Anglo-Welsh troubadour who somehow struck a nationwide chord in Ireland with his fourth album, and used the steady success there to buttress an assault on the rest of the world.
"The power that we felt these songs suddenly having at those early gigs in Ireland gave us an invisible force field," Gray says. "When we had to do the nasty nitty-gritty both in the UK and in the States, we had this confidence. We weren't smiling at the crowd trying to be liked - we knew we had something.
"The distinction that Ireland had back in the 1990s when I first went there was of some kind of archaic provincial backwater, and I was always told that any kind of sense of connection or progress or commercial success over there wasn't relevant, and blah blah blah.
"But that just sounded like complete and utter nonsense to me."
Back then there was also an emboldening of bedroom bards here who now had an audience and an industry to back them, from Glen Hansard and Paddy Casey to David Kitt and Lisa O'Neill.
To illustrate the enduring ripples, Gray recalls a moment earlier this year.
Daughters Ivy and Florence and pals had taken over the TV room for the Love Island final. Scoffing in the background, Gray noticed the music playing over many of the sequences was acoustic guitar with a beat - that basic DNA structure of White Ladder. Then, This Year's Love, the album's achingly forlorn piano waltz, came on.
"Imagine the Gray household," he says archly. "It needs a frowning middle-aged man huffing and puffing in the background, with 'turn this s*** off!' in the bubble coming out of his mouth. And while they're all imbibing this utter s***e, suddenly This Year's Love comes on at a key moment, and he's like, 'I don't mind this programme.
"Actually, I've always quite liked this!'
"Anyway, they all cheered. My daughters are definitely proud of their dad, but it just doesn't really get spoken about. That's partly me - I don't really bring it up."
Gray recalls a fit of nerves during a recent hospital visit being allayed by an Irish doctor who proudly revealed that Sail Away was playing on the shared headphones when he and his partner professed undying love to one another many moons ago.
There will undoubtedly be countless such memories swirling about next year when the anniversary tour lands on the shores of White Ladder's spiritual home. Is he prepared for this?
"That part is quite mind-boggling," he says with genuine bewilderment.
"I don't look at that part too much, but this is now going to be interesting, to tour this around and face this thing for a whole host of innocent reasons.
"It felt like this was a good idea right now to do this - get the band back together, to not just celebrate the album but also the story as well."
David Gray plays SSE Arena, Belfast on March 31, 2020, Dublin's 3Arena, April 2-4, and Irish Independent Park, Cork, on June 20. White Ladder 20th Anniversary Edition is released on February 14 on CD, digital and vinyl. See more at www.davidgray.com