Singer-songwriter David Gray changed his band and stripped down his sound for his new album.
Guys like Jason Mraz and John Mayer owe David Gray a pint. The mild-mannered Englishman helped reignite worldwide interest in earnest singer-songwriter music in 2000 with his ubiquitous hit Babylon. But while that song is what most casual fans know him for, Gray has actually been making records for nearly two decades, and his 1999 CD White Ladder remains the bestselling album of all time in Ireland. We checked in with the folk-rock veteran, who is celebrating the release of his powerful new disc, Draw the Line.
You parted ways with your longtime bandmates in 2006 and assembled a new group of musicians to record Draw the Line. Why? Things just wear out -- they simply do. You need to have a phenomenal amount of desire to write and create properly, and you cant take your achievements with you. Theres no use taking your ego or how many records your last one sold, but thats what started happening to me a little bit. Id had some success, and it starts to mess with your head; you start to feel trapped by what youve already done. Babylon and White Ladder had cast a long shadow, and I needed to move on to the next thing.
The album has a stripped-down feel. Like everything with this record, theres an element of going back to the beginning and remembering why I love making music. In 2007, I did a bunch of acoustic shows called the Bare Bones Tour with Neill MacColl, whod played on my first record and a bit on my second. Once he was on board, the biggest challenge was finding a new drummer, someone with as much personality as technical ability. I was looking for someone a bit on edge, someone with a bit of madness, and I found that in Keith Prior. He impacted the new record more than anyone else. Its peasant food I serve up, you know -- I just slap it down on a plate, and the musicians add a touch of class.
Annie Lennox sings with you on the closing track, Full Steam. How did that happen? I realized when I wrote the song that what Id written was a duet, but I didnt know who was going to sing it. We thought about Chris Isaak, Michael Stipe, David Bowie -- it was getting ridiculous. Then someone suggested Annie Lennox. I didnt know if it should be a woman, but then I thought, Well, that could work if the womans voice is strong enough to compete with mine. It had to be someone with enough bite and presence to really bring the weight of the song home rather than a sort of flouncy female voice. And as much as shes got this great femininity, Annies voice also has this slightly androgynous quality. Thats what we needed, and she blew us all away.
Youre touring America this fall, starting October 23 at the Wang Theatre in Boston. How will the experience be different now compared with when you first started coming here? Now I know what Im getting into. I must have been around America 15 or 16 times, and when I first started going, Id throw a couple of things in a bag and just wonder what crazy stuff was going to happen to me. Now Im not so up for the crazy stuff; now the pleasure is in the show. The reason you write the songs and do the work is to have that intense crowning moment of being onstage in front of an audience. That feeling is a huge dimension to my life, and as Ive gotten older, Ive really started to appreciate it. I couldnt be looking forward to it more.