U.K. singer-songwriter David Gray first invaded mainstream American airspace in 2000, when "White Ladder," an album he'd recorded two years earlier, suddenly exploded, buoyed by acoustic-rock anthems-in-waiting like "Babylon" and "Sail Away" (and backed by Dave Matthews' then-new ATO label). Gray's sound, rooted in folk-rock but usually involving effect-massaged acoustic instruments balanced out by electronically inspired grooves, finds echoes in the music of James Blake, James Blunt and Bon Iver — even LeAnn Rimes, who joined Gray onstage during the tour opener in Phoenix.
This summer, Gray released "Mutineers," his first studio album in four years, in spectacular fashion: by performing the whole record at every show on his spring tour. CTNow spoke to Gray by phone about leaning heavily on his new material in concert while negotiating fan expectations. He'll perform at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on Sunday, Oct. 5.
CTNow: Back in April, you opened your tour by performing the entire "Mutineers" album to a sold-out Los Angeles crowd. What was that experience like?
DG: For the whole of the first run that, which was eight or nine shows, I played the whole album every night. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I didn't want to just throw a couple of new songs in and then play the old stuff, and I couldn't see how I could cut back and forth, because once you've pressed the nostalgia button, it's hard to backtrack and make people listen to something they don't know. So I just decided, right, these songs are strong enough and stand out, let's just sing the album, and when it's done we can go back and play some of the old songs that everyone's been waiting to hear. It worked incredibly well, in fact. We had a phenomenal reaction, really. I think it's a credit to the record itself, and the songs themselves. They stood out. It was a testament to how I felt about the record. It was something I wanted to put across, and I was basically saying that I meant business, and this is the music that was in me now.
CTNow: I assume this is the first time you've ever done any sort of presentation like that.
DG: Yeah. At the first night in Los Angeles, we'd never actually played through the songs consecutively. We'd only done them individually. And for technical reasons, we intended to have a rehearsal the day before when we were going to do just that, but we didn't actually get one because things went wrong with the equipment. Opening night was the first-ever run through the songs. And it was very sweet. The audience knows when something's really going down. "This is the real deal, these boys don't know what they're doing" [laughs]. It was infectious, and [the audience] really came on board. It was very, very sweet.
CTNow: Will you still perform the full album on this leg of the tour? I know you're folding in a lot of the new songs.
DG: I do about eight, nine, 10 new songs every night, and then about 10, 11, 12 old songs. I mix it up more than I did. But I find the best thing is to set off with a good round half-dozen of the new songs, and then change up to go back through some older stuff, and then come out into some new stuff. I push the big buttons at the end. That's the arc that I'm finding is most successful, although I'm always mixing things up. I never do the same mix twice. But I try and get at least nine or 10 new songs.
CTNow: For a performer, it must be just a joy for you to play the new stuff, but at the same time you do have those audience expectations. It sounds like you figured out a way to navigate those.
DG: It's always a negotiation. That's what playing live is: a negotiation between the familiar and the passion within you to play the way you feel the music now, the new music. So it's a negotiation with the crowd. But you can't gratify everybody too much, otherwise it's what they'll come to expect. You make your own bed and then you've got to lie in it. So, I believe in pushing the boat out. "Brave" is a word you could probably use. "Foolish" would be another.
Some nights the audience seems much more familiar with the new stuff, and that makes it that much easier. Other nights, less so. It's like, I don't know why, but it could be down to a radio station that's just not played your single very much. You know, and it's a struggle out there, to get the airplay and the new music across. It's been very well received by those who've heard it, but to get it out to the people who are more casually involved, to the public... It's different every night. I can change a set onstage, which I often do, if I sense that maybe we need to change our approach a little bit.
CTNow: How will that most often materialize? Will you throw in an uptempo kind of song where there might be some energy flagging?
DG: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah. We'll just play it safer, basically. ... The momentum of the set, it's the sense of momentum you have, so sometimes it will apply together perfectly, one song spits out of the back of the last. And there's a sort of continuum, the emotions seem to carry from one song into the next, and I'm completely in the moment of the night, and I'm trying to work the audience out a bit. It could be Friday night, they could be drunk, it could be Tuesday, they could be… You know. I don't know, very very quiet. It's always different.
CTNow: Not many bands that can pull off the dynamic range that is required of your music — the lows, the peaks, the cello, piano, and so on — in large venues. What are some of the challenges?
DG: Yeah, well it's still a learning curve. You know, unquestionably, I've come through an awful lot since I first started playing big places. And the confidence that you don't need to make a big noise in a big place, it's hard-won. You need to have actually experienced that, how strong it can be when you take it right down and draw everybody in. But, you know, you really need to know what you're doing. So it's a constant evolution. It might depend on the record I'm making at the certain time. ["Mutineers"] has quite a lot of energy to it. There's plenty of things I could take up, but the show is never complete for me unless I can get the thrill of quiet stuff.
That's what the whole thing is for, that moment when we take it right down. That's the best moment in the set, as far as I'm concerned. And if it doesn't come off because the audience is too noisy, it's always a disappointment to me... It's like ambrosia, it's nectar, that stuff when you can hear a pin drop and you're shaping the music with beautiful, subtle flavors. It's like cirrus clouds drifting across the sky, as opposed to great big rolling cumulus. It's like all of there detail that's suddenly there, where there's a cello just breathily sketching in some notes or droning away: it's that dynamic when we take it down. It's a celestial realm I yearn for. And it has to be expressed in the show or I'm always disappointed, I don't want to just be pushing the big button. For me it's all about getting down. It's not just a dynamic range. I want to be free of what's in my head. I want to be improvising, making it up, feeling completely inside the music transcending myself. That's where I'm aiming to get to every night. You can't make it happen every night. It doesn't work out that way. Sometimes you just got to do the best job you can. The sound might be terrible. The audience might be weird. The venue might be wrong. You might be ill. You've got to do the best you can under the circumstances, and that's what makes the job interesting. But I'm always looking to that point that I can take the music down, really down, so every word really has its full weight.
DAVID GRAY performs on Sunday, Oct. 5 at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $43-$53. Information: oakdale.com.