It's a Gray Area

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 30, 2005

WHAT A difference a hit makes.

When David Gray recorded "White Ladder" six years ago, it was under desperate circumstances. Having been dropped by three major labels (after one album for each) as well as his publishing company, the raspy-voiced singer-songwriter self-financed "White Ladder," recording it in his London walk-up, its stairs so narrow they precluded moving in a drum kit. Gray converted a spare bedroom into a makeshift studio and using a small digital recorder, samplers, sequencers and drum programs, redesigned the architecture of his music, imbuing its folk-pop cornerstones with tinges of electronica that never got in the way of the songs.

Given past history, Gray opted to release the album on his own IHT Records -- apparently he couldn't spell "hit" if you spotted him all three letters -- and only in Ireland, the country that had proved most receptive to his previous efforts. The Irish appreciate bards, including such obvious Gray influences as Bob Dylan -- Joan Baez annointed Gray "the best lyricist since Dylan" -- and native son Van Morrison, whose soulful vocals twists he often evokes.

Sparked by the slow-burning hit single "Babylon," a first run of 6,000 copies sold out. More were ordered, Dave Matthews picked it up as the first release on his ATO label, and a few years later, "White Ladder" had become -- and remains -- the biggest-selling album in Ireland, and England's second-biggest selling album of the '90s. It was all part of a worldwide juggernaut that peaked at 6 million copies sold. Of those, 2.2 million sold in the United States, a marked contrast to the 20,000 copies (total) for Gray's three previous releases.

All of which helped make possible Gray's purchase last year of the Church Studios complex in London's North End for roughly $2 million. The site, an old Agapemonite church whose chapel had been turned into the main studio, had been Dave Stewart's recording base from 1982 on. It's where the Eurythmics recorded most of their albums; the client list included Annie Lennox on her solo albums, U2, Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell and Dido -- nice ghosts, for sure.

In the wake of "White Ladder," Gray had recalled experimenting with the little amounts of equipment available and "really enjoying it -- it was like a breath of fresh air." In fact, much the same spirit attended the making of Gray's just-released "Life in Slow Motion." He suggests that the underlying process was actually similar, not a question of limitation vs. opportunity.

"When the challenge is just not having any money or any gear, you know you've got to do the best you can with what you've got," Gray says. "To make the most of multiple choices is a different challenge, and a more complex one by nature. Every once in a while, you've got to shake things up, start all over again, forget all the music you've made before and try and begin again.

"That's what this process was," he adds. "I suddenly needed to express the position I was in and the possibilities that existed and were real for me making music so that I could have extravagant dreams, if you like. It was about trying to do that situation justice. It needed to be expressed in some way, rather than denying it was there."

Gray didn't simply step off that white ladder into a slow-motion life: There's an in-between story, and another album, that shaped the journey. Slow to take off, "White Ladder" proved impossible to derail, keeping Gray on a perpetual tour for the next three years. Just as he was ready to reenter the studio, Gray's father, a former baker and crafts shop owner, died of cancer. The subsequent album, 2002's "A New Day at Midnight," couldn't help but reflect the songwriter's grief and emotional fragility, as well as Gray's struggle with the demands of late-blooming success and first-time fatherhood after a decade of marriage. "A New Day at Midnight" sold 4 million copies worldwide (600,000 of those stateside), but the upbeat, optimistic songs Gray had hinted at in interviews before his father's passing were replaced by mostly somber meditations and the occasional upbeat tune that never sounded particularly heartfelt.

"I unquestionably missed a beat creatively because of the demands of the touring and promoting 'White Ladder' for a prolonged period of time," Gray concedes. "There was something in the air when we were making that record, which hung around for a while, and I've no doubt that if we'd gone into the studio sooner, we might have made a record that sounded more like it was a follow-up.

"That wasn't to be," Gray says. "Obviously, my dad died and the whole turbulent nature of this final chapter of 'White Ladder' put me in a completely different frame of mind, and the stuff we had sort of hanging around just didn't seem appropriate somehow. My mood changed completely and utterly."

He adds that " everything was a bit overwhelming to me at the time. Becoming famous and losing your dad and having a child -- they're all significant things. I understandably lost my perspective a little, lost my sense of security, and I didn't quite know where I was at because the goal posts had all been moved. It was a difficult period, and it's taken me a while to adjust, but with time, things change and you get used to stuff and you adapt to things. I'm in a great place now; making this album has been an escape from all that, and I've gotten really back into the music and feel like I'm back where I should be."

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