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."
That was true on another level, as well. For the first time since his 1993 debut, "A Century Ends," Gray turned to an outside producer. Ironically, although his first choice didn't work out, he still turned out to be a great counselor.
That would be Daniel Lanois (U2, Dylan, Emmylou Harris), who was trying to finish his own album but still came to London to spend a day with Gray and subsequently followed up with many phone calls. According to Gray, Lanois didn't suggest a specific producer but said, "Whoever you use for this project, you need someone with a real strong musicality, someone who's going to bring their musicianship and their melodic development into your music, rather than someone who's just going to execute well technically."
That someone turned out to be Marius DeVries, who has worked with Bjork and Rufus Wainwright, as well as U2, David Bowie and Madonna. DeVries, who also did the giddily over-the-top "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack, had worked with Gray on another "White Ladder" hit, "Sail Away."
"Marius's philosophy is, more is more, mine is, less is more, and it was a great challenge to try and make the most of both these points of view," Gray admits with a chuckle. "Some of the songs you hear fully fledged on the record -- 'Alibi,' 'Slow Motion' -- I could just sense the arrangements that were waiting late in the writing process. And I knew Marius was a wiz kid when it came to orchestrating and arranging things -- he was in his element once there's strings and horn sections and choirs -- and he just took us miles further than we'd ever been before. Where we were ready to stop, thinking we'd done a good job, he'd think we were just getting started. It was great working on the more symphonic elements of some of the songs with him -- that's where his imprint is strongest."
But there were already significant changes on the songwriting front, Gray points out, inspired by a second fortuitous film commission. The first had been for 1999's "This Year's Love," and several of its songs ended up on "White Ladder." In 2003, Gray was drafted for "A Way of Life," a critically acclaimed film set in South Wales (where the Manchester-born Gray was raised) against a backdrop of poverty, racism and familial turmoil. It allowed Gray to step away from his natural inclination to unflinchingly personal writing toward an outsider's more observational point of view. The new album's "Ain't No Love" and "From Here You Can Almost See the Sea" first surfaced on the soundtrack.
"After 'A New Day at Midnight,' which was about as personal as I would care to get, I was looking for other ways to start writing songs. You make a record about staring into your heart and seeing that it's got a great big crack down the middle of it because somebody's just died, well, you can't make a record about the crack getting smaller," Gray explains.
"It was a coincidence that being asked to write for the film just gave me a perfect beginning because I immediately had to see the world through these characters' eyes. It was an inspiring situation, a well-written script and I knew some of the places being mentioned, knew exactly what was going on there, and the songs just came as if from nowhere and started me off in this slightly third person. I've used that as a technique before in the past, but it just sort of carried on. Not only that, but the slightly filmic approach to the music carried on into the album, and it was a device that I certainly employed liberally. It's not in use in every song, but I needed a different approach this time around."
That includes a still-emerging songwriting approach that explores sound rather than song.
"That's more and more the way I'm leaning," says Gray, "with less weight on the lyrics and more on the mood of the song. The sound of the music is becoming more eloquent in my sort of songwriting style. I still write 'story songs,' narrative songs -- that tradition won't leave me, it's so embedded that it just keeps coming up -- but I'm more and more fascinated by the more abstract approach, where the mood of the music and the sounds you use seem to tell the story before you've even got going, and it's just about hanging some images in amongst that and taking it a little bit further with the lyrics than you can with just the music."
As a result, Gray notes with irony, "I'm becoming much more interested in the studio as a tool. I've come from someone with a total fear of recording to someone who's embracing it now, and that's what the sound of this record is, as well."
It's also a way to address the limitations of success.
"I don't think I had any sort of hunch about what it would be like to be successful," Gray says. "The same challenges arise, except in different guises. Success grants you everything you could have wished for but at the same time threatens to take it away on a long-term basis -- 'Taste this' -- and then quickly whips it off. You realize the stakes suddenly change, the whole game alters, when success comes, and the way that I see it, you can be sort of imprisoned by it. You have a hit record, and that's basically you -- end of story. You are that small paragraph until you can do something to change that. What drives me more than anything else is my desire to free myself from that and redefine myself in a way that I can remain vital in a musical sense, remain interested and interesting."
DAVID GRAY -- Appearing Monday at Constitution Hall.