Q&A: David Gray, who plays his first Baltimore show tonight
Singer/songwriter David Gray has released eight studio albums and toured for close to two decades.
The throaty Englishman paid for his latest album, "Draw the Line," out of pocket, and collaborated with Annie Lennox.
Here, Gray talks about recording with an orchestra at Abby Road Studios, Louisville Sluggers and getting crap from haters at bars ...
What’s going on, David?
I’m in Louisville, Kentucky, in what you would describe as a boutique art hotel. It’s not something I would put together with Kentucky, but it’s very nice. There’s lots of ironic and challenging pieces of art everywhere.
Sounds fun. Are you going to get a baseball bat?
I’ve been given one of those on a previous visit – a Louisville Slugger.
Those things always seem like such great ideas at the time, but they always end up in a box underneath your bed.
Yeah. I have scant opportunity to use a Louisville Slugger. If someone were to break into my house, it’s the ideal implement to smash his head open.
Have you ever played Baltimore before?
No, this will be a first. I like firsts. I’ve been in D.C. most of the time.
Journalists like me love saying things like, ‘It’s the first time you’ve ever played here.’ But does that really matter to you?
Yeah, of course. I’m all for new experiences. It matters as much to me, wherever I am. There are no preferred venues. I’ll take the crowds as I find them.
Folks can get pretty loud at your shows. Since some of your songs are more acoustic, do you ever secretly wish the audience would be quiet and just listen instead of screaming and going nuts?
I want both things, basically. ... I want the energy and I want the intensity of that quiet attention as well. The show takes in both aspects. There are big very melodic -- almost anthemic songs and quiet, introspective, thought-provoking pieces that strive on this intense silence. A perfect gig has both those things going on.
"Draw the Line" is a big sounding album on the whole, but there are songs where you really went all out. Tell me about how a song like “Full Steam,” which you did with Annie Lennox, came together.
That song stands alone because it’s got such a huge arrangement. Some songs are just aching for orchestration, and this one had that feel to it. It was like something from the Righteous Brothers catalog – at least that’s what’s going on in my head, anyway.
We did the strings at Abbey Road, and spent three or four days arranging them with the arranger beforehand. We were changing the arrangements right down to the very last second. It sounded different in the room with real thing. We made this massive track and then we had to find the other vocalist. We broke it down to a short list and sent the track out. Annie was the first got back to me.
We needed someone who could really, really belt it out and sing with a certain presence, to hold up against my voice, which is loud and abrasive and dense. We needed somebody who could handle that and she was just perfect. The combination was perfect. She was a joy to work with.
She gave us more than just the vocal parts I'd worked out for her. She came up with other little bits and pieces that really lifted the feel of the track, made it much more pop, which I think is a good thing. It's like adding a bit of egg white to the mix -- it lightened the whole thing. The lyrical aspects weren't as immediately obvious. You're carried along by the verve of the performance. You're caught up in the melodies and the movements rather than dwelling on the rather dark lyrics. The lyric comes like a Trojan Horse. That was a triumph, getting Annie involved.
What's it like to stand in a room while an orchestra plays your music?
It's a big deal. It's a big deal. I paid for this record myself. If you think about the financial commitment to get a full orchestra, brass, tympani, vibes, harps, everything in a room together, and you're spending however many thousands of pounds to get the main room at Abbey Road because it's got all those beautiful microphones and all those nerdy engineers who know what they're doing, it's a big deal.
We nailed the last part of the take with one minute left on the clock. We had a four-hour session with the strings, and if you go over that, you start paying everybody overtime. It was nerve-wracking.
People have said you're going for broke on this one.
It's a giant act of folly to spend any money making a record these days. If, in 2007, I'd realized how far f---ed things were going to get on the dial, I would have probably thought twice about it.... If you've got resources, then what else is there to do but stake everything on what you're doing? I don't believe in the safety option. I believe in risk. I like it. I like the taste of fear and total commitment. I don't like the safety blanket.
How do you approach songwriting now as opposed to when you were, say, 25?
When you're young, it's easy to get over excited. You get high faster, you get down faster. I'd be more patient now. I'm more scientific. The last wisps of the mist surrounding the creative process, the trailing vapors are banished from my creative world. I'm interested in the hard facts of doing it. Turning up, and opening yourself up, at least with a can opener, and seeing what comes out. That's my day. Some days you don't get anywhere. But generally, if you plug away long enough, something will happen.
I would assume that people on the street come up to you and mostly have nice things to say. But have you ever had people come up to you and say bad things about your music -- as though they felt like they owed it to you?
(laughs) I've been out when people have been drinking, and I've had people come up to me and give me s---. So, I have to say, yeah.
What do you do? Do you give it back to them?
When it first happens, you're in a state of shock. I'm just public property and people can abuse me as they see fit. Now, I try and take everything with a pinch of salt. You need a thick skin. But I don't know if I've got one. I'll keep going and if I'm not going to get that critical pat on the back by some f----g know-it-all, I'll persevere. I think I know my onions. I know when my s--- is good.
(Top photo by Getty Images. Bottom photos by Phil Knott)