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Gray's skies brighten
Updated 4:29pm Friday 4th July 2014 in Music
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, spawned the giant single Babylon and breathed new life into the solo male singer-songwriter genre, admittedly, but slow-burning nonetheless.
It was the Sale-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, not just in that the shuffley beats that underpin many of the songs call to mind a sort of after-club mood, but because it finally sees Gray breaking free of the shackles of association with 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 in the fact that Gray's father died not long after the album's release, and Ivy, his first child with wife Olivia, was born, and the picture becomes more chaotic.
"It was a moment of huge dislocation," he explains. "Everything was different, and I think anyone in that situation needs time to work out how to survive it. Everything took so much working out."
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.
"The world seems to be loaded against you, and I didn't feel like I was getting my due," he says. "I went from being a page, to a paragraph to a sentence, and I wasn't happy with my portrayal in the media.
"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 for the more casual fans who bought White Ladder.
The main difference between Mutineers and its recent predecessors is that it sounds like Gray is having fun. By his own admission, he's a very intense character and speaking to him, he is very articulate, precise and clear in his message. He's pleasant company, but his focus doesn't shift from his music for a second.
"I remember starting the album and slapping this big [stack] of songs down for Andy to go through and he said, 'Dave, you're too intense, you make recording an album sound like some sort of prison sentence', and 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, and his seriousness was perhaps a result of "dehumanising" himself in order to cope with everything going on around him, namely balancing being a dedicated dad and husband with being committed to his work.
While recording Mutineers, he could feel the "blood returning to his extremities" for the first time in years, and it was painful, bringing up emotions he'd been suppressing. But now he's experienced those potent feelings once again, he's extremely reluctant to go back to thinking and working any other way.
"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 he, Barlow and the band 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 ever sang it. With that, he says, comes a "zing" or an "inexhaustibility" that's impossible when recording and re-recording the same line over and over.
"A lot of the time, you're just chasing the demo anyway, just trying to record a posher-sounding version of what was perfect in the first place," he says. "These wonderful moments of initial capture are so important, because you're just making, you not weighed down by anything."
The first song on Mutineers is called Back In The World, and that's quite clearly how Gray feels.
"It's a very literal song. In making this album I've stepped free of the shadows of the past. It feels harmonious to me. I feel free," he says, convincingly.
"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."
EXTRA TIME - DAVID GRAY
:: David Gray was born in Sale, Greater Manchester, on June 13, 1968.
:: He moved to Carmarthen, Wales, with his family when he was nine, later attending the nearby College Of Art and then the Liverpool School Of Art.
:: He released his debut album, A Century Ends, in 1993, and follow-up Flesh in 1994.
:: White Ladder was released in 1998. It, like Gray in general, was particularly successful in Ireland where it remains the country's biggest-selling album.
:: Gray's brothers-in-law are Phil and Paul Hartnoll of dance duo Orbital.
:: David Gray's 10th album Mutineers is out now. He is currently touring the UK and playing festivals in Ireland
2 - York Barbican
3 - Manchester Lowry Theatre
5 - Daytripper Festival, Waterford, Ireland
6 - Groove Festival, County Wicklow, Ireland
8 - Bristol Colston Hall
9 - Bournemouth Pavilion