When David Gray initially picked up the phone to talk with Paste recently, there was no better word to describe his tone than "weary." He admitted that he was exhausted from traveling—he took the call in a hotel room in Germany, just one stop of many—but it could have been from any great number of things. It's been four years since the singer/songwriter has released a studio album, but that doesn't mean he's been sitting still. Gray perked up as he talked about what's been keeping him so busy—including rediscovering his sound with the help of his new band and his very brief exchange of letters with Dolly Parton, both of which were integral to producing his upcoming release, Draw The Line (out Sept. 22 on Mercer/Downtown Records)—and gave us a little glimpse into his life before he really made it.
What does the expression “draw the line” really means to you?
David Gray: I deliberated over the title. I always do. It just seemed to say everything I needed to say about this record, really. I like it that it’s “draw the line” as in make the mark, make your creative mark...but also to draw the line, it ends here, and something else starts. There’s a sort of slightly confrontational lurch to it. [A] no compromise, "don’t fuck me" sort of thing. It’s not overly stated, but all that stuff is in the statement. So it sort of sums up where I am. It’s like a positive start, and an end of something. An end of one conversation, and the start of something else. And all the other sort of meanings you can throw at it. It just seemed like a succinct way to title the record.
Paste: So is “Draw The Line” your favorite track off the record, personally, or is that the expression that spoke to you?
Gray: It was an important track. It was the first time with the new lineup, which is what this record was really all about, changing everything and starting again. For a while, we were finding our feet. I had a lot of new songs I’d written and I was playing them for the band and they were joining it. It was a sort of time-honored fashion. But while we were working on one in the studio, we were struggling with it, in a sort of little off moment, this little jam started up, which was the riff of “Draw The Line.” I started playing that, and the bass player joined in straightaway with his riff, and I just began to sing “Draw The Line.” And then we were all playing along and I thought, “There’s really something here.” It was close to the end of the day, so I said, “Give me a tape of that and I’ll take it home and see what I can do with it.” And I took it home and I became sort of obsessed by this thing and I wrote like the devil, basically, all night, virtually. It was like I was getting things off my chest that I’d wanted to say for years. There’s a sort of lurch to the new band that allowed me to find a voice I thought I’d lost—I don’t know, I can’t find the right words, but more confrontational, more political. There were just other voices rather than the intensely personal that I used to have and have been slightly lost to me. I haven’t been able to find a musical vehicle to express—anyway, suddenly it was there.
We came in the next morning and I said, “Right, forget all the other stuff we were going to do. We’re just gonna do this song.” We just about able to do it before I completely evaporated into my own hyper sort of state. When I heard it back through the speakers, I thought, “This is it. This is the start of the new thing. The album starts here.” It really set the standard for what had to come. It was so fresh; we caught it when it was still loads of sheets of paper and extra verses and everything. We somehow managed to hack it into some kind of shape. It signaled the start of the whole thing. It’s a song that I hold dear, and also a significant song. It’s got a little bit of a glint in its eye, the title, and that’s how I feel. I feel I’m looking the world right in the eye with this record and going, “Well, fuck off, then.” [laughs]
Paste: I’ve heard that part of the inspiration for “Fugitive” was an image that you’d had of Saddam Hussein.
Gray: Yeah, this has been a bit blown out of all proportion...You’ve got to be careful because the words “Saddam Hussein” often have immediate interest and immediate impact. You know that news footage of when they found in a hole in the ground? Well, obviously, the first line of my song is, “Crouched in a hole like a mud-streaked fugitive.” I just had this [image that] shot through my mind as I wrote it. It’s not really what the song is about. I think the song is along slightly different lines.
Paste: Right. But do you often use current events or politics as a sort of inspiration, even if the songs themselves aren’t overtly political?
Gray: Yeah. I mean, you use anything and everything at your disposal... My camera angles have been dimly lit interiors. I’ve been in the realm of the sort of intensely personal for a few records, at least. But suddenly, that seems to have switched over again. The front door got kicked open and I’m like roving through the streets like some sort of mad-man photographer, just taking snapshots of anything and everything to feed into the music. So that’s sort of how I feel about it all.
Paste: On the new album, you have two collaborations ["Kathleen" with Jolie Holland and "Full Steam Ahead" with Annie Lennox]. When you’re writing a duet, do you hear the other person’s voice, or do you write it and then fill it in with the voice later and have it kind of evolve, depending on who ends up working with you?
Gray: Exactly, yeah. It’s more the latter. When the Jolie Holland track came out, I thought, “This is so country” when I sang the backing vocal myself. I thought, “I have to get Dolly Parton to sing it. It has to be Dolly!” [laughs] I sent this lovely letter to her because there’s a track she does with Chet Atkins called “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” which I just absolutely love. I did all this “I love you, Dolly” kind of letter: “Will you please listen to my song; it would be amazing if…” I sent it over to the office. It was late on a Thursday night and I said, “I’ve written this letter to Dolly and I don’t know what you think.” But they sent it without my approval. I rang up first thing the next morning and said, “Hey, you know that letter? Don’t send it! I’ve got a couple of amendments to make.” They said, “Too late. We sent it last night, and we’ve already had the reply. Dolly’s busy for the next five years.” [laughs] So I think that answers your questions about fantasizing about who’s going to sing on it. Dolly’s busy for five years—five! I’d like to work with her when she’s 80. But anyway, we put that to one side. And then, it just so happened that two days later, Jolie Holland was in town. And I said, “Christ! She could sing it. That’s who can sing this—Jolie! If anyone’s got sort of a natural, sort of country, bluesy kind of voice, it’s her. We’ve got to get Jolie.” So I went to see her. She did an amazing show in London, and she’s so sweet. She’s a lovely, natural person. She just said, “Oh, yeah, yeah,” and she made some time and came down to the studio and did it. She did a much better job than the one I had in store for her. It’s very hard to make her sing in a straight line. She just did her own thing, you know?
Paste: So other than Dolly Parton, do you have anyone on your collaboration wish list?
Gray: No. What’s lovely about what happened on this record was that it was completely unpremeditated. And Annie Lennox, that was another huge thing. It was really just, "Who could sing this?" I needed someone with a really strong voice because otherwise they would just sound silly next to mine. My voice just foghorns out in such a way that you have to have a strong voice to sit next to it. No, I don’t have a collaboration wish list. There are so many people, I love their voices, from Lucinda Williams to even Robert Smith of The Cure. That would be a good one. You know, you just have to see what happens. You don’t know who you might meet somewhere or what song you might write or whatever. The Annie thing was a delight, as well. She manages to sing these kind of angsty lyrics and suddenly make it seem like fun. It’s great. It’s like a Trojan Horse effect. You get swept along by the song before you really realize what it’s all about. But I think if I’d gotten some other worthy male singer to sing it in a Righteous Brothers style, I think it would have probably sunk under its own weight.
Paste: So you’re starting your tour up again soon. I know it's exhausting, but what is your favorite part of being on the road?
Gray: The deli trays. It has to be the deli trays.
Paste: [laughs] Everywhere you go, the deli trays are good, or do some places have better ones than others?
Gray: You know, as long as the ham fits the bread and there are anchovies inside all the olives, we’re fine... [laughs] Obviously, the gigs are the best part of the entire job. But with commitment to play in cities all over the world for like 18 months, you’re making a big step. It’s a big commitment. There’s no balance in my life. It’s either working in the studio or I’m on the road. The gaps in between, I spend with my family. It’s a big commitment to say, “Oh, I’m going to go all out for this record.” But that’s exactly what I’m gonna do, so I’m going to be doing a big ol’ tour with this one.
Paste: When you were younger, you did some work with punk, correct?
Gray: I had punky bands... It was great fun.
Paste: I feel like a lot of people would be surprised to hear that, given the type of music you’re best known for now. Are you still influenced by that kind of music, is that something you’re still into or something you’d consider doing down the line, maybe?
Gray: I think I would just sound ridiculous. It was fun when I was 16, 17, 18, 19. But when I came to write my own stuff, it wasn’t like that at all. I was having a ball. There’s nothing that’s more fun than making a ridiculously loud noise and annoying everybody when you’re that age. It was hilarious; you just have all those in-jokes and it was great fun. But it was just sort of rites of passage. We could all barely play our instruments, we barely had any equipment, we just made as loud a noise as we could all possibly make and had a hilarious time. … I don’t think it’s going to rear its head again. [laughs] What I do is quite different. But I guess there’s a little punky element within me. There’s a few jags and spikes. I’m not a cozy, cuddly little ball.
Paste: Is that 16-year-old David Gray still dying to get out sometimes and just make really loud noises?
Paste: Do you still listen to punk on your own time?
Gray: Well, I just listen to just about everything, to be honest. I’ve got quite, sort of, Catholic tastes really, so it’s whatever. I think there’s a kind of music that registers particularly intensely with me. Records like Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen or Astral Weeks [by Van Morrison] or Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk. There’s a certain kind of record that’s very much in my domain—or Hejira by Joni Mitchell, Pink Moon by Nick Drake—there’s certain kinds of things that are very much up my alley, my favorite things, because they have really changed me, I suppose. There’s all the other stuff, like Slave to the Rhythm [by Grace Jones] or Frank Sinatra or, you know, Public Image Ltd., that I love listening to, but it doesn’t really find that much of a voice in my own music. Maybe in some very subtle ways it might.