David Gray: Writing In Reverse

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“Back In The World,” the opening track of David Gray’s new record Mutineers, is more a declaration than it is a single. Over a gently percussive backdrop of layered strings and pianos, Gray sings, “Who’s to say how it goes, all I know is I’m back in the world again.” It’s a line that reads noncommittal but plays like the testimony of a man finally unburdened.

Gray, who hasn’t released a studio album since 2010’s Foundling, sees the entirety of Mutineers as a declaration.  “I feel like I’ve returned,” he says. “I think I’ve been blessed with a certain electric charge.” He completed a run of dates in the spring where he began each night playing Mutineers start to finish, most songs previously unheard by his audience, a risky and unorthodox move that inevitably reinforced his feeling that this was the best work he’d done in ages.

“That’s how confident I felt about the material, as well as this band I put together,” he explains of the tour. “It’s asking a lot of the audience but it’s a new era, I suppose. I feel like I’ve moved on and I’m very proud of this music and I’m standing behind it all the way.”

Fans of Gray’s older hits like “Babylon” and “This Year’s Love” weren’t disappointed, though, as he included reworked versions of familiar classics. “There’s a lot less pressure on those old songs,” he says. “Of course I play them but I can revolve them a bit, like ‘Babylon’ tonight, ‘Sail Away’ tomorrow night. I can pick and choose. I’m looking for ways to mine these old pieces of music for more feeling.”

Much of Gray’s newfound vitality came in the form of British producer/musician (Lamb) Andy Barlow, his collaborator on Mutineers. “We had a tempestuous but incredibly profitable creative relationship,” Gray says of Barlow. “I realized that I’m quite a force once I’ve got an idea in my head. I’m quite a difficult person to stand up to. But he did again and again.”

With Barlow at the helm, Gray was able to approach his songwriting in a way he rarely had before: in reverse. “I usually write melody and then find the words to fit that,” he says. “But this time I started with ideas, more. So I had an idea for a song and I worked back for the lyric.”

Such was the case for album closer “Gulls,” a spare, haunting number with the kind of layered vocals that would sound at home on a Bon Iver record. “The track ‘Gulls’ was inspired by the poem ‘Just As This Land Belongs To The Gull’ by Herman De Coninck, a Belgian poet,” Gray explains. “The poem is like a little haiku and when I heard it I heard music in there, and I thought, ‘I’m going to put this to music.’”

The result is a track that sounds like nothing Gray has recorded before. “When I work backwards that way I don’t have the same confidence in what I’m doing,” he admits. “It’s bizarre but I can’t really hear whether it was any good or not. I made a cup of tea, came back and listened to [“Gulls”] and it knocked me back. I realized I had something special.”

Literature is a frequent source of inspiration for Gray, who cites Scottish novelist Nan Shepherd and British nature writer J.A. Baker as recent favorites. “Books not only fire my imagination but I feel a real sense of kinship and connection with the people who wrote them,” he says. “They’re thinking thoughts that go through my head all the time. They’re articulating things that I obsess about, in nature and in life.”

Gray nods to this move toward idea-based songwriting in the record’s title, Mutineers. “It is definitely appropriate as a title for this record, because there was a certain amount of mutiny involved,” he says. “[Andy and I] found some new terrain and once we had a few successes I could really sense that there was a world of possibilities and we leapt in with both feet.”

Though it’s a fitting title for a musician revolting against his old ways, Mutineers was a last minute change from Gray’s original choice, Over All Things Joy. “We got cold feet about it right at the end because it had a kind of pseudo-religious air to it, which, I think, is dangerous,” he says of the original title.  “But there’s a joyousness captured in the music, as stressful as some of the making of it was. It’s a joyous thing.”

One can hear enough joy in these new songs, however, that such a title feels redundant. “It’s joy that convinces people something special’s going on,” he muses. “Mutineers is a revelation that joy conquers all.”

This article appears in our July/August 2014 issue. Buy it here or download it here. Or better yet, subscribe

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