Author’s Note: there was at least one prepared but discarded chapter in my joint book with Trevor Hodgett Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History (Collins Press, 2004) – a section bringing together three non-Irish artists with strong connections to Ireland, about whom I happened to have accumulated a few pieces of journalism in the previous decade. These artists were Ralph McTell, David Gray and Roy Harper. This is the David Gray section of that chapter, with a first person introduction written for the book.
David Gray: Introduction
Prepared for the book Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History, along with the selected previously published journalism below, but unused
‘Colin Harper reckons we can cope with a rasping Welsh Dylan,’ ran the editor’s pithy sub-heading to my 1995 Folk Roots feature on David Gray. Ian Anderson, editor then and now of the British folk world’s most iconoclastic – and consistently successful – publication, had instinctive doubts about David Gray’s application-by-proxy to the folk club. But he was prepared, as ever, to allow the enthusiasms of a contributor win the day. Various other editors, including those at both Mojo and Q, had already informed me that they had no interest in featuring Gray in anything other than a brief record review, and even then…
‘Who are these ‘editors’?’ rasped Gray, with visceral verbal speech-marking on the noun, when I perhaps rather foolishly chose to mention my/his problem in the small-talking preamble to our interview, on the dull afternoon of a gig at Belfast’s Limelight club. I got the impression David wasn’t in particularly sociable form that day, and pointing out a few more targets at which to aim his invective was never going to lighten the mood.
I’d driven the hundred miles to Dublin twelve months earlier, shortly after his 1993 appearance on BBC2’s Later With Jools Holland, to see Gray’s show – his first in Ireland – at a pub called Whelan’s. It was a stunning experience, with everyone there having clearly already memorised every lyric from A Century Ends. A couple of people from Virgin’s Irish operation took David and his accompanist, Neil MacColl, out for a pizza afterwards – with a certain penurious writer blagging along, introducing himself and promising to do whatever he could in this or that publication. David’s amazement at the live experience he had just had was palpable. Over the next few years he was to become one of the Ireland’s most regular musical visitors.
I reviewed a show, for The Irish Times, at a pub in Galway during Gray’s third visit, during the summer of ’94, in which he previewed material from the eagerly anticipated new album, Flesh. With Gray switching between acoustic and electric guitars, new drummer – and regular cohort ever since – ‘Clune’ appearing for the first time, Neil MacColl still part of the package and a roadie wandering on to play bass every so often, it was a sweaty, triumphant and gloriously shambolic performance. Selfish as it may be, it makes me more than a little sad that neither I, nor anyone else, will ever experience such an occasion, with David Gray and a hundred of the faithful having the time of our lives at a small bar in Galway, again. To quote from my own review – alas that I didn’t have a tape recorder that night – ‘Gray gave, as always, nothing less than 100 per cent, and more than rewarded the all-but-tangible electricity and sense of expectation from his audience, with a set that built, from a slowish start, to a tumbling, uncontainable frenzy of music and metaphor’.
I reviewed Gray once again for The Irish Times the following year (reprinted below), but those two pieces and the brief interview feature in Folk Roots were all I would write on the man for some time. In truth, while I held his first two albums dear, I wasn’t particularly keen on the direction he was taking with the full-band sound intended for Sell, Sell, Sell. The turning point was a gig at The Empire, Belfast, some time in 1996, where Gray – a little too keen on his electric guitar by this stage, without any obvious gift for it – seemed like he was trying to be the front man for a not-very-good ‘indie’ band. (Admittedly, it didn’t help that having taken along a girl I was keen on at the time she came away madly in love with David Gray and not with me!)
Given that my own little niche in writing has always revolved around artists on the fringes of modern music, or people whose stories have largely reached some kind of conclusion, it’s rare that I can say I was ‘there’ at the beginning of a major artist’s career. In David’s case it’s particularly pleasing because, having not heard him for a while, and having never bought Sell, Sell, Sell, I took a chance and bought White Ladder (1999) when it first appeared and was instantly back on the team. Better still, in my humble opinion, was the next one, New Day At Midnight (2002).
In between those releases I was bemused to find that the full text of that October 1994 interview – 3,000 largely unpublished words of it – was now in great demand. With Gray now in a position to dictate his own terms of availability to magazine editors, demand was outstripping supply. I was gently arm-twisted into revisiting these decade-old views of an angry young man for an album-by-album retrospective in Record Collector (March, 2002) and gave the interview as a whole to Michael Heatley for use in his David Gray: A Biography (Omnibus, 2002). (Aside from being a quietly rigorous writer whose magazine work I had long admired, I was delighted to discover, when we eventually became acquainted, that Michael Heatley had edited and overseen the early eighties part-work The History Of Rock. It was a work which had a massive impact on me in terms of stirring my interest in music of the past, and very probably also in writing about it. I remain very grateful.)
I don’t claim to have been personally in any way important in the David Gray story. I was merely one cog in a wheel, and there were many other Irish music writers and broadcasters who had seen his genius early on, not least among them my friend Tony Clayton-Lea, who somehow did manage to persuade those Mojo doubters back in ’95 to run a review of Flesh (which should, in anyone’s book – and this one will do – be enough to excuse his subsequent activities as biographer to Chris De Burgh). Still, after all that, did Ian Anderson have a point? Was Gray really a singer of folk songs? Well, as Big Bill Broonzy was reputedly wont to say, ‘I ain’t never a heard a horse sing one yet…’
Published: Folk Roots, March 1995
‘The reason,’ says David Gray, at the end of our interview, ‘that journalism doesn’t work most of the time is ‘cos the artist isn’t there to say, “No, hang on, I didn’t say that…” Most people have made up their minds before you’ve spoken to them and they just want you to reaffirm a few things. That’s the way it works.’ And he’s right, you know – but then it’s impossible not to have preconceptions of David Gray the artist and the person from ‘David Gray’ the music. Some time ago he would have been labelled as an ‘angry young man’, but times have changed and, as his new album Flesh confirms, his passions run much wider than that.
You could be forgiven for not knowing who David Gray is. He doesn’t fit into categories, he doesn’t see himself as a folk singer (but has all the right influences, and Ewan MacColl’s son Neil as his regular accompanist). He’s an acoustic act on an ‘indie’ label, which seems to confuse people in the rock’n’roll media. But there is more potency, urgency and power in his words and his delivery and in the simple chords that go along with them than there has been in any straight ‘folk’ or ‘rock’ singer for years. He is not a man afraid of the major seventh. He believes in what he sings and, while that isn’t unusual in itself, he has that rare magic that connects his own anguish, exhilaration and aspirations with those of the listener. He is, in short, inspiring, and it’s fair to say that knowing the effect he’s had on professional arts and music journalists in Ireland, he can restore to the most jaded of ears a real excitement for music as a powerful, emotional force. Yes, he’s that good.
Brought up in Wales, his first single, for Virgin subsidiary Hut, appeared at the end of 1992 and, with the help of a last minute appearance on BBC 2’s Later – apparently standing in for Robert Palmer, and apparently seen by everyone who has subsequently become a Gray devotee – his song ‘Birds Without Wings’ has become an end-of-night anthem in the manner of ‘Streets Of London’ before it became a cliché. Where Ralph McTell once championed a potential for change, Gray sings out for damage limitation – for strength in adversity and dignity in bleak situations: ‘These are just words, in lacklustre times,’ he admits, at the end of the song, but it is still something powerful, uplifting and universal. 1993’s debut album, A Century Ends, was every bit as remarkable as the single, but compared to the more upbeat and almost celebratory Flesh (with a consciously colourful cover) it was all a bit, well… dark, wasn’t it?
‘I don’t really think it was that dark,’ he says. ‘I think that’s what I tried to do, but I didn’t feel like continuing in that vein. It was all too serious. I got stitched up with this ‘serious geezer’ image, which wasn’t really that representative. I saw that if I could encapsulate the forces of hope, I suppose, and renewal that I’d experienced then that would probably be the most potent kind of thing I could put onto tape – far more potent than a rage against a general thing. Lots of the songs on the first album were very broad – not that I think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that my perspective is now on a more intimate scale. I feel more confident dealing with stuff that I know I’ve gone through rather than attacking a void, which I don’t actually know. I’m raging for things now.’
Bob Dylan is a big influence, and if you can imagine the word-accumulation genius of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and the metaphoric power of ‘Gates Of Eden’ put into a nineties context with a rasping Welsh accent, a dose of melancholy and a tendency towards the imagery of metaphysical love poets (and, really, there is no way of saying that without it sounding pretentious), then that is David Gray. And just like the Dylan of Don’t Look Back, he plays the game in his own way. His press biog says a career-launching residency at London’s Troubadour ‘sold out by word of mouth’ (‘It didn’t come off, really,’ says Gray); a recent appearance at the Phoenix Festival won ‘a fantastic response,’ we are told (‘No, it wasn’t very good,’ says Gray). And so on. He doesn’t care for hype and one would like to believe that with the sheer integrity and quality of his writing he doesn’t need it. But even Dylan needed hype, and he knew how to use it.
Gray, though, in his ceaseless tirades against mediocrity, knows how to abuse it, but he knows it goes against the grain: ‘You can’t have a romantic, rural vision – which seems to prevail in my work – and expect to gain any momentum in the system that’s there,’ he says. ‘Britain’s got a very blinkered view of what’s ‘groovy.’ Ireland, however, remains his trump card. No less than four separate visits in the past year, with ecstatic press reviews and interviews in major papers and magazines and (genuine) sell-out audiences. ‘Maybe Irish people are more receptive to the passion and the landscape in my songs,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s more akin to an Irish vision.’ Who knows, except to say that in Ireland they don’t care if he’s a folk singer, a rock star or the man in the moon: he’s David Gray, and his music speaks for itself.
The Warehouse, Belfast
Published: The Irish Times, 20 December 1995
‘Damn, you’ve cheered me up,’ said Gray, racing on to enthusiastic applause, grinning from ear to ear. ‘I’ve got to sing all these depressing songs now…’ Gray was on his fifth or sixth visit to Ireland in two years; he’s just signed a deal with EMI America, his new album – entitled, with typical Gray irony, Sell, Sell, Sell – appearing in February; and the Belfast crowd was right behind him. He had nothing much here to be depressed about, and he knew it.
‘The Light’, his opening gambit, was a masterpiece of gritty optimism and the trio of favourites that followed – ‘Coming Down’, ‘Shine’ and ‘Falling Free’ – while doubtless having their origins in some kind of angst, took the listener and, no doubt, performer through a mildly cathartic process of imagery to a place where only warm glows and self-belief had a place at the table.
Seven of the sixteen songs in the set were new, and none of them disappointed. ‘Smile’, from the new album, was introduced as having been ‘forged in the pits of despair’, as Gray warmed to the comic potential of his doom-laden image. It was actually a very beautiful, delicate love song, as was perhaps the most memorable new offering of the night, ‘Flame Turns Blue’. It encapsulated all that is great about the man’s work: simple accompaniments, immensely disciplined lyricism that hints, somehow, at wild abandon, and an overwhelming feel for old-fashioned, misty-eyed romanticism.
David Gray Live
Published: Record Collector, February 2001
David Gray began playing live around Ireland’s small but discerning music pub circuit in 1993, shortly after the release of his debut album A Century Ends. Musically stark but packed full of truly awesome poetry and a sense of life-affirmation and reckless hope amidst the introspection, that album and the sheer passion of Gray’s live performances began a word-of-mouth situation that eventually achieved, literally by the century’s end, seven-times-platinum Irish sales for his fourth album, White Ladder, and two celebratory shows at Dublin’s cavernous Point Depot. This multi-camera video, boasting splendid, honest sound mixing, is the record of those performances.
Roving through the opener, ‘Sail Away’, through close-ups of Gray and his band, the film initially echoes Tony Palmer’s Farewell Cream documentary, while the cutaways of atmospherically washed-out, fixed-camera B&W is redolent of the Hendrix Band Of Gypsies film, shot exactly 30 years earlier to the day. But these are mere teasing effects, for unlike those imperfect documents this film allows the performance to breathe, combining the performer/listener intimacy so essential to Gray’s music with a sense of the show’s epic scale and the very triumph of old-fashioned integrity over the suffocating machine of the modern music industry that Gray’s elevation to stardom represents. In short: sixteen items of brilliance from four albums, plus the stunning ‘Flame Turns Blue’ from the recent Irish-only CD Lost Songs and a revealing interview appendage make this a heart-warming purchase for those who believe in the power of song.