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International superstar David Gray finds his Babylon (again)

“When you connect with a record at a certain moment in time, it’s a part of your life forever.”

Right place, right time. It’s a maxim musicians hope happens to them when they’re starting their career, but it often takes years and years to get to where you feel you belong in the collective consciousness — if you ever get there at all.

But sometimes, success happens for all the right reasons. Case in point: British electro-folk singer/songwriter David Gray, who didn’t break through until his fourth album, 1998’s White Ladder, made an indelible impact in hearts and minds across the globe with emotionally fulfilling songs like Babylon, Sail Away, Please Forgive Me, and This Year’s Love. The album has sold over 7 million copies at this point – yet it still took 18 months from Ladder’s initial release for Gray to climb the rungs of success.

“I could have made a few records like White Ladder, but I’ve tried to change direction each time,” Gray told Digital Trends. “The music tells me it has to change.”

“I’m in the midst of a musical journey, and I’m not coming near any point of the end.”

Since then Gray has continued to challenge the conventions of song structure, culminating in 2014’s far-reaching Mutineer. In the midst of working on a new album, Gray paused to take stock of his career and compiled 31 songs for the two-disc version of The Best of David Gray, available in multiple formats via IHT Records/Kobalt. The Best of also includes two new tracks, the slow-burning Smoke Without Fire and the harmony-enriched Enter Lightly, both of which Gray cut with his sonically adventurous producer Andy Barlow.

Gray also embraced some of the more positive aspects of streaming by setting in motion a rotating best-of playlist under his name on Spotify, wherein listeners determine how his most popular tracks are ranked week to week. “I can’t pretend to understand all of the subtleties,” Gray said with a laugh, “but once I heard the idea, it all sounded like a bit of fun to me. Everybody wants to try to find a new way of presenting things to people, so one of the beauties of all of these streaming services is the response is very instant, and very measurable.”

Gray called Digital Trends from his homestead in England to discuss his overall sonic goals for The Best of David Gray, how “owning” music has a different meaning today, and how to avoid creative repetition. If you want it, come and get it.

Digital Trends: Since the songs on The Best of span about 25 years of your career, did you have to go back and re-evaluate some of your earlier, starker, on-your-own solo recordings to level-match them with the fuller productions you did later on?

David Gray: Well, there was a little bit of shenanigans (both laugh), but it wasn’t too bad. One of the difficult things about making a compilation is the very different sound quality to each track. Some of them were quite primitively recorded or hastily recorded, some of them are live, some of them are 25 years old, and some of them are quite new.

Obviously, they each sound like the time they were made. I find sometimes it works surprisingly well, and other times it’s a bit of a problem, and you just have to do the best you can. But yes, it’s spanning a long period, and some of the tracks sound quite different than the ones that follow.

It’s an interesting journey through your life. We start right out of the box with Babylon, which has that nice, clean, minimal acoustic beginning, followed with some light percussion. It really captures the essence of you as a songwriter.

Yeah, that one’s still doing its thing. There were so many mixes of that song because it was a single over here [in England], and every time we went up another level of success, some bigwig in the record company would go, “Hey! If we’re going to take this to Top 40 radio, we’re going to need a new mix.” It’s all bullshit. With so many mixes, it’s hard to keep track of them. But we’re pretty sure the one that’s on there is the standard, single mix of the song.

The Loudness Wars were going on around the time Babylon and the White Ladder album got popular — something that may have actually worked in your favor, since you had a different take on what the sound of a good song was at the time. You helped connect or reconnect people with what good songs are really all about.

Well, that’s my game, isn’t it — using those dynamics and quietness as a statement to my advantage. On radio, maybe it got more inside of you because of those other songs that were coming at you the whole time, which were quite relentless and exhausting.

You often use words to create a sense of space and openness in your song’s arrangements.

Yeah. The words have to deliver in my music. Most of the time, the music is there to tee up the lyric, in order to get across the whole idea of the song. Hopefully, nothing gets in the way of that happening. Throughout most of my career, the lyric has been paramount.

In general, as an artist, are you OK with the streaming world?

Oh, you have to be, because it’s the only show in town. Being “OK” with it is sort of a blanket term, but I’m afraid there’s no choice but to try and find a way of using it in a positive sense.

“There’s no choice but to try and find a way of using streaming in a positive sense.” 

Obviously, there are major issues in terms of remuneration, but I’ve met a number of guys from the various streaming services, and they seem sincere in their enthusiasm for music, as do the streamers themselves — the audience. I guess that’s the most important part. Hopefully the rest of it will catch up.

As somebody said to me the other day, “We need somebody in the music business like they had in the water industry about 30 years ago. They made water something you’d spend money on.” You still turn on the taps and it’s there, but you don’t really think about it. You still buy water.

That’s a good point. You and I both grew up in the vinyl era, so it’s also nice to see that’s had a bit of a revival. If anybody is going to pay for something, they do seem to be paying for vinyl.

I think one of the big differences between the present day and the time I grew up in is not having to buy something to own it, and live with it. Now, you don’t have to commit to music in the same way. It’s more of a transient, momentary thing. And that’s something I don’t think is good.

I’d save up my pocket money, spend it on an album, and then I’d go away and pore over it. Even if I didn’t like all of the tracks, I’d still listen to them a lot of times to try and get into them. Sometimes the track you liked the least at the start ended up being your favorite.

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Did anything like that happen when you were compiling this album?

As I was making this compilation and went back listening to my earlier stuff, it was like a form of time travel. There were so many things that stayed with me. When you connect with a record at a certain moment in time, it’s a part of your life forever.

On the 25th anniversary version of Shine that’s at the very end of the album, I can hear your fingers moving on the guitar strings the whole time you’re playing. I just love that level of detail.

It was fun recording that. I didn’t know what I thought about doing it at first, but the bass player, Robbie Malone, said, “Dave, it’s been 25 years since I learned that song. You should do a 25th anniversary band version of it, and just try and have some fun with it.” He had this idea that it could have some backing vocals, so we did it. It was very real. It was that sort of old-school recording.

I like that there’s also some new material on The Best of that you and producer Andy Barlow worked on together. It seems like you two have a really good working relationship.

“It’s still David Gray, and I’m still scratching at new limbs.”

Yeah. Unfortunately, Andy’s gotten so involved in another project that I’m not going to be making my next album with him. But we were able to make these two new tracks [Smoke Without Fire and Enter Lightly] before that juggernaut got in the way. [Incidentally, said “juggernaut” is a little ol’ band that goes by the name of U2.]

There’s a certain character to your voice on Smoke Without Fire that’s supported by the echo that’s also going on there.

Smoke Without Fire — that’s probably the loudest vocal I’ve committed to a track. You can have that super-loud in the track because I don’t push you away. Instead of jumping all around, it stays really, really mellow to give my voice a really different quality. I like that track a lot.

And I like the placement of that one as track 6, because we get taken through some of your early work before that, and then it threads really nicely for us to hear the evolution of you as an artist right there in that moment, to where you are now.

It’s still David Gray, and I’m still scratching at new limbs. The tree forces its way upwards and sideways, and every which way. I feel I’m still in the midst of a musical journey, and I’m not coming near any point of the end, or stalling it.

Mutineers, if anything, gave me a new lease on life, and springing from that, it’s been incredibly fertile creatively. I’ve got so many ideas I’ve been developing. And I think people will be surprised again when my new record comes out that I’ve stepped out even further in new directions.

As a listener, I look forward to being challenged by an artist who’s not going to keep doing the same thing again and again. As a content creator, you must enjoy getting outside of your comfort zone.

I don’t feel any choice in the matter. I have to find new space and new terrain, and I have to refresh the music. The music tells me it has to change. There’s no other option there, or I’d become very, very bored and jaded if I had to try to assemble my sound in a “standardized” way that I’d already established. If I had followed that, I could have made a few records like White Ladder, but I’ve tried to change direction each time.

It’s not a self-conscious decision to be evasive or change for the sake of changing — I just try to feel where I want to go, and find where the open spaces in the music are. At the moment, there seems to be loads of open spaces, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any end to the music. So I’m extremely grateful for that.