STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
David Gray has reinvented himself. On his latest album “Mutineers” (+180 Records, 2014), the multi-platinum selling singer-songwriter has changed things up. He will share the results on a 21-show co-headlining tour with Philadelphia’s own Amos Lee, which will stop at Mann Center for the Performing Arts on June 19.
In a phone interview from his home in England, Gray discussed his 20+ year career in the music business and why he decided to change the formula that has made him a success. It all started with the songwriting process.
“I always (wrote) melody first and lyrics second, so I started to write lyrics down and think, ‘I’m going to put this to music now.’ And that was a bizarrely uncomfortable process.”
Gray also changed the techniques of recording his voice.
“I was layering my voice… to get away from the density of my voice, just the intensity of it — it’s so loud, it’s so intense, it’s so direct — so singing more softly, singing in falsetto, singing under the voice in a lower voice, finding new sounds, so that it was still me, but it sounded different.”
So why, for his tenth album, did he decide to change the process that has worked so well for him for over 2 decades?
“It was a conscious decision to look for other ways to do things,” said Gray. “There was a re-appraisal of everything. I felt restless. I didn’t want it to be the same thing again. I was bored of where I was at. I needed something else. I wanted the music to have some kind of energy, some uplift, some sense of discovery about it rather than some jaded observations about middle-aged life. It had to have some sense of purpose.”
Helping Gray to incorporate changes into the music was producer Andy Barlow (Lamb).
“He was a part of the changing around. His belief was to take that as far as he could and not let me do the same things I knew how to do in the way that I’d already done them. He took me out of my comfort zone. I had already begun the work in the way that I was writing and the way that I was thinking about the songs and tweaking my vocals… and he ran with it and we got somewhere completely different. He was a part of the process that had already started, but was an essential character in bringing it all together.”
As for the results, Gray said “when it all came together it was a wonderful surprise. I’m really happy with all the results. I’m very proud of the record. The songs really stand up. It excites me — the thrill of the new as opposed to the familiar. I’m ready to take it further next time around.”
It’s no surprise that Gray has adapted well to these self-imposed changes. After all, when he first started out it was a very different music business and he has had to adapt throughout his career.
“I got to heaven just before they closed the door, I think,” he laughed. “I managed to sell a few records before the whole idea went out of fashion,” making reference to the significant decline in CD sales with the proliferation of downloading. “My first single was released in November 1992… it will be 25 years soon, which is remarkable.
“Anyway (the music business) has been good to me. It’s changed dramatically. The same things remain important, I think. The gist of music remains the same and it’s just as vital as ever and people listen to it more than ever. I’m lucky enough to still be out there with people to sing to. I’ve kept it going. That’s some kind of achievement, I suppose.”
He added: “Mine has been an unpredictable, winding path, but I wouldn’t change anything if I could.”
Gray has also had to adapt from playing small, intimate venues early in his career to playing much larger arenas. Most musicians would concur that’s a good problem to have.
“It took me a long time to see the good in really big shows. They just seemed very alien… things have to be done in a very simple way that everybody gets. It’s hard to do the subtle, little pin-drop, silent stuff. It’s hard to create that type of intimacy, but it can be done. You’ve got to find some way of bringing the audience in.
“The really big venues, when I got to them, that was a challenge, really. Now, I relish the opportunity of playing really big shows. I love it. Festivals and things… (We were just in) Australia. I absolutely loved it. We played to 10,000 people, 15,000 people (and) it was absolutely rocking. There’s an energy that comes off the crowd.”
As for the upcoming tour with Amos Lee, Gray said: “I’m really looking forward to the tour. I’ve reworked a load of songs that I haven’t played for ages, as well as the classic ones, and we’re all over the songs from the new record. It’s going to be a really high energy set from us. I don’t know Amos; I haven’t met him or spoken to him. All I’ve heard is a couple of things on iTunes. He has a beautiful voice, but I’ve yet to see him live or meet him. It’s a voyage of discovery. I’m hoping as a combination, the whole thing works well.”
IF YOU GO
What: XPN Welcomes David Gray and Amos Lee with Rachael Yamagata
When: Friday, June 19. Showtime 7:30 p.m.; doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave., Philadelphia.
Ages: All ages
Tickets: $35 – $69.50
Artists’ websites: www.davidgray.com, www.amoslee.com, www.rachaelyamagata.com