David Gray Discusses Writing Process for ‘Mutineers’ and Potential New Album – Exclusive Interview
By now, David Gray knows the ins and outs of what it takes to write and record an album. After all, his latest, ‘Mutineers,’ is his 10th LP in 21 years — he’s obviously a veteran of the process. Perhaps that’s why he did everything he could to ensure the writing process for ‘Mutineers’ was unlike anything he’s ever done before; in an effort to create something truly new, he approached the album in a completely different way.
In an exclusive interview, Gray chats with us about how his reality was transformed for ‘Mutineers.’ The British singer-songwriter opens up about the difficulties — and, ultimately, rewards — of working with producer Andy Barlow and how that relationship led to a defining moment for the record.
First off, congratulations on all of the success surrounding ‘Mutineers.’ How does it feel to have released your 10th studio album?
It feels good, you know? It took some doing, this record. It’s a staggering statistic — 10 records is a lot of records. It’s not something I really stop and think about too much. Sometimes, though, you do need to stop and pause and reflect for a moment. It is special. Making a record and touring and promoting it and trying to get it to connect with everybody is a major undertaking, and I think the more you go on, the more you can appreciate just how much effort and commitment it really takes. It sounds like an easy thing, putting a record out, but it’s a big deal. I’m very proud of the work and now I’m looking forward to singing it to everyone. The gigs are such a joy, it lights everything up.
It’s been four years since you released your last record, ‘Foundling.’ Were you writing ‘Mutineers’ that entire time?
I was writing songs, only a few of them ended up on the record. Of course we wrote other songs once we got in the studio, too. I’ve got a huge stockpile of 30 or 40 songs that didn’t make it. I was working away, trying to find that elusive something new, something to light me up again and inspire me on. I knew I was after something different this time, I didn’t want the same thing. It’s not always easy when you know all the things you don’t want but you don’t know what it is that you’re looking for. This album was all about working some bleak angles into the creative process, trying to take the path less trodden, hoping something different might happen. So, I worked back from other people’s words and then put that into music. Normally I would write music and chords first and then add the lyrics later. I began to work the other way around. It sounds like a simple procedure, but it’s a very disarming thing. It disarmed my sense of taste, disabled it, so I found I didn’t really know what I thought about the things I was writing. I didn’t know if the melody had any kind of presence at all, so I made them so they seemed to work. It was only when other people came in and heard them and told me what they loved. I couldn’t really hear it myself, because the other way around when I’m writing the melody first, I know what gets me hooked.
I just didn’t want to be saying the same things, I wanted new ideas. I wanted to return to the source of my music. How do you get there? It was an uncomfortable process, a breaking-open process. It was about finding a key presence to make the record with and Andy Barlow played a key role in it. He was given license to come in and smash up songs and ideas and change and challenge me. It was very testing, but it made it that much stronger because everything had been challenged throughout the creative process. I had to justify everything I was doing. He helped me find things I didn’t know what they were yet. We made songs like ‘Beautiful Agony’ and ‘Mutineers,’ and what we did with ‘Birds of the High Arctic,’ he shook them into something magical. I could recognize them as completely my own, but they had something new. That’s what I was looking for. It’s like a heart transplant and all of a sudden you have this new heart thundering in your chest. You’re living all over again.
I imagine there’s little in common with this process and how you approached your first album, ‘A Century Ends,’ 21 years ago.
Yes, totally. Absolutely. I didn’t really know what recording was all about back then. Give me a guitar, let me in there and I’ll start singing. That was pretty much it. Put a mic in front of me and tell me when to start. If anyone else is in the room playing with me, this is what I’m doing, let’s go. It was raw, I didn’t understand the art of understatement at all. Sometimes to get the most out of a song you need to back off. I used to do everything 110 percent. In terms of singing and musicianship, I’ve come a long way since then.
Even before hearing about the writing process, it was obvious that you set out to do something fresh and different with ‘Mutineers.’ The album stands out in today’s saturated world of new music. If ‘Foundling’ found you returning more to your folk roots, where does ‘Mutineers’ find you?
Back in the moment. Sonically, it’s much more of a soundscape. The sounds and the music are as eloquent as the lyrics. In fact, in some of the songs the lyric is just a small part, juxtaposing images against the current of the music. The music is telling a lot of the story. I used to lean more heavily on the lyrics as being the main sense of color and light. This time around, the songs tell a lot of the story about the sound itself. That’s because I let my music get broken open. It’s all about creating some space around the song for somebody else to bring in a different palate of colors. I don’t know how I would characterize this record. This record is all about finding new sonic space. I think you just have to listen to this record and hear the joy, even in the melancholy moments. It’s unguarded completely.
One of the many things I like about ‘Mutineers’ is that no song is typical or predictable, particularly ‘Beautiful Agony.’ You mentioned that track earlier; can you talk about writing that song?
It was a key moment in making the record. I have this huge bag of songs, and Andy just said, “Can we work on something new? What else have we got?” I just put 30 or 40 songs in front of him and figured we could make something work, and he just kept asking what else I had. So I gave him some chord structures and told him that they really had me at the moment. Well, those were the chords to ‘Beautiful Agony.’ I had the refrain, “Love vandalizing me with beautiful agony,” and Andy said he liked it. He wanted to work on it and I told him, “You must be f—ing mad. I haven’t got any lyrics!” I had one other line and Andy said it was enough to get started. He was right. He created such a soundscape with weird mic placements and weird, crunchy, distorted pianos, it really has a spook to it. I guess it’s like being a method actor or something, suddenly the lyrics came to me from a different angle because Andy created a whole new world for me as a singer. I was singing in such a breathy and quiet way — at one time through a kick-drum mic — and it just drew something different out. It has such a simple power to it. That was a key moment, a defining moment when making the record. That track stands up and everyone loves playing it live. It’s a subtle but powerful little creature.
It definitely jumped out and grabbed me when I first heard the album. You mentioned you had 30 or 40 songs going into this record. What happens to those songs that didn’t make the cut?
Exactly, that’s what I wonder, too. [Laughs]
If there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s when you come out the other end of this process in 18 months time, you’re not going to want to go back to the stuff you were trying to work three years ago. You want to start something new. I guess some of the songs might resurface on future records, but I want to make one quiet, very vocal based record out of some of the songs that didn’t make it. Without getting too deep into production, there’s a very “no temper” record that’s there. A record that just floats like a dreamscape. I think I can make this record without too much trouble and I’m hoping to execute it in the future. Beyond that, I don’t know. I guess this record was proposed so many different ways, I’m not sure I’ll return to the stuff I was writing. But it never goes away, it will find a place, maybe I’ll just head down to Nashville and get a load of session musicians and bash a couple of records out in a couple of weeks. That probably won’t happen. [Laughs] It’s weighing on my mind, trust me.
Well, I’m sure they’re still important to you even if they aren’t on this record.
There are some really good ones, yeah. We went off on a sonic adventure together, Andy and myself. It’s hard to take something that’s already made and cast, break it and remake it. It’s much easier to take something that’s still malleable and just shape that toward something new. I think that’s what he sensed and that’s what we did most of the time, work on things that were less formed so there was more room for maneuvering. I didn’t have many preconceived ideas about how it should be. I’ve got a lot of music that’s left over, but I guess that’s a good thing.