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David Gray wants to be remembered for more than White Ladder, though he’s now more appreciative of its immense success than he’s ever been. “It’s taken me 51 years, but I’ve finally started to loosen up,” he explains to Vinyl Me, Please with a chuckle. White Ladder begot a particular strand of U.K. singer-songwriters, creating a scene in which Gray was a predecessor for modern pop stars like James Blunt―a trend in songwriting he begrudged for many years. Perhaps he’s lightened up with age, success, or because of his responsibilities as a father, but White Ladder no longer signifies a complex range of provocations for Gray. He’s able to bask in its success more easily now, especially on the heels of the seminal album’s 20th anniversary.
“It was an overwhelming, tumultuous period where I sort of shrank back into my shell. I didn't relish the world of fame and success and it wasn't something that I thought had any merit on its own terms,” he says. His changing perspective has less to do with a specific moment than the way time softens all edges. David Gray still carries a fire, but he uses it to light his world, not burn down the house that built “Babylon” and a lifetime's worth of success. After White Ladder’s 20th year of circulation, we caught up with the man behind a defining era of British pop music to discuss his forthcoming tour, the meteoric success following White Ladder, and the hiccups of celebrity. Whereas this sort of celebration would have been something a younger David Gray might have shied away from, the 51-year-old songwriter is happy to indulge at this point in time. “I really hope it does get through to some new listeners,” he says. “I’m always excited to find new ears out there.”
VMP: When White Ladder comes up, what's your first thought looking back on it now, all these years later?
David Gray: Well, I'm very proud of what we did. I think I got a mixture of emotions, and doing this 20th anniversary, the whole thing is bound up with a thousand thoughts and feelings really. But really it was a game-changing moment where I think in order to survive in my early career, I'd had to get a kind of tough outer coating of some cynicism and defensiveness to get through the fact that things weren't going so well. It was hard going at gigs in general, getting through to people making contact with the music. Building something meaningful was such a challenge. But what happened with White Ladder and what we realized from almost the moment we released it, was it had this sort of strange magic. The songs had a strange magic and incredible things began to happen.
Can you describe the magic?
People were singing them back. We were selling records, for God's sake. This is before it went global. This is just on our own label in Ireland, in the U.K. It was a thing that people shared and it meant that this defensive cynicism that was so essential for survival, you had to jettison that and live in a different way in a world that could turn around and change entirely and give you everything you'd hope for and more. So that's what White Ladder is to me. It's this pivotal moment when everything changed and I'm proud of it as a piece of music. It was three people putting all the creativity that they had into an idea. We had very little money and very little equipment making the best thing they could possibly make and it still stands up.
The album was definitely ahead of its time in the instrumental stuff it was doing. What were some of the things that you were listening to or trying to achieve musically with the album when you were first working on it?
I guess this is a British thing really, but in British music it's kind of important to meld things in a kind of violent and perhaps unpredictable way. It's a very small, compressed country with a lot of people and a lot of ideas and a lot of big personalities. And somehow, our musical heritage includes lots of things, from punk to New Wave, to the Beatles and the Stones in the ’60s. I wasn't looking to be willfully electronic, but I was anxious to find the voicing for my music that sounded like something from now, something from my life that reflected all the things I was hearing. I wanted to escape the Van Morrison comparison, the Bob Dylan, the John Martin and the Nick Drake. I wanted to get something that spoke in a different way. So incorporating some of these rather rude elements, these kind of electric cheeky electronic sounds, were crucial.
How soon after the album was released on your own little label did you realize that you were onto something and the album was going to do something?
Well, very quickly, but this is a "Holy shit!" within small horizons, because we released it in Ireland first because that's the only place where I really ever sold any records of note. So we had to sell four or five thousand of my previous albums. We pressed up 5,000 copies and they were sold within a few weeks. And then we had to press another five and this went on and then we went gold. Then we went platinum. Then we went double platinum, triple platinum. And that was just in Ireland. We found partners here and we put the record out here and it was a much more difficult process to get past go and sort of get some momentum. So there was a point in 2000 when it started to take off around the world. That's the American story, which through Dave Matthews' label, he put it out over there and then Warner licensed it for the rest of the world, excluding Ireland and North America. And they started to put their weight behind it as a major really can.
In the few years afterward, you were very appreciative of your success and very thrilled with the way the album did, but it seems like you maybe struggled a bit with fan expectations and what they were expecting to come next.
I don't think it was fan-based. I think the whole thing is complex, because something was made in a very sort of unselfconscious way, and then you’re suddenly thrown into a reverse situation where you've got to try and create something else. It's very hard to find that comfortable natural place where you make music. It was an overwhelming, tumultuous period where I sort of shrank back into my shell. I didn't relish the world of fame and success and it wasn't something that I thought had any merit on its own terms. I was... I loved the fact everyone was listening to the music. And then you've got the whole thing of everyone just wanting to hear certain songs and that's the first time you've encountered that, it's quite daunting, because you think: "Well, hang on, you know? Yeah, they were great, but let's not be just defined by one moment." And it was such a big moment that essentially you never escape it, and I now have various tactics for dealing with that.
When were you able to take a step back and appreciate the success of that album?
It took a while. In a way, it was probably a good 10 years, I'd say, before it stopped, maybe even a bit longer than that, before it stopped being a big issue. I think it was so present in my mind to willfully not crumble under the pressures of people just wanting certain things from you, certain songs in a certain way. I was so determined to put all my energy into doing other stuff and presenting things differently, changing songs, messing with songs, dropping certain songs, be it “This Year's Love” or “Babylon.” I was trying to reinvent them.
There's not really a rule book for figuring this stuff out.
This tour is the first time ever that I'll be embarking on something where the audience is going to get exactly what they want. I'm going to recreate the album from start to finish, with the sounds and the equipment and the people that I made it with. I don't think I'll be doing it again, it's a sort of one-off thing. It's a celebration for the crowd and it's a celebration for us, so it's... On the other side of that we'll have to see what the terrain looks like, after such a big deal.
This record's going to be introduced to some people who have never heard it before. What do you hope that a new listener takes away from listening to this album in the year 2020?
I guess I just want them to connect with the songs, really. We didn't have a great deal of money, we had no real technology, we didn't have the production capabilities to build any kind of grand record. We built something which had a bit of earthiness and a bit of humor and a bit of style, but we let the songs do the talking. Everything else supports the vocal and the song. That's the White Ladder method. It's a bedroom record, so the songs have to come first. It's really about connecting from moment one, when you hear “Please Forgive Me.” You either know if you want to take the ride or not. White Ladder was designed such that you start at the very beginning and it takes you all the way through to the end. So for the people that connect, they seem to connect intensely. I really hope it does get through to some new listeners. I’m always excited to find new ears out there.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.