Don't miss a special live session with singer David Gray recorded at KCRW's Apogee Sessions for a live audience. We feature an intriguing interview and a captivating performance from a favorite KCRW artist.
Visit kcrw.com/apogee to view more live sessions from Apogee Studio.
Banner Image by Larry Hirshowitz. More images here.
Jason Bentley: Thank you good sir for joining us on this chilly Los Angeles evening.
David Gray: Chilly? You must be joking!
JB: For us this is the dead of winter, so how are you?
DG: I’m alright. I’m sort of coming out of hibernation to do this. Sort of like a bear rubbing my eyes. People sort of think I do this for a living…it rings a bell.
JB: That sounds great. So there’s a little bit of KCRW folklore that I’d like to address straight away. And this is something I’ve always heard about years ago. Before your first breakthrough, and this is probably in ’93, I was told that you performed on KCRW the day of your wedding.
DG: I’ve always had a strong work ethic! She should have known she was in trouble.
JB: So that is true?
DG: It is, yeah. I got married in a wedding chapel down the block. Yeah. Yes it’s true I got married in Los Angeles and I was playing on the show that very day. Amongst other things ended a gig after that.
JB: I think you joined Trisha Halloran at that time?
DG: That’s right Trisha was doing the interview. It was a good session. It was significant, you know?
JB: So how is the family?
DG: The family? They’re, you know, mental--Which is English for “really well.” We prize “mentalness” over all other qualities. (laughs) They’re all fine!
JB: Are you looking forward to the holidays, got any big plans?
DG: I’m going to get a big Christmas Tree! Radical, I know. I’m full of ideas. Yeah, Christmas decorations and dinner, in fact. Presents I think would be good too.
JB: So it actually wasn’t too long ago that we saw you for “Draw the Line.”
DG: No, no I’m kind of thinking fast for the records these days. Yeah I guess it was sometime? I don’t know when.
JB: I think it’s been a year and some change?
DG: Yeah…I’ve lost track!
JB: Anyway, it seems like you’ve just been on the road constantly and then you also found time to put out another album?
DG: Yeah, well I mean it looks clever. And indeed it might well be! We recorded the two records at the same time so and then finished the first one and went back and finished the second one. There was a little bit of a lag between the end of the recording and anything actually coming out. There was enough time to do both things justice. I had the “Foundling” record in the can before the release of “Draw the Line.” That’s why they’ve come out so quickly it’s not like I’ve had lots of ideas.
JB: I was curious how you found the time…
DG: I’ve got no ideas whatsoever. In fact, I’ve anyone’s got any ideas I’ll gladly take them!
JB: I am curious about your ideas, your process, when you’re writing do you need to find a sort of sanctuary to get into that state of mind? Tell us a little about your process.
DG: You know it sort of never changes, but it’s always slightly different in a way. It’s always the same thing. What I think it boils down to is will. You’ve got to have the will. You really have to want to make a record. It sounds like a stupid thing to say but it’s not “I should because I can.” You’ve got to really want to make it. You have to want the song before it’s going to come and find you.
Once I’ve found my thread then I find that the ideas come quite readily. You know some songs sort of come out of thin air, almost fully formed. But most of the time it’s just bits and pieces that you pick up like a little noodle. You’ll be doing a sound check thinking, “oh I must remember that.” Then you turn that into something and you’ve got some lyrics written down somewhere, and “oh that fits with that,” and the song starts to make itself. Once you’re in the swing of things (once you’ve banished the doubts in your own head) the thing starts to congeal more readily before you. You just put things together and don’t panic about it. This is what I’ve found with time. I’m not in a songwriting kind of mood at the moment. I’m sort of coming up with a few ideas. I think I just need to recharge the batteries a bit. So that’s why I’m going on about the “will” thing. I don’t believe I’ve got the will to leap straight in right now. I’ve put a lot of effort into these two records. Songs like “Forgetting” and “Nemesis,” I feel like, went about as far out as I’ve managed to get in my lyrics. And also musically the space we’ve managed to find in them. It’s a challenge now to find something of the same intensity in a different direction.
JB: Is that your goal?
DG: Of course you want to get further out there. You want to “get to the good stuff,” again. I don’t know if it’s about better and best and I don’t know if it’s a path of constant improvement. It isn’t really, is it? When you look at someone’s career and say “oh that bit was good.” “I sort of lost them there.” “I really liked this bit.” You’re not going upwards toward the zenith, but you sort of pick things up along the way. And they’re useful little tricks to get into a good spot with the music. Like I say, it just comes down to wanting it in the end.
JB: A lot of your material, it seems so personal. You're going into a deeper level in your song writing and I’m wondering if you ever have to kind of pull back and think “No, can’t go there?”
DG: Yeah, well I do occasionally. I guess--it’s a strange thing because music, is an emotional substance. It’s the mathematics of emotion. If we just play a few notes and then somebody adds a little harmony note off the top then it immediately builds to something. Then the rhythm comes in so already there’s an emotion in the song. We’re not really putting it there. We’re just moving our fingers, you know what I mean? You project emotion on to it, it starts to tell an emotional story straight away. When you try to write a lyric you just try to understand what that is. You're trying to get a grip of that. “Where’s this going?” “Which direction is it trying to take me?” “What’s the story I’ve got to tell?” All I’ve been doing is bloody touring! It’s not that interesting to talk about. So to answer your question I do pull back a little bit. I think sometimes it can be quite a little bit scary like “Wow, I don’t know if I want to put all that out there.” It’s just, like, raw vomit. It needs a bit of editing.
JB: Collaboration. There are a couple of really key collaborations. On “Draw the Line” for instance, and one of my favorites is Kathleen which is a song that has really stayed with me. That’s a song you ended up doing with Jolie Holland from The Be Good Tanyas. How important is collaboration to you and your process?
DG: Well it’s a pretty new thing. I think you’ve got to be pretty comfortable where you’re at to really make it work. You know people are very nervous. Jolie’s cut loads of great songs and has written a lot of great songs and yet we were both sort of nervous in the studio. It took a little while--well basically I’m so bossy that I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. “That’s lovely but could we just try it again?” That’s basically what it boils down to. I hear something, and I wanted it to be the way that I hear it! She’s a very difficult person to mold in that way. She never just sings the line the same two times in a row. But that’s also what is brilliant about her. So in the end it ended up being three-quarters of the way towards what I had in mind. Then she took it somewhere even better. All I could hear when we were in the studio working on the track was “God, is this what it should be?” I had the real concrete idea, in fact, I had worked all the parts out. I just wanted someone else’s voice. Then something better happened because of her bluesy way, and the way she phrases everything. She took a few things down instead of up. It’s just lovely the flavor of it. That’s the wonderful thing, she’s got a unique voice in that way. So it ended up great, but it wasn’t easy. I think it was the first time I’d ever worked on a track with someone I really respected. I just realized how incredibly bossy I am, telling everyone what to do all the time.
JB: You’ve also brought Annie Lennox around. Somehow I can’t see you being bossy with her.
DG: No, she’s a different proposition to be sure. But you know…she needed to be told. (laughs)
Again, I think the thing about Annie is that she was much more confident and has been in so many different places and done so many different things that she just sort of leveled with me straight away. “I’m just going to do my thing and if you hear something you like just tell me and we can work on that and if I come up with stuff and you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter. That’s just the way that I work.” It was good, that was the first thing she said then we got into it. Before we had properly started working on the song she was already coming up with backing vocal ideas and stuff. It became a really creative thing but one thing that was obvious from the word “go” was that she absolutely wanted it to be as good as it should be. She loved the song, so she wanted it to be right. She came back for a second day because she wasn’t happy and we did again.
JB: And she was also very familiar with that environment. That studio had been the Eurhythmics studio.
DG: Yeah! It was a nice vibe to come back. I mean, not that I even know what the Eurhythmics story even is but obviously it’s this mixed bag isn’t it?
JB: Just to clarify, you bought the studio off of Dave Stewart.
DG: I did, that was a smart move, you know?
“Hey investors, come to me! I’ll direct your cash into a nice safe haven: the recording industry! Watch it sink without a trace.” Yeah, I bought the studio of off Dave Stewart when I was flush with success. I obviously wanted somewhere to work. I wanted somewhere where I could expand my ideas and learn more about the process. I mean this is a proper place, this is a beautiful place. It was great for her; she said she really enjoyed being back. So it was a thrill to have her there.
JB: So continuing with our David Gray songwriter’s workshop here, I’m curious if you draw inspiration from anything potentially? Could it be film? Could it be something you’re reading?
DG: Of course! Everything. A conversation you hear on the bus, or on the tube. Anything you see, think, feel or someone else says they’ve seen that you can imagine. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just something that sticks in your head. You know it’s like all these things are sticking to you all the time and you don’t even realize it. All these like little shreds of thought and feeling that accumulate constantly. It’s quite surprising sometimes what comes to you, when you really need something in a song. The image that’s going to be like a little glowing ember right in the center of the song where everyone can just go “God I can see that!” Then they’re there and they think the song is real. The trick is complete. So you know it’s anything and everything.
JB: What are you listening to or watching or reading right now that’s of note?
DG: I’m hugely into this book called The Peregrine by J.A. Baker and he’s basically this writer who just did this one book with one follow up. This is the late 60’s when peregrine falcons were dying out and this guy just followed them around. The book is more than just a document of the birds. He is just obsessed and he’s becoming more falcon as the book goes along to the point where he’s starting to feel like a falcon. He’s spending so long watching them every singe day. Anyway, it’s just the most lyrical prose. It’s right up my alley! In the introduction it says “a book in which nothing happens again and again.” I thought, “This is for me, I love this!” But it’s not for everybody, it’s not a page turner, it’s not one for the pool on your holidays. But I’m obsessed with this book and I’ve been trying hard to buy his other book online ever since I got into this one. I must have bought thirty copies of this book and given them away. You can get it over here, it was first reissued here in America by New York Review of Books or something. Now they’ve done a hard back which has all of his stuff his diaries his everything’s in it. But no one knows anything about him. He basically got a lot of acclaim when this book came out from certain quarters. Obviously, he was never going to be the next big thing so he just sort of did his thing and disappeared and stopped writing and that was it. He’s sort of this little enigma; no one really knows anything about him. He just talks about this part of England, Essex, just east of London. No one would think of it as an attractive place but it somehow becomes just quite wonderful under his pen. It’s just observation of the highest order. It’s as good as Melville, it’s as good as Moby Dick. It’s so on the money. So anyway, that’s the shit that I’m into.
JB: So you’ve come out here for a couple of specific shows, including this one, so you’re not really on tour. But the last time you were in Los Angeles you performed with Ray LaMontagne at the Greek. How was that tour for you? Was it a good one?
DG: Ah we had a great time, the sun was shinning, the music was shinning…
JB: He’s a bit strange though…
DG: He’s not strange at all, he’s a very sensitive soul he’s easily unraveled by things not going how he wants them to.
JB: I billed that as the ultimate date night, that show. I even encouraged gentlemen to take their dates in a horse-drawn carriage to the show.
DG: He was a real gent though actually on the whole thing and we did a few songs together on it. He wasn’t always up for it depending on what mood he was in.
JB: You guys performed songs together?
DG: Yeah we did “Dig a Pony” by the Beatles and a couple of times we did “In the Morning,” which was fantastic and an adventure. It was brilliant. I think the tour was brilliant. It was great because his band was amazing but they didn’t tread on our toes in any way. The way they sculpt their sound and the sort of swampy sort of Americana that’s his bag, but it wasn’t where we were. The two things just worked. They breathed. The whole set just breathed really well and it seemed so complimentary. It was fantastic. It was great to see so many people out there. The second Greek show, not that I’m saying anything was wrong with the first, but the second Greek show as one of the best shows I remember doing. Yeah, it was weird, like some nights the fingers were going into the right places the notes were all there. I had some trouble with my voice during the tour. I nearly lost my voice. God knows how I kept going through the whole thing. By the time I got to LA it was bad. And the finishing line was in sight and it was like “yeah, come on!”
JB: Well before we get into your second set this evening, what can we look forward to next year?
DG: Well, we’ve got the “Foundling” record so we’re going to do a “Foundling” Tour. And I’m thinking of calling it “Lost and Found.” I just want people to know it’s going to be a completely different thing. It’s not going to be a greatest hits show. It’s going to be more like a live recording session in a sort of posh theater. So everything will be mic-ed up so it will be much, much quieter. It won’t be a rock show. It will be you know, harmonium cello, mandolin. It will be all stringed instruments, real piano. It will just be a very pristine sort of fiber we’re weaving musically. It’s going to be very different. So that’s in February/March of next year. We’ve got some dates which we’re just about to confirm. Unfortunately, Carnegie Hall wasn’t available. It’s having a renovation job or something at the moment. But that’s the kind of places we wanted to play at. So where ever possible that makes it a bit more of an occasion and the people aren’t expecting a rock show but I don’t know whether we can get the venues, at this late notice, that we wanted.
JB: I believe I speak for everyone here in thanking you so much for taking the time and performing for us. Without further adieu let’s get into your second set, David Gray.
DG: Thank you.