David Gray is in a chipper mood. There are several reasons for this – the brightness of the cold, wintry morning on which we connect being one, perhaps – but the more obvious one would be a chance to talk about a new work, Gold in A Brass Age, which looks set to become a landmark in his output.
Gray has – perhaps unfairly – got a name for himself as a singer-songwriter destined for the very middle of the road and mainstream radio output, thanks to the constant repetition of songs such as Babylon, This Year’s Love and Sail Away. Yet his has been a restless spirit, leading to a decision to wipe the board clean for the new album, his first in four years.
“I do think there is a freshness to it,” he says. “Recording it was a very joyous experience, and the sessions for me were full of light. There was no sense of weight for me, and the music we were making was exploratory and uninhibited. I find now that experimentation has become my default mode, and that in those sessions I was trying to create space in which other people – a drummer, a producer – could operate. I became very alert to any idea or sound that would take me in a different direction. It was great fun, and it was also wonderfully revealing. There would be a splurge of activity, then a great bit of detail where we would work the layers in. Through recording this album it feels like I’ve escaped the weight of history.”
The ‘we’ to which he refers is Gray in tandem with producer Ben de Vries. The son of producer Mario, who held the reins for Gray’s 2005 album Alibi, Ben quickly grew into the role for Gold In A Brass Age. Was there a family resemblance? “They are very different people of course, but both have musicality and a total understanding – not just of production but of playing,” he says. “In the sessions with Ben we would just mess about by jamming. He’s old school too, which is refreshing – no ‘I need a break’, no health and safety – none of that shit. He is super creative too.”
“It’s very exciting to be travelling in a completely new direction. Obviously if the computer crashes you’re fucked…” – David Gray
For Gray the creative chemistry between the two was one of the principal excitements for recording Gold In A Brass Age. “It is about emerging relationships, and it’s a lot about confidence and trust. Once we’d established a rapport with Watching The Waves, we were set – and that was the only song on the album which had a pre-existence before the sessions. Once we got that going other songs were born. What was happening between us was better than what I’d written on my own. Ben is a special talent, and is a pleasure to work with. The secret for me is that you’ve got to be audacious and not daunted. He was never shy, and it became an open environment. If I had an idea that was almost embarrassing – one idea at the end of Mallory, an end that lifts up like a mountain itself. We spent three hours layering stuff and the finished version sounded utterly mental compared to what we started out with.”
Could employing Ben could be seen as another step towards making his music sound ‘younger’? “I’m feeling younger and I’m even looking younger!” he proclaims. “It’s a direct result of the music sounding fresher, and it’s like The Picture Of Dorian Gray, where the portrait gets older and the person gets younger. One of the wonderful things about electronic music is that everything is fair game. I slammed the door to the studio at one point, so we sampled that and you have it in the computer as an instrument in three minutes. There is a real freedom and a playful nature to electronic music that I really enjoy. It is creating an aesthetic where the edits would be as much a part of the sound as the instruments themselves. The cuts became a part of the sound, which became a glitchy sound. The exception on this would be using JB Linux, which gave me a dark synth, rim shot sort of thing. It’s very hard to do live, but that’s the joy of electronic music”.
Clearly Gray’s musical head is fully immersed in that area right now. “One of things towards achieving the soundscapes on this album is the art of chopping and cutting. The electronic instrument was the starting point. I played Ben Sixes And Nines by Birkwin Jersey, to illustrate exactly what I’m talking about, and we focussed on common ground. I was also inspired by a quote from John Cale, who said, ‘If there is ever a problem with the song, remove the rhythm instrument and listen just to the lyric’. Listen to the central hub and see what’s left.”
The first song on Gold In A Brass Age is The Sapling, providing the ideal introduction to Gray’s new approach. He talks through its genesis. “The Sapling like a lot of songs came together very quickly. The music was knocking on the door for years. The whole melody and sequence happened, then Ben added the beat and skippy beat so I was bouncing along. When we looked at the bare bones I said I thought it needed horns, and we recorded those at Angel Studios and some other tunes as well. Those sessions are often incredibly stressful and can be wayward, but this one was bang on, and the horns were right on. We recorded several songs including Hurricane Season and The Sapling. The elegance of the arrangement is down to Ben, because he has the sense of refinement he inherits from his father. It is the sense of detail, which accounts for the playful cor anglais at the end of the song. It’s so rewarding when you put the parts in MIDI.”
Gray has been open that one of the considerations when writing this album has been an emotional upheaval he has been through in recent years. While he is not quite ready to share the extent of that in our interview, there are hints of its influence – and he did reach the milestone of his 50th birthday in 2018. “I’m not getting any younger, and life’s full of surprises – people dying and getting sick, for instance – and it’s been one thing after another,” he says, with feeling. “I don’t directly go there on the album but the song It’s Late would be an example of a raw emotion lying underneath. Bits start falling off but, as my uncle would say, the main things are above ground still. Within my creative world there is a sense of positivity and because of that I was keen to eliminate any moans on this album. It’s easy to dwell in isolation and incoherence, but The Sapling answers the charge. The new buds are there and you might see the old leaves falling.”
“These days I’m about dispatches from NW3, walking the dog in Hampstead. It’s fascinating seeing London change and develop…” – David Gray
The singer-songwriter has also noted Gold In A Brass Age to be more like a London record than any since White Ladder, the breakthrough debut now into its third decade of existence. How has his relationship with London developed since then? “I’ve spent a long time here. When I wrote White Ladder I was young and full of fun, and as I’m sure you saw there was a lot of head banging! These days I’m about dispatches from NW3, walking the dog in Hampstead. It’s fascinating seeing London change and develop, it’s like looking at the ocean. With the fire and brick, you’re dancing to your own rhythm, but is it someone else’s? The Astoria goes – bang, gone, no sentimentality in that happening at all. It was a huge part of my life, I supported Radiohead there. But there is still a communal spirit binding Soho and these neighbourhoods. There is also a theatricality where you can dress up and perform, so there is a way of dealing with the mass of humanity. I love that and I get swept up by it. Ben lives in the centre of town so I spent a lot of time there.” In spite of the change he is optimistic for the capital’s future. “Ideas will survive, and I love that humanness in the centre of town. I find I gravitate more towards Soho. I’m a country boy at heart but this is where I live.”
Talk of the country turns us naturally to the touring of his album. With a markedly different approach to his music now established, how will he deliver the songs live? “We’ll be presenting them in a way that is almost like watching the studio live on stage, creating the songs there and then with the live drums and a looper pedal. I’m going to build things up and because of that it will take longer, but it will also be natural. With the last album Mutineers I wanted to present it without any clicks or tapes, but with this I’m going to embrace it and make it very electronic. It’s very exciting to be travelling in a completely new direction. Obviously if the computer crashes you’re fucked – I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. But I’m really enjoying bringing the studio out with me.”
David Gray’s Gold In A Brass Age is out now via IHT Records. Tour dates and further information can be found at davidgray.com