Singer, songwriter, guitarist
British singer-songwriter David Gray “is such a perfect example of someone who I think is so phenomenal and so beautiful—someone who is going to make a contribution to people’s lives for years down the road—but someone who, although it almost seems impossible to me that he would be, has been more or less overlooked in the United States,” commented fellow musician Dave Matthews, who picked Gray as the first signing to his imprint label ATO Records, to Marilyn A. Gillen in Billboard. “I think he could do fantastically well in the States, relatively, and I think people would be really grateful if they found him and could listen to him.” Judging by Gray’s work ethic and past achievements, including a multi-platinum album in Ireland, a popular film soundtrack, and a sizable cult following in Europe and the United States, the English-born, Welsh-raised musician is almost certain to attain a broader audience. “Being a singer is not a job like a dentist,” Gray explained in an interview for the Independent. “It’s my lifeblood.…l decided to give it everything.”
David Gray was born in Manchester, England, in 1970. At the age of nine, he moved with his family to Pembrokeshire, Wales, where he spent the remainder of his childhood years. As a teen, Gray played in various local punk bands, and his interest in music continued when he returned to England to study at the University of Liverpool. Gray joined other groups while attending college, but also began to experiment with a more poetic form of songwriting, embracing new ways of working. “That’s why I find John Lennon and Bob Dylan so inspiring,” he said, as quoted by the Independent. “They’re vulnerable, raw, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, records that happened when no one was in control. I suppose that’s my philosophy. When I was first in a band, it was just daft punk rubbish but as soon as I started to write, all this melancholy stuff came out.”
Upon graduating, he moved to London, hoping to establish himself as a singer-songwriter. And within a short time of playing smaller venues, Gray in 1992 landed a recording contract with Hut Records under the Virgin umbrella, with distribution in the United States through Caroline Records. Soon thereafter, Gray released his first single, “Birds Without Wings.” In the first half of 1993, Gray made his full-length debut with the ten-song A Century Ends. Earning Gray his first taste of acclaim, the album faced with depth and meaning every emotion imaginable—anger, love, passion, and more. Gray displayed his singing versatility as well. Throughout A Century Ends, his voice ranges from bitter release to gentle solace, beginning with his soaring vocals on the poignant opening track “Shine” followed by whispers and wails on “Bird Without Wings.” Other standouts included the unforgettable pop tune “Wisdom” and the intriguing, provocative songs “Lead Me Upstairs” and “Living Room.”
In addition to gaining critical acceptance, Gray won over a core of loyal followers with his honest, classicstyled
Born in 1970 in Manchester, England; raised in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Education: Graduated from Liverpool University in England.
Signed with Hut Records, 1992; released debut album A Century Ends, 1993; released Flesh, 1994; signed with EMI, released Sell, Sell, Sell, 1996; released self-financed White Ladder, 1998; signed to ATO Records/East West, 2000.
songwriting. Following a European tour in support of A Century Ends, Gray wasted no time in recording his follow-up. Released in 1994, Flesh further strengthened Gray’s profile. Again, he covered a range of styles and emotions, from acoustic ballads (“Coming Down”) to driving folk-rock tunes (“What Are You” and “Made Up My Mind”). By now, reviewers were comparing the young talent to the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and even the Counting Crows and the Dave Matthews Band.
However, Gray was about to learn the hard way that some record deals can prove more troublesome than beneficial. Despite all his successes, Gray was eventually dropped by his label, through he quickly found a new home at EMI Records. Meanwhile, Gray’s fanbase in Ireland soared. The alternative music program, No Disco, hosted by Donal Dineen, played the singer’s videos regularly and showcased his live potential through televised performance sessions. In 1996, Gray released a third album, Sell, Sell, Sell. Although lacking the cohesiveness of his prior outings, it nonetheless contained notable songs such as “Late Night Radio,” “Gutters Full of Rain,” and “Folk Song.” Nonetheless, EMI, after restricting the album’s release to the United Kingdom despite cries throughout Europe and America for new material, also took Gray off its roster.
About his early experiences with the business side of making music, Gray recalled to the Independent: “I was only 23 and I don’t think [Hut and Virgin] knew how to present the two albums I made. But that was a breeze compared to what happened at EMI America….The record didn’t even come out properly as the label was imploding. After that, I was at a crossroads.” However, Gray continued to build his reputation largely through live performance. Taking advantage of his support in Ireland, he played his intense, reflective music in smaller venues, often losing money in order to do so. But Gray’s dedication eventually paid off; his shows became regular sell-outs. Consequently, Gray won a serious of prestigious support slots, opening for popular acts such as Radiohead and the Dave Matthews Band.
After contributing original music for the film This Year’s Love, an acclaimed British romantic comedy by Kathy Burke, Gray used his earnings to record a new album without record company backing. The self-financed White Ladder, which included five songs from the movie soundtrack, was recorded in a London flat and released on Gray’s own IHT label in at the end of 1998. For practical reasons as well as a creative interest in bringing together his classic songwriting style and technology, Gray used a drum machine and samples. Still, the record retained a strong guitar presence in addition to Gray’s distinction—wistful vocals and sublime melodies.
White Ladder made an immediate leap into the Top 30 in Ireland and quickly climbed the charts as Gray embarked on a sold-out concert tour of the country in December. In early 1999, “This Year’s Love” was released as the first single in the United Kingdom, followed by the memorable “Babylon.” In July of 1999, Gray played a sold-out, headlining gig at the Big Beat Festival in Galway, further emphasizing his meteoric rise. By now, his fourth album had made the Irish Top 5. From there, Gray performed with Robbie Williams and Stereophonies at Slane Castle, then won a Heineken Hot Press Award as “Guest of the Nation.” As 1999 came to a close, a third single off White Ladder entitled “Please Forgive Me” was released. Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll liked the track so much that he remixed the song, ensuring Gray massive exposure on the London club scene. The video for the single also received regular rotation on MTV throughout Great Britain.
In December of 1999, Gray toured Ireland again; all of the gigs sold out, and White Ladder reached number one on January 14, 2000, in Ireland, where it remained for six weeks. Soon thereafter, Dave Matthews and his longtime manager Coran Capshaw, who were launching their new ATO (According To Our) Records—an independent label aiming to cultivate a small, hand-picked roster of career artists—chose Gray as their first signing. According to Matthews, Gray epitomizes the spirit behind the creation of the venture: to prevent lesser-known musicians from slipping through the cracks. “And so he’s an example of why I thought it was a good thing to start a record label,” Matthews said to Gillen. “Because there’s a lot of interesting artists who won’t get a chance to get heard because of… an industry that ignores something that’s maybe not in fashion or doesn’t seem viable, all those sorts of nauseating terms.”
In March of 2000, ATO, an imprint distributed through BMG, reissued White Ladder with two additional tracks and a 12-minute video featuring concert footage. The enhanced CD was released by East West Records outside the United States. Gray then traveled to the States, where he performed in major cities such as Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, returning in June for a nationally televised appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Although he enjoyed his new-found fame, Gray also has other concerns about the future. “I’d like to start a family and settle down, and at some point, that will become more viable and attractive than another tour of America,” he revealed in an interview with Muse. “It’s a great life, but there will be a point where I will want to do something else, maybe paint again or, I don’t know, spend £200,000 on my bathroom, those things you do when you are a rock star! But I don’t think I will ever want to stop making music, writing songs or performing live. If everyone is up for a good time, we’ll give them a good time.”
A Century Ends, Hut, 1993.
Flesh, Hut, 1994.
Sell, Sell, Sell, EMI, 1996.
White Ladder, IHT, 1998; reissued, ATO, 2000.
Billboard, December 19, 1999; February 12, 2000; April 22, 2000; May 13,2000.
Independent, April 2000.
Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2000.
Melody Maker, February 20, 1999; March 20, 1999.
Washington Post, June 9, 2000.
David Gray, http://www.davidgray.com (August 20, 2000).
Muse Interview: David Gray, http://www.muse.ie/140700/interview/gray.html (August 20, 2000).
Born: Manchester, England, 1970
Best-selling album since 1990: White Ladder (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "Babylon," "Please Forgive Me," "The Other Side"
After toiling in relative obscurity and slowly building a fan base over three albums during the 1990s, singer/songwriter David Gray broke through in 1998 with the European release of his homegrown recording White Ladder. With an ingenious sonic backdrop for beautiful melodies and insightful, emotional lyrics, White Ladder is a carefully crafted, seamless work.
At the age of nine, Gray moved with his family to Pembrokeshire, Wales, where he spent the remainder of his childhood. As a teen, Gray played in various local punk bands, and his interest in music continued when he returned to England to study at the Liverpool School of Art, once attended by John Lennon. He released several albums and developed a small following, but was by no means a huge success. Although his earlier albums such as Sell, Sell, Sell and Flesh did not feature the marriage of folk and electronic so prominently on White Ladder, it was clear that Gray had a lyrical talent that elicited comparisons to the folk legends Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The folksinger Joan Baez has said that Gray writes "the best lyrics since young Bob Dylan." Despite the kudos, EMI dropped him shortly after its release of Sell, Sell, Sell.
Determined to keep making music, Gray decided to do it himself. White Ladder was recorded in Gray's London flat and released on his own IHT label with his collaborator Clune, who plays drums and sings backup vocals. The album is a brilliant meeting of electronic and folk music; the light and airy touch of programmed synthesizers and drum machines provide a perfect match for the organic earthiness of piano and acoustic guitar. After its European release in 1998, White Ladder became a huge success in Ireland and the United Kingdom. White Ladder was brought to a wider audience after it caught the attention of the singer and guitarist Dave Matthews, who offered Gray a deal on his label ATO Records. White Ladder was released in the United States in March 2000, and within less than a year it reached platinum status. As of the fall of 2002, the album had sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.
Gray toured extensively to sold-out crowds in support of White Ladder. He took some time off between 2001 and 2002 to spend time with his lawyer wife, Olivia, whom he had married in 1995, and to record his 2002 fall release A New Day at Midnight.
From the ambling chord changes in "Dead in the Water," the lead-off track, to the chilling, soul-searching of "The Other Side," Gray somehow remains optimistic on A New Day at Midnight, an otherwise somber album that no doubt reflects the emotional impact of his father's death in the previous year. In the album's press release Gray says, "There's a vividness to life even at the bleakest moments. Those are the times when you get the most out of other people." The sentiment seems to sum up Gray's overall attitude toward songwriting, and it is what keeps his music consistently hopeful, even in the face of adversity.
Sell, Sell, Sell (EMI, 1996; re-released on Nettwerk America, 2001); White Ladder (ATO/MCA, 2000); Lost Songs: 95–98 (ATO/RCA, 2001); A New Day at Midnight (ATO/MCA, 2002).