David Gray / Skellig / Laugh a Minute Records / AWAL Recordings
Four and a Half Out of Five Stars
Anyone who’s followed David Gray’s career over the course of the past 27 years can readily attest to the fact that he’s a decidedly thoughtful artist who shares a great deal of craft and consideration when it comes to scoping out his songs. While his big breakthrough album White Ladder and its attendant single “Babylon” managed to elevate his international standing and bring with it his first hint of super stardom, he’s mostly maintained a hushed, low-cast approach to making music ever since.
“Commercial Success has a yin and yang to it,” Gray muses. “That record came from fucking nowhere, with nobody’s blessing and once we did it, it was an unbelievable feeling. We were just having the time of our lives, but then, when it stops, you just pick up your cross and figure out what more you want. It’s just a very long game. I think I’m getting richer in terms of the proximity I have to the actual recording process than I used to have. I don’t feel any need to change things most of my time. Usually my time is taken up with attending to the business I’m running, this David Gray cottage industry I have.”
Not surprisingly then, Gray’s new album, Skellig, his twelfth studio effort to date, hews to the haunting delivery and ethereal atmospherics that have characterized his work practically since day one. Named for a precipitous rock formation off the coast of Ireland’s County Kerry, an outcrop that marks the country’s most westerly point and promontory, it was once the site of a sixth century monastery. Gray was especially inspired by the locale because to him, it represented a certain solace and escape from the increasing distraction of the noise and intrusion that always seems so overwhelming in today’s modern world.
“The idea was to imagine what inspired those monks to wholly remove themselves from society and find a new existence in the bleakest and most desolate environment imaginable,” Gray explains. “There seemed to be a whole theme and entire concept that could be built around finding that spiritual solace and getting away from the rest of the world. It would leave you with memories that you never be able to get out of your head after living that life for like 30 years or something. Trying to exist on this triangular outcrop and having to deal with these black snakes that inhabited the place and the storms that came through in the bleakness of winter. But then the sun would come out and it became the safest summer one could think of while they were living there.”
The album captures a shared sense of both isolation and optimism with melodies and harmonies that soar assuredly, building on an ornate orchestration that allows songs such as “Deep Water Swim,” “Laughing Gas,” “No False Gods” and the title track resonate with such haunting yet harrowing designs. Even those tracks which seem to start with a simple sentiment—“Spiral Arms,” “Dares My Heart to Be Free” and “The White Owl” being three of the most obvious examples—build and cascade with a depth of determination that leaves behind a formidable impression even after the final notes fade away.
Ironically, the recording process transpired as a surprisingly upbeat affair. Recording at Edwyn Collins’ Helmsdale studio on the Sutherland coast of Scotland, the process benefited from the hospitality and engaging atmosphere Gray and his mates found when they encamped in those remote surroundings.
Edwin and his wife Grace and their children were the most lovely people, and that communal experience we had just carried over to the recording as well,” Gray recalls. “We had the perfect hosts, wine was always in the fridge, wonderful food at the table where we were eating together, laughing together, drinking together. In reality, the wine wasn’t needed because we were so high on the music and everything was just so perfect. Things were so loose and free that by the time we left it all behind, it wasn’t easy having to go home to the realities of domestic life. It wasn’t especially glamorous, but it was just the best thing ever to be making this record in that environment and that became the real reward.”
Although the recording was finished prior to the pandemic, all the other final touches had to be navigated through the onslaught of the covid crisis. “I felt so fortunate to be able to have the album mostly finished by the time pandemic hit,” Gray reflects. “We had the rough recordings, but then I had to pull it all back to London where we had to work it through with social distancing and working remotely, and then finishing the mixing and mastering as quickly as we could.”
Ironically, that same sense of absolute isolation that was captured in the music also seemed to foretell what Gray and the rest of the world would face soon after. “I took three months to finish the record off and to mix and master it,” he recalls. “I was so inspired by the environment we had been recording in that it was difficult to reacquaint myself with reality. It’s strange, but when I got away from all the noise, and then came back to it, it was killing me. We were suddenly drifting into a different dimension from a place where you didn’t have to do anything except to focus on how quiet everything was. Every now and again you have a patch of time where everything is perfect and you feel like you’re riding on a giant wave somewhere in the Pacific and you’re coming in for a landing. It’s like driving through a fog with the headlights on and you can see through it before you know you’ve made it all the way through. It’s all these molecules you’re navigating through, and that’s what it was like for me, trying to possess the emotion. I’m not selling breakfast cereal here. It was actually something that I was feeling. Everything else was secondary.”