David Gray, the multi-platinum selling British artist, was one of the headline acts at Jazz Fest 2016, held in Dubai’s Media City. He spoke about the highs and lows of his creative process and why he always feels young at heart
No one was telling us that White Ladder was going to be a success and even as we made it we didn’t get that sense either. You see artists these days who seem to receive validation and recognition through the media that they will be ‘the next big thing’. That was never around in my early career. So, success kind of happened by accident and I put that down to the work. For the first time, it sounded like something we were making was more than the sum of my influences. It sounded like something of its time and we were proud of it.
I will always cherish… the first show I played in Dublin. It was amazing because it was sold out – a rarity - and the audience gave me a bigger roar going on to the stage than I’d ever had coming off one. It was a ‘love at first sight’ experience that ended up playing a huge role in my music getting across to the wider world.
There’s nothing better than that moment on stage when you are not you anymore. You’re just kind of operating the music. Everything is existing outside you. The band, the crowd, the moment. It’s what I strive for.
Playing Madison Square Garden (MSG) was simply incredible… it was an audacious play to do the show, but all the audience seemed to be in on it. We were almost ‘cheeky’ trying to play this incredible venue and the whole of New York came along to see if we could pull it off.
At a lot of big shows there’s nothing backstage but a big barn. At MSG, they’ve got the pictures of everything that has happened there. From President Nixon to Muhammed Ali, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra. We walked down this corridor to the stage looking at all these legendary moments and then realised that we were just about to walk out there and do our gig. That was a scary, yet amazing, moment.
I was sick of myself when I last went back in the studio… if you keep making music long enough you face the problem of repeating yourself and that’s what I’m talking about when I say I’m getting bored. Making the same kind of music in the same kind of way and getting sick of your own voice. It requires some ingenuity and openness to find other ways to prise open new songs and new sounds that throw a different light on what you’re doing.
So, I’m always looking for different ways to write music because I get restless doing the same thing. It’s not enough just to make a record because you can. You have to really need to and want to. And, for me, I need to feel like I’m going outwards and discovering and not just staying in the same place.
I’ve visited Dubai three times… I still haven’t managed to make it out into the desert yet and I would really love to. I want to get out there and do some falconry and a bit of dinner out in the dunes. I’ve been on a camel once before. The camel didn’t like the look of me and tried to bite me. So, I’d probably skip that this time around and chill out under the stars.
I get a sense that something is about to happen when I’m writing. I love that feeling. The sense of something new emerging on the horizon. That process of building and shaping something and not knowing what it is until you are finished. I find now that inspiration can come from anywhere. A sound, a rhythm or even something I overhear on the bus. ‘I should never have given him the car keys, I should never have given him the car keys’… and it sticks in my head. I just don’t know where the music is going to spring from these days.
I gave my last producer the brief to ‘challenge me’. And he did on many levels. He drove me completely mad, actually. But that was necessary if I wasn’t going to repeat myself. He forced me way out of my comfort zone and it was stressful because it's easy to knock things down, but when you have absolutely no idea of what is to replace it then that is a harrowing and haunting place.
I’m approaching 50… and I still don’t know what I’m doing. No matter how old you are, you still feel young. You don’t think of yourself as old – at least I don’t, thankfully. It does mean, however, that I also feel I don’t have any wisdom to impart…