British musician David Gray is on the first rung to pop stardom
In 1998, David Gray finished an album that was markedly different from his previous three releases. Working with his bandmate and drummer, Clune, the pair spent months in a small makeshift studio in Gray’s London apartment, creating the music for a release they titled ‘White Ladder.’
After it was finished, the only thing left to do was convince a record label to distribute the work.
‘I remember my manager took it to a couple of people, bigwigs, that he knows,’ Gray says during a phone interview from his home in London. ‘And they said, ‘Yeah, not bad, a few good songs, but you’re never going to get them on the radio.”
The songs in question were ‘Please Forgive Me’ and ‘Babylon,’ which became massive hits in the U.K. Although it took a while, Gray’s star finally ascended last year here in the United States, when ‘White Ladder’ became a word-of-mouth phenomenon among the Borders/Starbucks/public-radio demographic.
‘I had a feeling it was the best thing I’d ever done, but to imagine it would become successful was another leap of imagination,’ he says. ‘Perhaps a more difficult one bearing in mind the sort of indifference I’d weathered up to that point.’
The greatest musicians – from John Lennon and Bob Dylan through Kurt Cobain – have always possessed a certain swagger, a confidence if you will, borne from an unwavering belief in their abilities.
When David Gray first performed onstage, he too believed in his talents. First as a teen-ager with The Prawns (who were later renamed The Vacuums) and then in college with Waiting for Deffo, Gray knew he had something to say, even as those bands were destined to become minor footnotes in his career.
‘I think I was a fairly self-confident young man,’ he says. ‘Just being up onstage gave me probably the first idea of really wanting to do it. That, and that certain people really liked it. It was most heartening that people who had no vested interest in me would say ‘I really like your stuff, can you do me a tape?’ I guess that aided my self-confidence.’
Much later, friends exchanging Gray’s tapes and discs would become a crucial element of his stateside success. But there was nearly a decade’s worth of frustration ahead of him after he attended the Liverpool College of Art – a dry spell during which he achieved no more than cult status in his native land and something less than that in the United States. Only in Ireland could Gray count on drawing an audience that amounted to much more than a small gathering of friends on a street corner.
At his lowest point, however, Gray found the magic that had so long eluded him.
His name is Clune – just Clune, thank you – and he has a lot to do with why Gray’s life radically changed last year. When the pair started the ‘White Ladder’ sessions, Gray’s idea was to create a ‘journey from the first drumbeat to the very last chord of the whole thing,’ he says. ‘Nothing to stand out, like, what the hell’s that doing thereâ¢ No filler tracks.’
Enter Clune. He brought to the studio ideas about rhythms and beats that were more common to hip-hop and dance music than folk and rock recordings. Gray previously had been heavily influenced by his musical heroes: Dylan, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. But the vestiges of folkish grand statements were replaced by a spare, almost ethereal sound that seems incredibly simple at first listen.
‘I think Clune’s take on music is always understated,’ Gray says. ‘To use the least possible means to achieve whatever we needed. So we kept things as simple as we could. Basically, our vibe was it should sound big with just the drums, the bass, the voice and the guitar. You shouldn’t feel like you need a load of stuff to make it feel better.’
The sessions were exchanges of ideas, an ongoing process of experimentation. Clune would bring in a beat and Gray would write some chords on top of it, or Gray would share a melody and Clune would suggest an accompanying bass line.
A somewhat humbling realization occurred, Gray admits: Maybe there was another reason – beyond poor record company management – that his first three albums sold a mere 19,600 copies.
‘I started to confront the fact that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing regarding vast tracts of the musical landscape,’ he says, ‘from the technical side of what the hell was going on in the studio, to the drums and the bass line and putting those things together.’
Fortunately, Clune knew those things. And fortunately, Gray’s confidence was bolstered by friends and confidants.
‘When we finished, we had a small party for the people who had been involved with it,’ Gray says. ‘We were playing it for people, and people across the board just loved it. I was just incredibly excited, proud and satisfied that we finally did something that did justice to our talents, and that something had finally clicked.’
There was one question left: Would anyone beyond Gray’s immediate circle ever get the chance to hear ‘White Ladder’?
After failing to find a distributor, Gray decided to put the record out with his manager, Rob Holden, on a label they called IHT – an anagram for hit, something he’d never come close to having. It was, he says, the best decision he ever made, even as he admits it was really the only option he had after the so-called ‘bigwigs’ rejected him.
‘I didn’t want anyone coming between me and the truth,’ he says. ‘If people didn’t like it, if radio didn’t want to play it, if journalists thought it was (crap), then I wanted to know. I didn’t want someone telling me the record was over three months after I put it out.
‘And remarkably, none of those three things happened.’
‘White Ladder’ first took hold in Gray’s only stronghold, Ireland, where it debuted in November of 1998. In a year’s time, it had sold 100,000 copies in the Emerald Isle, and in early 2000 a Warner Bros. U.K. imprint, Eastwest, took a flyer on the album. Soon after, Dave Matthews, who’d long admired Gray and used him as an opening act in the mid-1990s, selected ‘White Ladder’ for Matthews’ ATO label.
Slowly, the strange little spare album that could actually did. And Gray couldn’t be happier that the way ‘White Ladder’ became a phenomenon was not through glowing reviews in the press, nor massive promotion. No, somehow, ‘White Ladder’ succeeded on its own merits: the blood, sweat and tears of his and Clune’s work.
‘The fact that it seems to be a people-power kind of thing, that was brilliant, a sort of great delight,’ he says. ‘And I think that’s led to the longevity of it, really, ’cause I think it still works that way. It’s the kind of record that people discover and tell their friends about, you know, ‘Check it out, yeah, yeah, I liked it, too. It’s useful at dinner parties, excellent at barbecues.”
Gray laughs heartily at this last remark, and then reveals the true secret of ‘White Ladder’: ‘Actually, I don’t know how it all worked.’
Regis Behe can be reached at (412) 320-7990 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Pittsburgh’s WYEP-FM is one of the few radio stations in the country to debut artists before commercial success.
When he’s told there’s a radio station in Pittsburgh that plays his songs, musician Richard Thompson has a quick response.
‘If you’ve something like that, you should be very thankful,’ he said recently during an interview. ‘There’s only a few stations like that in the country.’
The station in question is WYEP-FM – 91.3 on the dial if it’s not preset on your car radio.
According to general manager Lee Ferraro, about 70,000 music lovers per week tune in to the public station to hear St. Germain, Olu Daru, The Dandy Warhols and Over the Rhine, along with more familiar musicians including Paul Simon, U2 and The Dave Matthews Band.
‘I think a lot of artists, the first time you heard them was here,’ says music director Rosemary Welsch, noting that Sheryl Crow, Paula Cole and David Gray are among the acts featured on the station long before they reached wider audiences on commercial radio.
If WYEP has any resemblance to commercial formats, it’s Adult Album Alternative (AAA), which features rock, folk and some alternative and country artists. But the overriding factor for airplay, Ferraro and Welsch say, transcends categorization.
‘I think what I like to hear is an artist speaking with their own voice,’ Ferraro says. ‘An artist making music because they have to make it, not making music they have to make.’
‘The bottom line is always the writing: What’s the writing about?’ Welsch adds. ‘And writing can be deceptively simple and be a great song. Lucinda Williams, she can say something very intense, but in very simple terms.’
Perhaps the highest accolades the station receives are from the musicians who visit and perform on the air, such as Gray, Jill Sobule and Matthew Sweet.
Then there’s Dar Williams, who actually called on her cell phone to join the station as a member while driving through the area.
‘There’s really a dedicated group of people who work hard to keep the channels of communication open for artists like myself,’ Williams said. ‘I can list to you maybe 10 stations in the country that play the kind of music that’s diverse and has variety, and WYEP is one of them. They’re out of the norm.’