STRIPPED BARE David Gray

On an ambitious,
multi-leg concert tour, the celebrated UK singer-songwriter gets intimate
with his fans.

 

BY NICOLE ROBERGE

 

I meet up with David Gray backstage in his dressing room
at The Wang Theatre in Boston,
Massachusetts – the first stop on
his “Lost and Found” tour. (The newest U.S.
leg will resume in late June; go here for tour dates
.) Different than his
typical shows, where the set list embodies both rock and quieter songs, the
focus of these shows is more intimate, with an emphasis on his most recent
album, “Foundling,” and stripped down and acoustic versions of songs off his
other albums.  It is, he says, different
than anything he’s ever done before.

 

When I walk into the dressing room, Gray is sitting on the
couch, scribbling in a notebook.  His
tour manager leaves us alone and he immediately welcomes me to sit down, and
then shows me what he has been writing. 
Sprawled across two pages are the titles of songs from all of his albums
that he hopes to cram into a two hour set-list. 
As a special treat for this tour, he provided fans the opportunity to
write in and request songs to be played, and he is trying to accommodate all of
them.  The response he got was surprising. 

 

“It was quite moving,” he says.  “I got 156 different songs requested, which
is an awful lot and we can’t do all of them. 
Some of them were so obscure that I don’t know what they were.  They were barely written, some of them I
don’t think I’ve ever performed.  I think
it’s fans trying to outdo each other. 
I’m going to try and do as many as I can.  Some off my first album, ‘Shine,’ and many I
play quite regularly anyway.  There were
some crazy requests for covers.  A Doors
song.  And there are memories attached to
each song.  This tour is very much about
trying to do justice to the album I just released, ‘Foundling,’ which I didn’t
think would be as tactile if we played it in the usual way. It seemed to just
be quieter.  The whole volume of the show
tonight will be much quieter than the usual rock show.  But in representing this new music, I’m also
going to be taking a giant sweep of my music from the beginning so it’s
probably the most in-depth tour of all the records I’ve released and the music
I’ve made, which is great.  I’ve given
myself two hours tonight.  An hour and a
half is a normal set, to go over that I wouldn’t always do.  But with this, I don’t know how to fit it in
otherwise.”

 

Being that this is the first night of his U.S. tour, and
that it is a very different style tour, Gray is a bit nervous about not just
the songs, but the setup of the stage and the closeness that the band will
have, but overall, there is an excitement and energy about him and the way he
talks about his music.  The whole idea he
has for the tour and the intimacy this show will bring, connecting fans to his
music, shows the depths he is willing to take as an artist.

 

The band only had two weeks to rehearse, which is not that
long for a unique show like this and there has been a ten-day gap since
then.  But he says he is ready.  “I’m just really looking forward to it.  The whole idea behind the show has just been
a fantasy of mine, and has been for a while. 
It will be just a privilege to make it work.  It’s a dream come true really.  Having all these great people working behind
the scenes and amazing musicians, it’s like a living room jam but a glorified
version,” he explains.

 

He has toyed with this idea before, he says, when he’s
done acoustic shows.  His last tour was a
bit louder with a full band.  “You notice
the way that gigs are different, the intimate moments in a gig, how they work
and what they feel like.  I’ve had big
shows with quiet moments in it.  I’ve
done acoustic tours that are more elastic and I’ve always had changes.  I don’t like the set ever to be the same. I
wing it a little bit, but this is a little bit off the cuff.  There will be a lot of improvisation and
long-winded sessions, like the end of ‘Nemesis,’ which could be fifteen
minutes.  I’m always hoping for that kind
of thing,” he says, then adds about the importance of the stage set-up adding
to the intimate feel:  “Proximity is one
thing.  We’re too close together so we can’t
move!  Tonight there are so many
unknowns.  People will certainly be on their
toes.”

 

One thing about David Gray is that fans really seem to
connect with his music, and just from sitting next to him in this dressing room
and talking with him, I’ve found that he just has that natural ability about
him to establish a human connection. 
That translates into his music. 
He doesn’t over-embellish anything. 
It’s very honest and real and some songs can just hit you and you
reflect saying, “Yes, I’ve been there too.” 
He just seems to say it better and more eloquently.

 

“Everybody has such a personal take on what kind of music
they like and what they want from music. 
You can listen to a record and say, ‘I hate it, I hate his voice.’  One person can say, ‘I love it.  This is really up my alley.’  The people that connect with me aren’t just
one type of person, it’s a various array. 
I just try to sing from the heart, from the soul.  That’s really what I’m about.  I’m not innovative in the formal sense of
music, I have an ear for what’s going on and what’s changed in music and I try
to express that in the way that I write but I don’t try to replicate
things.  The form of what a song is and
the images that come across in the lyrics change over time and everyone seems
to put a different inflection on what a song can be.  But I’m hearing and absorbing that a little
bit in the music. 

 

“I’m from the folk and acoustic tradition.  My connection is storytelling.  I got back to my roots a bit on ‘Draw the
Line’ and ‘Founding’ – it’s not a contemporary sound.  I put it out like I felt it.  A song like, ‘Forgetting,’ for example – there’s
not a formal development there.  It’s a
series of words.  Its particles and the
drama in there is because it’s not joined together, it’s dots. 

 

“I’m more and more realizing you don’t have to pour the
emotion in, you have to get the structure right, and when you just add a tiny
bit to it, it fills the whole thing.  As
you go on, you realize in the writing, you don’t need much detail, just a
couple of moments that will then fill the whole song up.  If you cram it with ideas, it makes it
unrealistic.”

 

“Forgetting” is in fact a unique song, different from his
typical songwriting, with lyrics going:

 

Crawling then
walking
Then running and sweating
Forgetting

Lying and cheating
Aiding and abetting
Forgetting

Itching and
scratching
Punching and hitting
Forgetting, Forgetting, Forgetting
Forgetting

Reminding rewinding
Removing regretting
Forgetting

Your smiles at the
wake and
Your tears at the wedding
Forgetting.

 

“I don’t know how it works,” he says.  “The mechanism.  Each time I do something new, I don’t take it
as a given that the connection is always gonna be there.  You have to have a lot of will.  The moment you take it for granted, the
moment you think you’ve got it right…I think you start over each time you start
a record.  If I’m going to make a
statement, it better be a bloody good one. 
You’ve got to have something to say. 
I felt a bit stumped coming off the road last summer.  I decided to stop.  Not write. 
It was important to stop.  To do
what you automatically want to do.  I
wasn’t sure what I wanted to achieve or go next, now I have a feel for it.  I’ve been listening to a lot of new music
that’s been inspiring.”

 

We take a break in the interview as Gray pulls out his
iPod to show me some artists that he’s been listening to.  He immediately gets excited at sharing some
of his favorite music, all I’ve never heard of, but that shows how he is
influenced by a variety of music and sounds.

 

 

“This is contemporary Irish traditional music, with violin
harmonics and plucking,” he says.

 

 

His tour manager comes in to see where we are at, and to
my surprise, Gray asks him to give us ten more minutes.  He is like a little kid showing off his
favorite toys as he tells me about all his favorite music.  “I’ve been overwhelmed by a fast amount of
music,” he says.  He holds up his iPod so
I can see.  “Look at the name of this
track,” he says and shows it to me. 
“(-_-).”  “I don’t even know what
that is,” he says, “but it’s brilliant. 
I’ve got a zillion things on here. 
I don’t know where to start.” 

 

He continues to zip through his collection.  “Let’s have a quick look here,” he says, and
then stops on one.  “Oh, that’s a nice
record, ‘The Gentleman Losers.'”

 

“I could just go on and on,” he says, standing up.  “I’m not going to.  A lot of this stuff is quite electronic.  There’s a band called Lackluster.” He puts
his iPod onto the speakers and the music starts playing. It is instrumental,
electronica. “There’s something gentle about it,” he says.

 

“I’ve never had background music in an interview before,”
I tell him.

 

We connect about music, and his excitement is
unmatched.   His love for music, not just
as an artist, but a fan, shows, as he then praises his opening act.

 

“Lisa O’Neill is opening,” he tells me.  “Check her out.  She is not signed, but is a wonderful singer
from Dublin.  She’s lovely. 
Being on tour is a big deal for her. 
She’s never been to America.  She came to London just to meet me and had never
been.  I found out about her on YouTube.”
(See the O’Neill sidebar, below.)

 

We then settle back down, talking about his own music
about I ask him what album of his he is most proud of.

 

“White Ladder, Slow Motion, and Lost Souls,” he tells
me.  “All the other albums I think are a
bit bitty.  There are bits I like and
bits I wish were different.  You meet
people and parts they like are ones I don’t. 
There’s just something about it. 
I like records that are a story from beginning to end.  My first album was kind of like that.  The ‘Foundling’ record, on songs like
‘Nemesis’ and ‘Forgetting,’ are like that. 
Perhaps ‘A New Day at Midnight,’ too. 
The dimension touched some of that, like things that inspired me.  I’d like to obviously go further.”

 

“I don’t know what the hell that means,” he says,
laughing.  “I don’t know what’s coming
next for me.”

 

But tonight, the next step is seeing how fans will react
to this new step in music for him, and he is really looking forward to
presenting them with this new idea, hoping that they receive it as well as he
imagines it. 

 

“I think besides that people appreciate not just the
biggest songs, but stuff across my repertoire, but I hope it the best David
Gray show they’ve ever seen.  The essence
of it will be there and the sound quality will be on a different level, crisper
and cleaner and quieter.  Every time I go
out to do a show I want to feel like I’ve given everything so that’s how I
survive.  If I ever don’t feel like that,
I feel like it’s the beginning of the end. 
I want this to be a joyous day. 
For the band, it’s been a joyous experience, so I think if we keep that
going, it will be perfect.”

 

It’s then time for Gray to prepare for the show, mentally
and physically, but first he goes to the stereo and turns up the music a bit.

 

“You’ve got to listen to this track.  It’s a bit jollier,” he says, and starts
bopping around a little and I find myself dancing a little to the music.  Why, it is jolly.

 

“Brilliant,” he says.

 

We then say our goodbyes and I thank him, acknowledging
the fact that is one of the most genuine musicians (and people) I have ever
met.  It is evident Gray is a true artist
– singer, songwriter and musician – and is not in it for himself, but for the
art, to create, the experience and then to connect with listeners.  His show that night is enthralling, a mix of
old and new songs, and his fans can’t get enough.   He plays a stripped down “Babylon,” and fans love it.  On “Please Forgive Me,” he has the audience
clap where the bass would normally be. 
And when he plays “Forgetting,” there is no chatter, no rustling in the
audience.  All you can hear is the
simplicity of the piano and the soothing quiet of Gray’s voice… “Forgetting.”

 

***

 

Meet Lisa O’Neill

 

After a dynamic show, I meet the equally dynamic Lisa O’Neill
in the lobby.  Her unique opening set was
just as lovely as Gray said it would be, and his fans are swarmed around
her.  Ranging from quirky songs where she
sings, “I painted my nails all pretty, I painted them just for you, but you
wouldn’t even notice if my face was turning blue,” to a song, “Bobby D.,”
dedicated to Bob Dylan, to candid love songs, she is a rare find, and soon, I
find myself doing an impromptu interview with her backstage.

 

 

Hailing from County
Cavan in Ireland,
O’Neill is a bit overwhelmed to be in the U.S., but rather excited,
especially after an overwhelming first show with Gray.  “Four weeks ago, David saw me on
YouTube.  We met up and I suppose we were
on the same page.  Now he’s given me
this.  I’ve only been outside of Dublin once, to Scotland.  I can’t think too much to the future.  I’m thinking about tonight,” she tells me.

 

 

Just weeks ago, she was working as a barista in a coffee
shop.  She has a song entitled “Skinny
Milk,” about how all the women order “skinny milk” in their drinks, and then
remind you three times and ask, “Did you remember the skinny milk?”  And she remembered she explains in the song,
though then would forget after being pestered, and says:  “It’s just milk.”  Well, after not being able to get hours off
from work to play her gigs, she quit, because music was more important to
her.  Even though, financially, this
wasn’t the best idea.  But she made the
right choice, because then David Gray came calling.

 

 

O’Neill is happy to have this opportunity because she
explains there is so much talent in Ireland when it comes to music, and
it makes it harder that it is so small. 
But there is something enlightening about her music that does make her
stand out.  She can go from playing a
funny, candid song that tells a real-life story, perhaps about milk, to a love
song.  “I always take it serious.  The jokes come out, but I never say anything
I don’t mean.  If there’s a feeling
happening, I sit down and write a song. 
I can’t force it to work.  I can’t
emotionally jump into a situation. 
Sometimes, I can write three songs in a week.  Sometimes I’ll go nine months without a
song.  I write when I feel like I have to
unload something, like about milk or if someone is jumping all over my
heart.  It’s like a diary,” she explains.

 

 

As for her hopes, she is still trying to grasp what David
Gray has done for her and to hang on to tonight for as long as she can-or at
least until the next show.  “I hope that
the rest of the tour is at least half of what tonight was,” she says.  “All I would ask for is to maintain and hold
on to this thing I have to write.  I
don’t know where it came from and if it will last.  I hope I can hang on to it.”

 

 

David Gray is such a fan that he invites her on stage to
sing with him and is also trying to promote her music in the U.S.  He has started a Facebook page for her (www.facebook.com/lisaoneill) and is now selling her albums on
his website.  Gray is clearly about
staying true to good music, not just his own, but helping others.  He is a rare gem in the music industry, one
that creates, and now, is helping others build their creation.  Anyone who has the experience of hearing his
music or seeing him live will not be “forgetting” him any time soon.

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