Gray Matter: Singer-songwriter Shifts his Sound on his New Album, Mutineers

Singer-songwriter David Gray has won countless awards over the course of his 20-year career. But in the beginning, it was a struggle to get anyone to listen to his folk rock music. His first two albums, 1993’s A Century Ends and 1994’s Flesh, stiffed. Gray took a different approach for 1996’s Sell, Sell, Sell and added some electronic beats. That album was moderately successful but still not a huge breakthrough.

“It’s difficult when things don’t work out,” Gray admits via phone from New York where he was rehearsing for the current tour. “When things don’t work out, you end up in dead-end situations trying to play your music while a sense of futility swallows you whole. You have to survive those trials and tribulations. It was something I had to get through. If I had kept on like that for another five weeks, I would have stopped. It didn’t work out that way. You can fall into bitterness and blame for the way things didn’t work out but that wasn’t me. I decided to give it a bit more. I wanted to open my music more and try again.”

He says that the early success he had in Ireland kept him going even though it appeared no one else in the world gave a damn.

“The people I met there and the connection they made with my music sustained and nourished me,” he says.

Ireland was also where 1998’s White Ladder first struck a chord and became, as Gray puts it, the “springboard for everything.” White Ladder had stronger songs than his earlier albums; the single “Babylon” featured his fluttering vocals and sounded like a folk ballad for the modern world.

“I was thirsty for new sounds and new ideas,” says Gray when asked about the initial impulse to expand his folk sound for White Ladder. “An acoustic guitar and piano just weren’t doing it for me. I wanted something different, and I wanted to try to incorporate different sounds in my music.”

His music goes through another change with his new album Mutineers.

“It is a shift,” he says of the album. “I wanted something I hadn’t heard before. I wanted something that wasn’t so numbingly familiar. I wanted something to inspire me. I wanted a new sonic vista to look out upon. I wanted a new way to write and a new way to be. I wanted to celebrate music in another way instead of the tried and tested forms. I was bored by the idea of going through the motions. The key was finding a producer and collaborator who had the keys to the city of sound and could get me in.”

He had made White Ladder in a similar fashion.

“I gave someone free rein to tear the music apart and change it and alter so that something interesting could happen,” he says. “That was a difficult time and process to go through. It’s not easy to step into the unknown. You have to build up a trust with that person and that’s the story of this record.”

For Mutineers, he recorded in his native England at the Church Studios with producer Andy Barlow, who even gets a writing credit on some tracks.

“I give him a writing credit, but he didn’t sit there and write the songs,” Gray says. “He would sculpt them in the studio to the point that they wouldn’t be the same if he hadn’t been there. That required a writing credit. I write the lyrics and come up with the chords. But he had a profound change on some of the songs and pushed them around and encouraged me. One of the key things Andy did was to strip out unnecessary instruments. He wanted to create space around the vocal. Unnecessary guitars gone. On the piano, we simplified and simplified. On the drum parts, we would take the high hat out. We stuck with bass drum and snare. Not even a cymbal. You can listen to how beautifully simple the parts are. We stripped back. That was very much him. He called it vanilla. We wanted to keep it as simple as possible with no extra flavoring. We wanted to create space with the sound.”

In a career that spans two decades, Gray has come a long way. He says he’s looking forward to the current tour where he hopes to dig deep into his back catalog and show off the vibrancy of the new songs on Mutineers.

“I think there’s been a significant evolution,” he says when asked to put his career in perspective. “I learned an awful lot about playing music and how less is more and volume isn’t everything. If you want to put everything into a song, sometimes it’s best to back off. Beyond that, it’s the same conundrum it always was. You just try to connect with the audience. It changes but remains the same. I’m not afraid of the studio anymore. I don’t shout at the audience when they’re talking. I try to play to the ones who are listening rather than the ones who are not. I don’t go at everything head on all the time, which is how I started out. There’s more guile in the way I write and record. I’m drawn to the oblique angles when I’m making something. I’ve found that they’re very fruitful. That’s something I learned slowly. I feel that because of that vulnerability and exposure and risk, there’s more. It’s closer to the source of my music. It’s more vital.”

David Gray, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-902-7032. Tickets: $35-$53,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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