David Gray’s place in the pop music landscape is not unlike his music itself: not “in your face,” but quite present. Gray is currently touring the world in support of his latest release Draw the Line. With over 12 million albums worldwide, Gray continues to develop his signature sound, which first caught America’s attention with “Babylon” in 2000. An envy of many a songwriter, David reflects on the heart of the songs and the basic stages of the process.
The eternal question: What comes first when you write a song, music or lyrics?
Ninety-nine times out of 100, it’s music first, then lyrics. And sometimes the music and lyrics wrapped up in the same package. They all sort of happen at once. But most of the time, it’s not like that, and you’ve got to try and sense what it is you want to say, what the music suggests, and you’ll sing a key line or two, or a word. You’ll try to navigate across the song and tie it together with other ideas — you sense a sort of narrative or a meaning there, then you go from there.
Do you have to alter the original musical ideas much after you’ve brought the lyrics in?
Arrangements will change, and maybe you’ll put new bits in. But, no, basically, once you’ve got your melody worked out and the sort of basic structure, it generally remains pretty constant. Once you take it out on the road, it starts to change a bit. Sometimes songs want to change a bit. They sort of grow and mutate and elongate, and you get louder or they just feel like you need to go around the chorus another time, or whatever. Things will change or I’ll start to find different melodies. You know, like, “You’re the World to Me” was a song I wrote on piano that came out on the greatest hits record, and as soon as I got it out onstage, I just started to scat with the vocal. I completely blasted the melody to shreds; I was basically all over the place just having fun. Now, I listen back to the original recording and it sounds so restrained, as they often do. There’s often change there; everything has to change a little bit, you always remain open to change. That’s another thing about growing up within the writing process: If you’ve got it working one way, then great, but always be aware that there might be another way and it could be better. So don’t dismiss things or be all protective like it’s some sort of sacred thing you’ve created. It’s just music. You can do it in some other way, and someone else’s idea might be a good one — “Oh, elongate that chord three times as long, or we could miss a beat here, which kicks it into the next verse better. . . .” It could be a tiny little adjustment no one would really notice unless they know about that kind of thing, or it could be a really major one.
For Draw the Line, did you take this material out live before you recorded it?
A few of the songs were played live, but not many. And it’s not like they got radically altered by doing that. They pretty much remained the same, actually. The arrangements and structures of this record seemed very strong. You obviously take some trouble to try and get them right in the first place. So, no, most of this record, I’m only starting to play it now.
What songs on Draw the Line were written on piano?
“Jackdaw,” “Kathleen,” “Full Steam Ahead,” and “Transformation.”
What about “Stella the Artist”?
That was actually written on the piano as well. That was a hard-compressed piano sound through a tremolo, so it sounded massive in my head when we were doing it. That very much came out of the sound. The other thing I love about the piano — which that song illustrates well, actually — is like, the way you can move the bass note but keep the chord the same. So, the chorus is actually quite straightforward, but the bass note on the piano keeps changing each time. So, you come back to a C chord, but this time you’re playing an E underneath it, and the time before you were playing a G or whatever, so you’re sort of suspending the chords in different ways, and it makes it more interesting.
There are so many things an aspiring artist can focus on: songwriting skills, learning more about the studio, playing live, promoting themselves, and so on. What was the driving force that helped you become established in the music world?
It’s all a learning curve. I mean, I didn’t really have a clue about any of it: the business, the studio, playing live. I was just a bull in a china shop. Over the course of getting along for 20 years, I’ve learned what musicians in the ’60s learned in four or five. You know, because there was more playing and more sort of nurturing; there was a system there of musicianship, and you had to be able to cut it. So, I think it’s taken me a long time to learn all the different disciplines of it. But really, they’re all equally important, they all feed into each other. Playing live is one thing, but then, once you come off the road: Stop making a fool of yourself and calm down, you’re making a record now . . . know what I mean?
What’s your mindset in the studio?
Understatement is king, always, in the studio. It’s like, you don’t have to make it louder yourself. You can just turn the fader up. I think that’s one of the big things to learn. For a quiet vocal, the quieter, the better. It sort of blossoms into the mic and onto the tape in a way that . . . the harder you hit it [at first], the more you push the sound away. Quietness becomes a mighty thing. It’s the same when you’re recording a piano: The sound of the piano is just glorious if you just hit the chords gently and they’re allowed to ring, whereas the harder you hit it, the more sound you’re trying to force down through the same old mic. It just becomes a struggle.
Do you bring any portable recording gear on the road with you, to help develop new ideas?
I actually carry a Dictaphone around with me in case I get an idea, so I don’t forget it. There’s a [Sony] Minidisc recorder lying around in the studio in case I have an idea in there before everything’s fired up. But I don’t have a portable recording rig outside of that; I find that I just compartmentalize when I’m working on the road promoting or touring — I don’t write. I just wait until I get home, and I’ve let my head clear, then I start to write again. It’s a seasonal thing, like farming: Let the land go fallow, and hopefully, some crops will come up when you start to water it in a couple of years.
A Selected David Gray Discography
Draw the Line (2009)
Life In Slow Motion (2005)
White Ladder (1999)
Live in Slow Motion (2006)
Live at The Point (2001)