David Gray released his first album in the UK in 1993 and aside from a couple of years off, just has not stopped in his relentless pursuit of music that peaked for fans on 1998 fourth album White Ladder. He’s about to release his 11th studio album Gold in a Brass Age and continues to push the boundaries of his craft. KAREN LOWE spoke to him about Raymond Carver, London Boy and Blues Fest. Catch him on Sunday, April 14 at Riverside Theatre.
You have a new album coming out in March, Gold In A Brass Age. How did the recording process go and are you happy with how it’s turned out?
Yeah I’m delighted with how it turned out. The recording process was a joy actually because I was very uninhibited and exploratory. It was experimental and we looked at different ways to make sounds and different ways to start songs. It was great fun and I think the working relationship I struck up with my producer is going to be a lasting, well just the first step for us, in a chain of records over the next few years. It was fantastic. No complaints at all.
The title of the album came from Raymond Carver’s short story Blackbird Pie. What drew you to the story and indeed the title?
I’ve always loved that particular story. I read it many years ago. It’s everything that Raymond Carver is so good at. It’s so simple, so strange. It’s beguiling and has this lovely poetic twist in the whole thing. It has a dark sense of humour and I’m a big fan of Carver. I re-read the story the day we were working on the title track of the album.
We were working on a completely different song and Ben just started to loop some of my guitar ideas we were using on the other song – this quirky little loop. I came in and said this sounds great! Let’s forget about the song we’re working on and we’ll just work on this. It began to grow really quickly – the lyrics; the whole thing and we had a different song in front of us. He said, “what shall I call it so we can get it on the computer?” I said “Gold in a Brass Age.” I don’t really know where it came from it was just an instinctive thing. We’re certainly living in a brass age; that much I can safely say.
It just popped into my head. At the time I knew the Raymond Carver line but I couldn’t remember where I’d picked it from. It took me a while to investigate and find out where I’d actually saw it before and it was Blackbird Pie.
For the artwork, you turned to a tattoo artist, London Boy. What was it about his artwork that inspired you?
I feel that this record is a little bit of London Chic. It’s a record that couldn’t be made anywhere else; definitely a city record. I think perhaps because of the production, the electronica – it just knocks itself down to build itself back up again. It’s constantly tearing itself apart and I think anyone that lives within this grind; it’s like living in a food blender. It’s relentless. I feel you’ve got to have some kind of ironic comeback. It’s like wry detachment. There is something about London Boy, he’s obviously a London boy as his name suggests but there’s something about his cheeky little tattoos that I like. They’re very simple, very sort of old school.
I’m not a tattoo person but my daughter put me on to him. She showed me his stuff. We were looking for someone to do the drawings for the record, and we’d already decided it was going to be a series of drawings. I met up with him and gave him all my ideas and everything he did, he sort of twisted it a little bit with that cheeky little London glint in his eye. It was perfect, I really loved the artwork. In fact everything about this record, all aspects of it have really come out exactly as I hoped they would. They really represent the thing. He’s just a little bit of London and that felt important.
For this album, you challenged yourself to do things different to how you’ve done in the past. What was the thought process behind that?
Well I’ve generally got one eye on the process and how I can stretch it out further. Once you start to experiment and move away from just the obvious block of traditional sonic arrangement, you know – drums, bass, acoustic guitar, piano; once you start to experiment with that, it’s a bit like you take a left turn on the path and every few hundred yards there’s another fork and another fork and you’ve got to decide which you’re gonna take.
I think I’ve always had one ear open for something new that I haven’t touched upon before. It’s an ongoing process I suppose but I think Mutineers, my last record, was a step in the right direction in terms of just freeing me from the ideas that I had to do something. Freeing me from a sense of obligation that I needed to fulfil any kind of brief.
I’ve stepped off into a freer world of thought and imagination and with this record, that’s begun to blossom as I followed my instincts further and further out. I see this as another beginning. I can see that I can push much further into what songs might be from here. It’s just an ongoing process; you get to the end of the process and you can see where you can start the next time. Now maybe at the end, you can go back to the beginning and in a couple of records, I might just go back to me and my guitar, I don’t know. It it needs to keep changing otherwise it gets very dull.
You are also coming to Australia in April. Where are you looking forward to playing the most? And what are some of your favourite memories of Australia?
I think the show around which this visit has been constructed is the Byron Bay Blues Festival (Bluesfest). There is definitely some kind of crazy energy going on there. I think every time we’ve played that festival, it’s been really special. It’s a very exhilarating place to go and a beautiful part of the world to boot.
I think all the shows last time were really great. I really enjoyed every single show. This will be my fourth or fifth time over and we’ve built up a relationship. People get to know you and what you’re all about. I think it’s getting stronger – the connection there. I would definitely have to single out the Bluesfest because as everyone knows who’s been there, there is some kind of crazy energy going on.
As a fan, it’s often quite hard to go up to your idols and say hello for fear of being turned away or fear of seizing up and sounding like an idiot. As a musician, how do you go at meeting your idols? Have you ever gone to speak to someone and just seized up?
I tend to avoid meeting my idols. I’m totally weird in that way. I live in a state of permanent denial about fame and everything. I sort of turn my back on it. I don’t think of rushing up to Van Morrison, or Bob Dylan and it’s unlikely that it would go well. I’ve encountered famous people before and they can be very off-ish. When you’re placed in that position yourself, it can be kind of tedious depending on what you’ve got going on at the time, i.e. you might just be going in for a hernia operation and someone grabs you for a selfie.
I prefer to listen to people’s music or watch their films or read their books. I don’t feel an overwhelming urge to meet them in person and connect with them. I have had encounters that have been really, really fun. I hung out with Nick Cave many years ago quite a bit. That was alright. That was really good fun. He was a really good guy but I wouldn’t have gone to seek him out. We just ended up being in the same place at the same time. I haven’t gone seeking out my idols. I remember we supported Bob Dylan a few years ago, it was in a football stadium and he was on one side of the stadium to us. You couldn’t even get to his side of the stadium.