David Gray toiled in relative obscurity until his album “White Ladder” propelled him to international stardom. He talked with Big Think in depth about his experiences as an overnight star; he considers his unique perspective on fame, the ways that his life is forever changed, his Irish fan base, and how he feels about White Ladder’s lasting success.
Question: How did your relatively late popular success affect your perspective on fame?
David Gray: Yeah, a good deal, because the formative period since putting my first record out—that seven or eight years before success really kicked in—some of it was quite a harrowing experience. And it stays with you; it gives you a perspective on things. It also stood me in good stead in a way. We all know that the world functions on nonsense and so it has sort of debunked a few sort of myths and or cleaned my eyes a little bit as to how things worked, and also allowed me to develop some relationships which proved to be very important. Whereas, if success had come very quickly—you just immediately turn into a parasite in everyone's eyes—it's more difficult to form some sort of— there's a degree of nurture that's necessary if longevity is what you're after. That’s really the way that I saw the world.
Occasionally people would put the question to me, “Do you ever pine for these days when you were free of all of this, press, or hassle, or people being on your case in this way—[when] you were this very credible, obscure artist?” But that's just a fantasy that people have. They just put those words together. I’d say, “If you knew what it was actually like, you'd never wish anyone back there.” It's the toilet tour, as it’s known, when you are playing the smallest and least pleasant venue in town on a regular basis. It's not for the fainthearted, and [for] anyone who had just watched the film repeatedly, it's like Spinal Tap in the back of the bus—[it] used to be quite a sort of painful experience [to] watch, as funny as it is, because it was that close to the bone. And they’d at least been successful and are now less so.
I was billed under spareribs famously at one club: “Spareribs sold out, David Gray, 9:00.” But I went through many permutations of the same sort of miserable story. It's not for the fainthearted. So that stuff stays with you, and negotiating success is equally complicated and riddled with illusion as well—a lot of it of your own creation. I think the world of success is a much more self-conscious place, it's essentially a hall of mirrors [that] shines you a distorted view of yourself back repeatedly from many different angles until you start to get a bit paranoid about what everybody thinks about you. Everybody has to go through that and I don't think it completely leaves you. You are essentially exposed and vulnerable [when] you are in the public eye, and you can be criticized or categorized or drawn in a sort of cartoon version of yourself freely by people however they see fit, and you just have to live with that. But there is no way of winning; you just look worse the more you struggle and resist, the more people try and enclose you in a little bubble. And you go, "No, that's not me. I'm deep and meaningful,” or whatever, whatever it is you're particularly trying to prove. But it's just quicksand the more you struggle, the quicker you sink. The only way to escape is through the grandeur of surrender—just not giving a fuck about the whole thing and getting a sense of perspective above and beyond. So I think having an audience is a wonderful thing and should never be taken for granted. Much as it also should be your job as an artist to challenge them as well as challenge yourself. You just give them what they want.
But playing music has got to be one of the best jobs in the world, so if you’re ever torturing yourself to the point that you can't see that, then you've lost your perspective. So, I think that unquestionably, just like a plant having a bit longer to get its roots down into this earth – yes, the early years were useful in a way, because when I started out, I was totally green as to what the music business even was, what was its modus operandi. I didn't know, I didn't care—making a record, someone was giving me money to make a record, that was just enormous. That was all I cared about. And beyond that I didn't have a clue what was going to happen. I didn't have world domination penciled in the diary. You know, it wasn't like that was on my radar; it was just get to make another record that was basically it. Try and find some people who want to listen to the music. And strangely it all sort of made its own sort of sense that the music got out there and even though I couldn't really tell, it did do something, the first record. It lit a few fires and those ended up being vital because some of them were in Ireland ,which became a stronghold for me, and then that was eventually the springboard to my success. So I guess coming upon the whole thing gradually, and I would say this about, it was obviously advantageous in some ways but just to give in to make it to the point where I became successful could be considered an achievement of sorts because it wasn't particularly easy. But when success comes, and everything that comes with it, it doesn't matter how long you've been in obscurity it doesn't make the transition any easier I think.
Question: Have you made your peace with fame?
David Gray: I think it's just an ongoing project. For many reasons, I feel like things have taken on a certain perspective now. And I'm in a very good place with it all. I’m at ease as much as I could be with the whole thing. In a weird way, my Greatest Hits record was a very cathartic experience, because I don't think I completely acknowledged what had happened because some of it I wasn't very comfortable with. For example, the record I made directly after my very successful record, for all kinds of reasons, some of them to do with me, some of them do with other things, it didn't come together in the way that it should have. And it was kind of [an] anemic end product, it went on to sell loads of copies simply because the record before it had been so popular and this is the way it works. So it got a lot of attention and people liked the first one so much, White Ladder. So I'd never kind of really wanted to look, it's just like that happened, now I have to get back to what I do best which is reconnecting. But you've got to acknowledge everything that happened. You can't leave large portions of time unaccounted for. So putting the Greatest Hits together and then going out and playing all of these songs which I didn’t even want to touch for so long brought them all back to me, and it made me whole again.
White Ladder is the sound of me escaping from the demons of failure, or lack of success, or lack of attention—all this sort of doubt and negativity and accusatory glances [I was] throwing in the direction of the world and the media. All perfectly justified. But they don't get you anywhere, and essentially you have to ask yourself the question, “Have I got anything else to give? Can I do better?” Whether the record company did a bad job, or journalists or some sort of strangely disappointing breed of human that should be shot with a crossbow at every opportunity, whatever, you have to think: “Could I do more? Can I get more to my music? Could I have done more?” And I knew I could. So all right, let's go again. And that record is very openhearted—there is no fear. I put everything in there and that's one of the reasons it connects I think, in a big way. It's not defensive, there's no defensive stance to it, it's just very open, very melodic.
And this record I just made is like the sound of me escaping from the demons of success in a way—this sort of complicated bag of complexities that comes with the packaging you get with success and audience and millions of people suddenly getting involved. There is a strange vertigo that comes with that and it takes some adjusting to. But yeah, the Greatest Hits thing somehow is part of a coming to terms with the whole thing for me, which was very healthy.
Of course, I was changing a lot behind the scenes, a new band. I have made a lot of very empowering decisions. And suddenly music came back to me very, very strongly and my work was very, very alive for me—I've never been so connected to it. And as a writer, I mean obviously, lyrics are very big part of what I do. I've never enjoyed myself more than at this kind of time with the writing aspect. And there's a real vivacity in the work, and a joy of language, and expression that, well I think, it shines through. It's like I've started all over again in a weird way.
Also, life passes so quickly. As you get a bit older you think, “Wellm, hang on, I'm 41, I'd better get on with it; what's with this farting around?” You can't give fear 10 percent or 15 percent of you. It's like that's a wasted life, even that much. Got to the completely in unguardedly. And that's the only way you can defeat all this sort of cynicism that is out there is just by being openhearted I think as an artist.
Question: What unexpected ways did fame change your life?
David Gray: Well, yeah, you sort of know the shape of fame, but until it rests upon you, you don’t really know what it feels like—but that’s not really unexpected. One of the unexpected things that happened was a wonderful thing: I was offered the opportunity to play in a charity football match. So, my dreams of being a musician, they go back a long way, but playing a famous football game, that goes back even further.
So, I got the chance because of my fame, and no other reason to play – Robbie Williams had this massive UNICEF charity football [match] with many, many very famous footballers, old, retired footballer involved and celebrities. And England took on the rest of the world. It was staged at my team’s ground, and all the traffic in front of 75,000 people, live on national television with a week’s training with the England coach. The whole thing was ridiculous, ludicrous, a complete fantasy. And I got to play with people I had watched as a kid, and again some of the most famous – that was unpredictable. That was absolutely incredible. That was like – oh, what a thing. It’s in its own little time capsule in my head. It’s like I remember looking out the hotel window and seeing all of these famous footballers saying good-bye to each other the next day and I realized it was over. I could hardly walk because I just played 90 minutes of chasing the ball. So, that I’ll treasure forever, and that would never have happened. I’ve gone into a few restaurants and I’ve had a few whacky experiences that I wasn’t bargaining on all because of my newfound fame. But that was the most notable thing.
Question: Does White Ladder’s past success ever feel like a yoke?
David Gray: No. Well, as I say, I seem to be seeing everything slightly differently. It’s sort of totemic presence casts a long shadow right across everything I’ll do forever. It did the numbers. Do you know what I mean? People like numbers, you know, so it proves something apparently. So, it was a special record. I won’t get drawn into what’s best and what’s better. All you’re trying to do is get tapped into that magic again, but in a different way, in a different place. It had a magic to it. It was fearless in is own small way and it didn’t let you down as a record.
When we made it, we tried to make a record that would just flow from the very first note right to the end without you ever wanting to go like, “Ah, no, don’t like this one. Skip.” It was very much supposed to have that. Because I felt like I hadn’t accomplished that since my first record and that things have been too schizophrenic. Its like, “I want to be loud.” “I want to be quiet.” “I want to be rocky.” So, we had a very limited pallet, which helped in a way, so we set it in this new world that we had found with weird little samples and things. So, that record has magic to it and just because it became ubiquitous, doesn’t lessen the depths of some of the music; it’s got soul. So, it will always be there and something that people seem to have a real deep affection for in a kind of Tapestry by Carole King-type way. It’s like one of those. Everyone can listen to it. So, from the moment of its inception, when we started to play it, you could just see the breadth of the different types of people who were getting into it. It’s so small and the audience was younger and cooler because it was like a cult audience in Ireland and then it grew and it began to involve everybody.
Question: How does it feel to be an Englishman who first found a large audience in Ireland?
David Gray: Well great. God Bless the Irish. Certain kind of things can still happen there that are much harder to get off the ground in the UK. So, it’s a wonderful place, it’s a magic place. And the word accounts for a lot there. The passion for expression is like. The thing is, it’s changed a lot since I’ve been going there. It’s become much more European, that sort of homogenized, wealthy look has sort of seized some parts of it. But still, when you go West and you get out there, you’ll see a different world where people don’t have a great deal of money and life is very simple. But there are huge passions; sports and music and writing and ideas. So, it is so very different from England in so many ways. There is something that happens over there, that anyway, I’ve been the beneficiary of. So, there’s an Irish magic for sure, and– well what more can I say about it really? I mean, that was just an unbelievable chapter. The success that happened there and the lengths that it went to are difficult to comprehend really, even now.
Question: What is the main thing that motivates you to keep making music?
David Gray: It’s not a selfless act. It’s an obsession. It’s taken a huge part of me. It is a huge part of me. I’ve poured so much into it and it just wants more. It’s the beast that wants more. So, music, and the ideas, and writing songs, it has a huge chunk of me. And I’m always thinking of how can I get – it’s like A New Path to the Waterfall; it’s the title of a Raymond Carver book. How do I get there again? And will it be even better this time, that song. But you work away at it, work away at it. And the more you work the more likely it is that you’ll write a good one. But that really good one, you just don’t know where [it’s] going to turn up. You can’t make it happen, that really magic song, it happens once every few years if you’re lucky. Well, how do I get more of that stuff? And you make it right so that people can plug into it. It’s a connection – music’s a connection. It’s like, if you make a song that has all the nerve endings on the outside of it that people can sense it, how alive it is and how alive they are through the listening to it—that’s what you want. You want to connect. You’re not in a bubble, but you’re not making it for them—but in the making of it you’re thinking of other people encountering it.
Recorded on: September 21, 2009