No matter where David Gray goes, the story of his life follows. Currently on tour in support of his eleventh studio album, Gold in a Brass Age, the 50-year-old singer-songwriter is speaking to Music Feeds from the surrounds of Liverpool – and at the time of the call, is enjoying his day off with a trip down Memory Lane. “This is where I went to art college,” he says. “The hotel where we’re staying at is literally next door to where the art college used to be.”
“From where I’m sitting, you can see the venue we’re playing [the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic] and the building where I attended classes. My band at the time played a few things at the college, and just before I went past the pub where we played for a few record label people. There’s lots of memories of shows and parties flooding back. I’m imagining the young, innocent me – I couldn’t even dream of being in the position I am now. I feel like I’m in a movie that someone else has written.”
Indeed, the decades that have followed turned David Gray from a meandering art student to one of his country’s most celebrated songwriters. He’s gone 27 times platinum, notched up three number-one albums in his native UK and is still a sell-out draw at theatres across the world. That’s not even the best part of it: At a time where Gray would be well within his rights to simply spin his wheels and let the hits do the talking, he’s still looking for new ways to keep the creative process interesting. This much is true on Brass Age, which was released last month and sees the Greater Manchester native seeking variations on his form and subtly shifting into new musical territory.
“I feel as though this is the album that [previous album, 2014’s] Mutineers enabled me to make,” says Gray. “That was turning a difficult corner – breaking down my processes and seeing what I was doing as restrictive. By letting go of that, I was floating off gossamer with ideas and creativity, restructuring my entire creative process and working from different angles. It’s been a joy to make.” With this newfound inspiration, Gray hopped into the studio toward the end of 2017 with producer Ben de Vries, who has previously worked with the likes of alt-J and Rufus Wainwright. Gray speaks highly of de Vries, noting he is just as responsible for the stylistic contrasts of Brass Age as anyone.
“Ben was the perfect person at the perfect time,” he says. “He was very freeing, and very undaunted by the task. He knew exactly how to articulate the sonic ideas I had. He was up for every challenge. I wanted to do a mountain of vocals at the end of ‘Mallory’ – he did it. I wanted him to make a cubist guitar part, where he chopped up my guitar so that the voicings just aren’t the same old thing – he did exactly that. It was wonderfully rewarding to find this new terrain together.”
When it came to titling his latest work, Gray selected a phrase that, despite what you might think, was not meant to paint him as some upper echelon of being. Nor was it meant to serve as some sort of “square peg in a round hole” analogy. Gray chose Gold in a Brass Age, instead, as a means of shining light in the darkness – and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it rolls off the tongue, either. “The words have a brightness and a music to them,” he says.
“It has a celebratory, defiant note to it. It’s from a Raymond Carver story [Blackbird Pie] – I had stored it away, and I pulled it out to title a song on the record before I decided to take the next step and title the record that as well. It felt right, and I didn’t think it was a title that needed all that much decoding. I mean, we’re living in a brass age, aren’t we. If this isn’t it, I would hate to see it when it comes.”
Gray and his band have not tried to shy away from new material being incorporated into their set, as many artists will try and do. Rather than try and sneak one past the proverbial keeper in-between two crowd-pleasers, Gray has chosen to be up-front about Brass Age and present it at the top of the show. “We play for like 45 minutes at the start, and it’s all songs from the new album,” Gray explains.
“Then, for the next hour 15, we circle back around to the past and work backwards chronologically. Because of the electronic elements in the new songs, and the way we’ve had to construct the live set, we’ve been able to bring back electronic elements into my previous songs like ‘Babylon’ and ‘Please Forgive Me’. The sonics from the original songs are back, and it’s the first time I’ve rendered them like that in many years. People seem to have been really enjoying the new songs, but to be able to play the old songs in their original form feels like a series of detonations among the audience. It has a profound effect – the audience just ignites.”
By coming full circle on the songs that first put his music on the map, one wonders as to how Gray’s relationship with the quote-unquote “hits” has evolved over the years. Last year, Gray celebrated the 20th anniversary of his breakthrough album White Ladder, which remains his highest-selling and most beloved LP to date. That means many of the songs that people know and love Gray for are from a literal lifetime ago. “I’m proud of those records,” says Gray of his singles from a bygone era.
“It’s not so much of an effort to connect with them now – I mean, I know them like the back of my hand, and I’ve performed them thousands upon thousands of times. No matter what you’re performing up there, you’re digging down and enacting that feeling. You’re controlling it and putting it across. The thing about some of the old songs is they’re a crowd activator – they will flood you with emotion, and it brings you to life the second you start singing it.”
David Gray returns to Australia this month for Bluesfest 2019. He will also play a trio of sideshows in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. See dates and details below.
David Gray Bluesfest 2019 Sideshows
Tickets on sale now
UPDATE 05/03/19: Twin sisters, Ward Thomas will be joining David Gray on his Australian tour this April.
Sunday, 14th April
Riverside Theatre, Perth
Tuesday, 16th April – SOLD OUT
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday, 20th April – SOLD OUT
Palais Theatre, Melbourne