David Gray


Two decades into his career, David Gray decided to rip up the rule book. Here he explains how the “painful” creative process behind Mutineers has altered him on a “cellular level.”

How long has Mutineers been in the making?

Well, the writing goes back for three or four years. The recording began properly in March 2013, and went on until the end of July, and then we were mixing until the end of November. I had a couple of false starts, trying to record it in other, different ways, so the whole thing took a while. But it had to...

I knew I needed to create something different, and something more than just what I could provide. So, to find the right producer – someone with the keys to the city of sound – took a little time. Once I found Andy Barlow, we were off. It wasn’t easy from that point but that was the start of it.

How did you come to work with Andy Barlow? Were you a fan of his work with Lamb?

I’d heard a couple of tracks which sounded good, but I didn’t know his work that well. At that time I was trying to pick names from this catalogue of producers, which isn’t a process that I ever really enjoy. Really good things never seem to quite work like that: I prefer to bump into people and it work in an unexpected way.

My manager knew Andy and suggested we got together. The night before we were due to meet to talk about music, he rang me and said, “Look, I can’t see the point in talking about music; why don’t you just come to my studio and we’ll work on a track? That way we’ll know whether it’s gonna work or not.” So I immediately knew he was a man after my own heart, jumping in there.

I went down to the studio and we worked on ‘As The Crow Flies’ all day, and it started to sound quite interesting, in a way it wouldn’t have without him. I wasn’t sure what I thought of it but that was what I wanted; I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before.

We’ve heard rumours that the process involved “tears and furniture being thrown.” How much of that is exaggeration?

No exaggeration at all: it’s true. I found it very stressful. The brief I gave Andy was to not let me make the same record I’d made before, and to take me out of my comfort zone.

You know, I think I’m a force to be reckoned with in the studio, and yet he stood up to me. It’s just the way I’ve become over many years, and it was one of the things that I realised had to change. In order to make something different, I had to break open, let go of a lot of stuff and start again.

So it was a very painful experience in lots of ways, because it’s scary being vulnerable and also having to relinquish control. Letting somebody in with a wrecking ball to smash up your work was quite hard to deal with at times. But it was more than that, it was beyond that... I was trying to get rid of the person standing in my way, and that person was me. So that’s why “Mutineers” is a very apt title: I was both the captain of the ship and the mutinous crew. I had to throw myself overboard to get it done.

We understand you chose to write the lyrics before the music this time?

On some songs, yes. I was making something instinctively, and I noticed that working in that way almost disabled my sense of taste. I didn’t recognise [the songs’] qualities in the same way that I usually do. Trying to make the songs function in that slightly more objective way can be an advantage because, regardless, you’ll find the emotion floods in; it’s simply innate in music.

I took inspiration from other people’s work as well; hearing the music in poetry and tracing my way back into songwriting from there. On ‘Gulls’, I worked backwards from a few lines of poetry, and ‘The Incredible’ is built around the repetition of a very arresting sentence from a story by a Norwegian writer: “The incredible is approaching from over there.”

There’s definitely a wider variety of sound on the album. Do you think listeners will be surprised?

Yeah. I’d like to think that they would love it and be surprised. I think it’s got an immediacy, as well as an intricacy and depth to it. I challenged the process from the very beginning in terms of the writing, so arriving in that sonic territory was hard work. There is a palette of colour and tone that unites all of it, but each track was its own entity, with its own set of rules.

We weren’t chasing the demo; we were working without a map, looking for something unexpected. What you hear on the record is the moment of capture; the actual moment of the song being born. I mean, that’s me singing the lyrics for the first time in a lot of these songs. So there’s a frissant of risk and danger there, along with some great freshness. The sense of exhilaration of discovering something – especially when you know it’s taken you a while to get there – gives the record a little bit of extra energy. I always believe in my records but this one’s got something more than usual.

Do you view Mutineers as a reaction against previous albums?

I don’t see it as a reaction; it’s more that I was at the end of something. I didn’t want to sit there writing this vaguely whingeing, 40-something album about being alive and it not being as great as it could be. I wanted to be saying “Hallelujah!” again, but in a different way. So I had to take myself back to that sense of joy, and of being at the centre of the moment.

To make a record – to give it your best shot – and then go out and promote it for a few months, then tour it round the world, and present it to everybody on TV and in every other way, is a big undertaking. Finishing each album is like finishing a chapter, but coming off Draw The Line and Foundling, it felt like it was the end of me in a certain guise. Mutineers is the beginning of a new era: it felt like dying and being reborn, but with a forceps delivery. It was that profound.

What have you learned about yourself in the process?

Well, the same old sh*t that I’ve always learned: that everyone’s their own worst enemy. That and to treat things of great importance with lightness, and to treat small details with meticulous care. I think it’s one of Confucius’ great sayings, but it’s so true. There’s no power given to music – or life – by doing things for the “right” reasons. It’s joy that you want to capture; it’s joy that conquers all, not worthiness.

In life, you might feel like you’re walking in a straight line, onwards, because time tells you that’s what happened, but really you’re just going in circles. If you look carefully at the horizon you’ll see it’s bent at the edges and you’re actually walking around a ball; you’ll always end up back at the beginning. So I feel like I’ve returned to the source, but of course I’m a little bit older and wiser.

So what do I know about myself? I don’t really know a huge amount more, but I feel different. Making this record has altered me on some cellular level. It’s helped me realise how stuck in my ways I was. I feel like I won’t be scratching my head when we finish touring this record; I’ll want to get back to writing, because on this record, we found some more vistas of possibility.

Two decades into your career, are your motivations the same as they were when you started out?

Yeah! Obviously, there’s a degree of sophistication that’s crept in through all the hard work of writing and recording and playing thousands of shows. I mean, when I started out I played my instruments with the subtlety of a great white shark biting its victim.

I have pretty much the same outlook, except I know what it takes now. You have to give it an awful lot if you want to receive an awful lot back, and I think the stakes are raised all the time. I’m just as impassioned as I was, if not more so because there’s less time in front of me than there is behind me. I feel a sense of urgency now to get on and enjoy all this.

To be in front of a crowd and connecting is the ultimate aim: it’s the best feeling of all. Obviously, I can’t pretend there isn’t a certain amount of damage done to the human flight case as it gets thrown around the globe for months and months on end, but audiences won’t come to NW3, will they? I’ve got to get out there and play for them. It’s my life and that’s what I do best.

June 2014